THE THIRST WITHIN
The Thirst Within Series #1
By Johi Jenkins
Copyright © 2013 Johi Jenkins
All rights reserved: no part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner without written permission from the author.
This book is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to persons living or dead, actual events, locales or organizations is entirely coincidental.
For my mother
my favorite English teacher
I barely remember the day that my parents died. You would think that I’d retain every detail of that fateful day; the pivotal moment that turned my future from potentially happy to miserable. Because I was happy then—the pictures prove it. Happy me, in my mother’s arms. Happily blowing out four candles on a birthday cake surrounded by people that look at me with adoring eyes.
And now I am miserable—no proof required.
The entire horrific accident should be engraved in my mind. But no, I was only four on that day; I shouldn’t even remember the little that I do. Yet I know I’ll never forget the vague details that I do remember; because who could forget the explosion, the blazing fire, the screams? The sirens, the grownups in uniform taking me away? Away from my dead parents. Away from the man with fire eyes.
While I recall that there was a man that picked me up and stood with me near the side of the road as the gas station burned down, I cannot remember his face. I can hardly summon anyone’s face from when I was little, but still. I should know his. I’ve always thought that he saved me, since everyone else died: my parents and nine other people. My father’s body was found inside the gas station store and my mother’s in the car where I assume I was with her. So how did I escape? I don’t know. I remember being in the man’s arms, and him talking to me, trying to calm me down. Oh, I remember my wails. I was terrified of the fire, of the hot air, of the people screaming.
But the man held me and talked to me. And try as I might, I can’t evoke my savior’s face. I do however remember his eyes. Not their true color—that was lost behind the powerful reflection of the fire in front of him; the fire behind me. To me, his eyes looked orange; they were ablaze, angry flames burning inside them.
And finally, when the sirens were nearby, he set me down. He kneeled in front of me and made me promise him that I would stay put. And then he said something else, something I’ve never been able to explain, so I’ve always chalked it up to remembering it wrong. Because I think he said, “I’ll always keep an eye out for you. I’ll be back for you,” or something along those lines.
I’m seventeen now, and I never saw him again.
The barren landscape outside my window mirrors my feelings, augmenting the emptiness that threatens to consume me. It seems that I’ve had plenty of reasons throughout my life to feel this sense of abandonment, but today it’s like I’m grieving it all at once. Of course. I’m leaving behind everyone I’ve ever known.
I’m an orphan, Part Two.
The Social Services woman, a Ms. Leticia Johnson, unknowingly chose the wrong route to start our journey to my new home. We left the small town of Galena, Illinois, and are traveling all the way down south to New Orleans, Louisiana. After an hour on the road we passed the town where I grew up. The sign whipped by in a few seconds—ELDRIDGE—and I had to turn my head toward the window so that my escort didn’t see my tears. We didn’t stop. We didn’t go through town. We just passed it, one of many, many towns we’ll drive by on this trip. My last memory of my old life would be that lone green sign, pointing to a place that couldn’t even be seen from the highway. I wonder if Ms. Johnson even realizes that we passed the last thirteen years of my life, just like that.
Not that I can complain about her. Ms. Johnson is a charming lady, probably in her late forties, and her Southern drawl makes me feel right at home for some reason. She’s dark-skinned and fit; quite the opposite of my most recent parental figure, my late father’s only sister: the overweight, pasty white Aunt Marie, whose cold words ring fresh in my mind. “I don’t care what you do with her; she can’t stay here.” I shake the memory away. Ms. Johnson is warm and friendly. She has a family of her own, and she’s not spending New Year’s Eve with them to take this orphan down to her new home. It’s a long trip, around sixteen hours, so we’re scheduled to stop about halfway in Memphis and stay the night.
I have plenty of time to wonder how the hell did I end up here. After my parents’ death my whole life has been somewhat unstable, but I still managed to make it through. That is, until a month ago.
My last surviving grandparent, Nana, died early in December. She was only seventy-four years old—sure, she was old, but a lot of people make it to eighty. None of my grandparents did. My father’s parents, the Greens, raised me: my Nana Fran and Grandpa John Green. After my parents died, I went to live with them in the small town of Eldridge, Iowa, near the Quad Cities. Grandpa John died a year ago; his bad eating habits finally caught up with him. And my Nana, bless her heart, as much as she loved me and would have wanted to see me grow up, she couldn’t recover from Grandpa’s death. Her health took a sharp decline, and she passed away last December on a Sunday morning. It was just her and me then, so I was the one who found her lifeless on her bed. I called the police. The police called her only living daughter, my Aunt Marie. She agreed to take me in.
It wasn’t so bad at first.
Aunt Marie lives in the town of Galena, Illinois, about one hour north of Eldridge where I grew up. She visited often. My late father’s sister married young, but never had kids. Growing up I was situated comfortably enough with Nana and Grandpa that I never even thought about living with Aunt Marie, even though the many times she visited with Uncle Antoine they were both nice to me. I never wondered why they didn’t take me in after my parents died, since they didn’t have kids of their own.
But I found out last Christmas.
I had just moved to their house after finishing the first semester of my junior year at North Scott, my old high school. When Nana died, I only had three weeks left of school, so Aunt Marie moved in to my grandparents’ house. That allowed me to finish school while she took care of my house—our house, and my grandparents’ estate. For those three weeks everything was normal. We were mourning Nana. After a tearful goodbye to my friends, the house I grew up in, and the town I knew, my aunt and I left Eldridge on Christmas Eve. Aunt Marie drove the hour-long trip from Eldridge to Galena hauling a truck full of my stuff and other things she couldn’t part with. She was quiet most of the way there.
Uncle Antoine greeted us warmly and welcomed me into his home.
Then that very night, a week ago, he crept into my room while I slept and asked me to move over so that he could sleep next to me.
I was shocked and intimidated, but I wasn’t a child he could molest and force to keep quiet. I am seventeen. So I scrambled off the bed, reaching for my glasses automatically, and looked at him defiantly. The gleam in his eyes as he looked at me in my PJs sickened me—the asshole seemed like he was excited. I yelled at him, as quietly as I could; I told him to get the hell out, or I would scream and wake up my aunt. He said there was nothing wrong with what he had asked, that I was reading too much into it, but he left anyway.
I locked the door and went back to bed while my heartbeat slowed down to normal. I couldn’t fall asleep for hours, afraid he’d be back, that he could unlock the door. I shoved an old rocking chair in front of the door so that it would at least wake me up if he tried.
I debated telling my aunt—I felt it was the right thing to do, because the man was clearly messed up in the head. But I didn’t want to ruin her marriage, the very first day after I’d moved with her; especially not if he had understood that I wasn’t going to let him, and he wouldn’t to try anything again. Plus I didn’t know if she’d believe me. What if she took his side? What to do, what to do? I tossed and turned for hours.
But in the morning the answer was presented to me. I awoke on Christmas morning to screams from Aunt Marie. I shoved the rocking chair out of the way and unlocked the door, ran out of my room following her screams, and found her cradling Uncle Antoine’s body in the living room. He was dead. The paramedics came and declared him so. He’d had a heart attack.
I couldn’t believe it. I knew, I knew it had to do with me. He must have gotten too excited over something—maybe he thought I would tell on him and was afraid—and had died. Regardless, I was free. It would be my aunt and I, the way it had the last few weeks back in Iowa.
I really didn’t see it coming when she kicked me out.
She claimed she was perturbed and could not deal with her husband’s death so close to her mother’s. That I had to find a new home. She turned bat shit crazy in less than one day. Social Services were called. My one remaining living uncle, my mother’s brother Roland Harris, was contacted. The situation was explained. If he didn’t take me in I would end up in foster homes. He said yes. He’d take me in.
Uncle Roland lives in New Orleans, Louisiana. I don’t even remember what he looks like. I know he has two kids, a stepdaughter my age and a boy about seven. It’s off to this house, so many miles away, that I’m being escorted by Ms. Johnson of Social Services.
To a guy who never cared for me. To his wife and her two kids.
My unknown cousins.
In the freaking South.
As scheduled, Ms. Johnson stops in Memphis to spend the night. We stay in a roadside hotel, thankfully not too shabby. I have the lamest New Year’s celebration of my life, and I grew up with old people, so that’s saying something. Still, I manage to show a little excitement when Ms. Johnson hugs me good night, and wishes me a happy New Year.
But I’m really a mess of nerves inside.
I’m going to live with my obscure relatives on my mother’s side. People I’ve never met. My mother was from the South; her parents and brother still lived there when she had me. After she died, my contact with her family was almost severed. My maternal grandparents both died before I turned ten. Grandpa Sal Harris was a grumpy old man who smoked too many cigars and always reeked of them. He died only a few years after my parents, so I barely remember him. I just remember not wanting to be around him. Grandma Rose died when I was nine, and she was very sick the last few years of her life. So my guardians—Nana and Grandpa—never took me to see her.
Grandpa Sal and Grandma Rose had one other child, my mother’s brother Roland. He never cared to get to know me. He didn’t even invite me to his wedding, which was the year after Grandma Rose died. From what Nana told me, his wife was a young widow who already had a girl my age. The girl was a junior bridesmaid in their wedding. Not too long afterwards he had a son with his new wife. This son is actually my only cousin, yet I’ve never even seen a picture of the boy. I don’t even know his name. They are all strangers to me.
I have no idea what to expect, and I dread meeting my uncle and his family tomorrow. Because if this one doesn’t work out, that’s it for me—no more family. When I finally sleep, I have dreams filled with anxiety.
The next morning we resume our trip. By sunset we’ll be in Nawlins, like Ms. Johnson calls my new city. Her stories cheer me up immensely. The whole trip she talks about Nawlins’ great food, festivals, heritage, charm, and makes my future seem so bright that I almost feel excited—almost—when we finally make it to Lake Pontchartrain, because according to Ms. Johnson the lake indicates that we are very close to the end of our journey. As a treat to me, we cross the lake via the Causeway, which Ms. Johnson tells me is the longest bridge continuous over water, and she says we didn’t have to go this way but did anyway because she thought I may like it. And I do. I marvel at the wonders that humans have created and feel better about life, as my excitement grows. The bridge seems endless, the blue water stretches left and right of the Causeway, making me feel alone but part of something bigger.
When we finally make it to my uncle’s house, my eyes widen in disbelief as it comes into view. We cross a white wooden gate that someone left open and drive up a long driveway, at the end of which is the very pretty house. Ancient-looking oak trees line the driveway, their solemn branches filling me with an eerie nostalgia. The gardens are full of exotic plants and are well manicured even though it’s the winter and everything should be bleak and gray.
“Fancy, isn’t it?” Asks Ms. Johnson. “You’re in one of the nicest parts of the city. I hope you’ll love it here.”
Then all my previous enthusiasm vanishes and I cry. I already feel like an outsider, and the only person I know in New Orleans is the Social Services lady, and she has to take off and leave me. I feel orphaned all over again.
“Now, now, child, don’t cry. The Harris are a nice family. I interviewed them for this responsibility, you know. You’re going to have the closest thing to a sister. A stepcousin your age! Isn’t that nice? Aw, come here, baby,” Ms. Johnson says kindly. She leans over to the passenger seat and puts her arms around me. “Everything’s going to work out. There’s something strong about you, I can see that from a mile away. And me, I can usually tell with these things.”
“Thank you, Ms. Johnson,” I say as I wipe my eyes pathetically.
“You need any help, anything at all, and you call Ms. Johnson, you hear me?”
“Yes, Ms. Johnson,” I say, and I already know I’ll want to, but I probably won’t.
She helps me bring my bags up to the front door. My uncle Roland—I’m assuming—opens the door sporting what looks like a genuine smile.
“Tori,” Uncle Roland says my name in singsong, and walks up to me and hugs me tightly, but briefly.
I’m still not one hundred percent sure this man is my uncle, so I simply reply, “Hi.” I detect a little bit of a twang in that single syllable. I must’ve picked it up from Ms. Johnson in the last thirty hours we’ve spent together.
He extends his hand to Ms. Johnson and says, “Thank you for delivering her. It’s good to see you again.”
“Not a problem at all, Mr. Harris,” says Ms. Johnson, tacking on his last name quite possibly for my benefit. “Your niece here is a darling young lady.”
No one else comes out to greet me, and I assure Ms. Johnson that I’ll be fine, so she doesn’t take up Uncle Roland’s invitation to stay for dinner. I know she is eager to get home, and she has another half an hour of driving to do, back to her family. After all, she didn’t see them for New Year’s Eve. So I take a deep breath as I hug her, trying to clear my head and suppress the foolish desire I have to cry again.
Then she leaves, and I’m left on the doorstep with two huge canvas bags, which contain my entire wardrobe, plus a handbag, my backpack, and my purse. Some boxes with the few personal items I possess should have been delivered here already.
“Wow, little Tori, you’re all grown up,” my uncle says to me. “You remind me so much of Lisa.” Lisa is my dead mother. “It’s been a while since the last time Ms. Frances sent any pictures of you.”
“Well, she was a little distracted after my grandpa passed away. And before that she was busy taking care of him,” I reply. I don’t know why I feel the need to defend my Nana, when the correct answer should be if you wanted to see me, you could’ve gone visit me. Asshole.
“Of course, of course,” he says, waving his hand dismissively, as if he never cared about the pictures in the first place and was only making small conversation. “Well, let’s get you in, shall we?”
He grabs both of my large bags and I grab the small ones. I follow him into the house. It’s huge, and I immediately feel threatened. I was raised by retired people, living off their small pensions. I always had enough, but at school all the kids had nicer clothes than I ever had. I never asked my grandparents for the pricier brands because they always complained things were so expensive “these days.” I felt just a little ashamed of not having brand names when my classmates did. Entering this house feels like that, but a hundred times worse. Like I’m not enough, and I possibly smell.
“Hello, Tori,” a chirpy voice says to my right. I turn and see a striking woman. She’s wearing makeup, something shimmery that makes her look other-worldly, and intense blue eye shadow. I wonder why she’s wearing makeup in her own house. She’s got beautiful olive skin, dark hair, light green eyes, and thick eyelashes. This must be my new aunt of sorts. She’s prettier and younger than I expected her to be.
“Hi,” I smile at her, timidly but hoping to look like I want to get along.
“I’m June, your uncle’s wife,” she says and hugs me briefly, like Uncle Roland did. I notice that she doesn’t refer to herself as my aunt June. “I’m so excited you’re here, and on New Year’s, of all days! Brand new year, brand new niece.”
Well, at least she referred to me as somebody’s niece. But if she’s so excited, how come she didn’t bother to greet me outside?
After some small chitchat about my trip here and the weather—always the weather—I’m taken to the first door on the second story of the house.
“This is youu,” June says, extending the last word as she opens the door, revealing a small but homey-looking room. It has a twin-sized bed, a desk and a small office chair by the window. I see my boxes placed against the wall by the window next to the desk. The room is painted white, and I have faith that during the day it might look bigger. My room. The bed has a light blue cover on it, which is probably what makes me feel at home, since blue is my favorite color. There’s a faint smell of old room; nothing that a good aerating won’t fix. Or what’s more likely, I’ll just get used to it.
All in all, it’s not bad; however, the fact that the bed is so small throws me off; it seems so tiny. But it’s the proper size, I guess, for the small room. Back at Nana’s house, I used to sleep in a huge four-poster bed. In fact all of the bedrooms had four-poster beds. I think it’s an old person thing. And this last week I spent at Aunt Marie’s, I slept in her guest bedroom which had a full-sized bed.
I realize I haven’t said anything to acknowledge their kindness. “Thanks. It’s really pretty.”
“Why don’t we leave your stuff heeere…?” She says as she puts the small purse she was carrying, and makes room for my uncle to put down the two large duffel bags. “Okay,” she continues enthusiastically as though I was a child in Disneyland. “Let’s give you a quick tour of the house.”
“This is the guestrooom…” June says, pointing at the door across from mine, but she doesn’t open it. “I like to keep the door closed so that it stays clean,” she adds, reverting to grownup voice; but doesn’t explain why she won’t open the door for a second to show it to me.
Down the hall adjacent to my bedroom is another closed door, and I finally learn my new stepcousin’s name. “And this is Fiona’s room, but of course she’s not here since it’s New Year’s, and she spent the night at a friend’s party.”
“She should be joining us for dinner, though,” my uncle chimes in quickly, as if to ease any disappointment I may have at not having met Fiona the second I walked into the house.
“Great,” I say, because that’s what it sounds he wants me to say.
“And here’s Jack’s room,” June says, and knocks softly on a door across from Fiona’s. “Jack? Please come out and meet your cousin.”
After about thirty awkward seconds during which I don’t know if anyone inside even heard June, the door finally opens. I see a room twice the size of mine in the background. I pretend not to notice and shift my eyes to the little kid in front of me. If I recall correctly he should be six years old, and turning seven this year.
“Hi,” I say.
He just looks at me.
“This is Tori, your cousin who’s going to be living with us from now on, okay?” His mother says, but makes it sound like if it’s not okay with him I may have to find another place to live.
Jack looks up at me and there’s no smile, no encouragement; just slight curiosity, and possibly a desire to go back to whatever he was doing inside his room. He finally says, “Okay.”
Phew! I get to stay.
I hate the little dipshit already.
“Great,” his mother praises him for his civility. “We’ll see you at dinner, okay?”
“Okay,” he says, possibly the only word he knows, and closes the door in our faces.
After the rest of the tour, which has left me fascinated with the house, and very disenchanted with June and my uncle, I return to my small room. The blast of dusty old air hits my nose, this time without the homey feeling I associated with it before. Compared to the rest of the house, it suddenly seems too small and uninviting. I wonder how small the empty guestroom is.
I lie down on the bed. At least it’s sturdy wood and not squeaky. After a few minutes I detect a faint smell of pee. I sniff around and discover it’s the old blue comforter, which smells a little like urine. Gross!
FML to the max.
Fiona shows up when Uncle Roland, June, Jack and I have already taken our places at dinner. Uncle Roland excuses himself from the table and meets her at the foyer. He lowers his voice a little but we can all hear him chastising Fiona because she was supposed to have come back earlier, and we had to start dinner without her.
And then I hear her say, not even pretending to be hushed, “So what? We never have dinner together. Why are y’all pretending for? Don’t fool the poor thing into believing she has a warm loving family here.”
“Fiona!” Her stepfather exclaims, shocked. “You get back here this instant,” his lowers his voice towards the end, resigned that she’s already bouncing up the stairs.
She delivers a classic “What-ever” as she reaches the top of the stairs.
I can’t figure out if she hates me for taking my place at the table before she got here, or for coming here in the first place; or if she’s on my side, actually defending me from my foster parents who tried to make me believe that they normally have dinner at the table, when supposedly they do not.
I decide that yelling when she has to know everyone can hear, and not even introducing herself to me, is rude as fuck, and she’s added to my shit list. At this pace I’m gonna need more paper.
After dinner, Jack makes a dash for his room and shuts himself in again. If he was older I’d make masturbating allusions, but c’mon, he’s six. Why does he spend every possible minute locked up in there? Fiona is nowhere to be seen. June and Uncle Roland stick around doing the dishes. I offer to help.
Uncle Roland immediately declines. “No, thank you, Tori. But you go rest. You’ve had a long day.”
June also declines with a big smile. “Yeah, Tori. Don’t you worry about this mess. Your uncle and I got it covered. Plus, you wouldn’t know where to put the dishes, and I’d have to spend the same amount of time showing you.”
Oh my God. Did she really have to add that last part? I know that I don’t know where anything goes, and I’d probably be in the way. If I wasn’t going to help anyway, what’s the point of mentioning that? It’s like she’s reminding me that I don’t know where anything goes because I just got here, to eat their food. It only makes me feel more like an outsider.
And worse, it’s not like I wouldn’t learn where things go, if I were to help. I can be taught things. Jeez. She manages to sound like a total bitch even when she’s supposedly being nice to me.
So I say, “Thank you,” against my will, and go back upstairs. I almost open the first door to the left when I remember that’s the guestroom; my bedroom is the one across it. I turn towards my door, but pause, thinking of the doorknob I mistakenly grabbed a moment ago.
I wonder if it’s unlocked. It has to be. What psycho locks their guestroom? I wonder what it looks like. The room she didn’t open. Was she embarrassed? Is it full of crap? Curiosity burns within me, warm and vibrant. I look left and right. I could open it. Take a peek. Why not? What’s the worst that can happen? I get caught and yelled at. I’m so upset at June’s dig at my learning skills, Fiona’s attitude, and Jack’s lack of interest in me, that I don’t care if anyone catches me doing it and yells at me. If June comes up, I’ll just say I got mixed up or turned around with the doors, since this door is right in front of mine.
The fact that I already came up with an excuse means that I do care if I get caught, my little conscience tells me. Scenes from Aunt Marie’s house flash before my eyes and I shake my head to clear the thoughts away. Deep down I want this to work out. I don’t want to piss off my new family. I don’t want to be rejected again.
But whoever said curiosity killed the cat didn’t say anything about how the cat felt. There’s something in my chest that glows with unfounded interest, and I just need to open that goddamned door. So I do.
I gasp. The room is big, much bigger than my bedroom. It has a beautiful full-sized bed with an elegant comforter on it. It is about the size that Jack’s room looked like to me. And I’m pretty sure Fiona’s has to be the same size, if not larger, than Jack’s.
Why did I get the smallest room with the smallest bed when there’s a larger room available?
About an hour later there’s a knock on my door. “Tori?” It’s Fiona’s voice.
“Coming,” I call. I open the door and I see a pretty girl with straight dark hair, green eyes—no, a light brown, or hazel—and full lips. Fiona’s got her mother’s dramatic looks and olive skin. She’s probably popular in school, and now I’ll have to go to school with her and pretend I don’t know her.
“Hey, I’m Fiona.” She does a quick sweep of her hand in an arc; a wave of sorts.
“Tori,” I say. “Nice to meet you.”
“Yeah, you too,” she says with questionable enthusiasm. “Sorry I didn’t join you at dinner.”
“It’s okay. At least I had the rest of the Harris.”
“It’s the Harrises, not the Harris. Like Etta Jones, the Joneses.”
I’m at a loss for words. How do you reply to that? “Oh. Sorry.”
She laughs. “Fuck the Harrises! I hate that my mom changed my last name. I was born Fiona Ferreira. We were the Ferreiras before my daddy passed away. None of this Harriseses bullshit.” She adds an extra syllable at the end to sound extra bitchy.
“Sorry about your dad,” I say, which is what you always have to say when someone says their parent passed away, apparently, no matter if their dead father was better off dead. I barely remember my parents but when anyone finds out that my parents passed away, I always, always get an “I’m sorry.” It’s automatic.
“I like Roland better,” she says, shrugging, and something about the way she says it bothers me. “I just hate his name. We made up, by the way. I know you heard us fighting, but we’re okay now.”
“Oh, okay. I mean, that’s great,” I say, once more not finding anything to say. “Well, thanks for coming by.”
“Sure thing. I’ll talk to you later, Tori.”
I’ll start the second half my Junior year next Monday at Fiona’s high school, whatever it’s called. I don’t know. No one bothers to tell me anything.
I’ve been thinking about this high school ever since I was told I was moving to New Orleans. New school, new me, I used to think. But now seeing how pretty Fiona is, and knowing she went to a party overnight somewhere for New Year’s, it means to me that she’s popular and already has a circle of friends I can’t possibly penetrate.
It’s only Wednesday, the day after I arrived, so I have a few more days of freedom. The rest of the week and the weekend. My uncle works for The Man so he had to work today, January 2nd. Suck it, Uncle.
When he comes back from work, June asks us to sit together for dinner again. Jack doesn’t say anything to me; he only complains to his mother about his food. Uncle Roland tries to make small talk about work, but it’s so boring not even his wife is paying attention. Suddenly Fiona announces that she needs the car because she’s going to meet with her girlfriends—Friend One and Friend Two, I forget their names the second after she says them—at the mall to buy new clothes for school.
“Why don’t you take Tori with, Fiona?” My uncle asks, probably thinking he’s stepping in to my rescue. No, I want to say. How embarrassing. As if I didn’t feel unwanted enough already.
“Sure,” she says after a pause. That pause to me is synonymous with Fuck no.
“Thanks, but you don’t have to if you’ve already got stuff to do with your friends,” I tell her, letting her know she’s off the hook.
“Nah, Tori, there are plenty of things to do at the mall.”
I have no idea what she means, so I only say, “Thanks. Okay, I’ll go.”
“How fun,” June chimes in, batting her long lashes enthusiastically. She’s wearing pink tone eye shadow today.
“Great,” Uncle Roland says. “You girls have fun. Do you need any money?”
“Dad, please!” Fiona says, and she laughs.
Please what? I could use some money, but I’ll never say anything, at least not at the dinner table in front of everyone else, and definitely not right after Fiona made it clear that she won’t take her stepfather’s money. Oh, how interesting—she calls him Dad.
I run upstairs to my room to change. Since I’m meeting Fiona’s friends, presumably cute girls like she is, I want to make a good impression. I choose clothes that I think make me look best, fix my hair and even trade my glasses for my contact lenses.
We leave, Fiona driving her parents’ old car, a 2008 Chevy Impala, which she tells me was all the rage when they purchased it new. She talks about TV, Hollywood and haircuts. She complains about her parents and her brother; however, the whole time she’s with them she’s everyone’s favorite, so I don’t trust her.
When we get to the mall her friends are already there. She introduces them as Lauren and Megan. They make quite the odd trio: one looks Asian but has blond hair (it actually looks good on her); the other one has long curly hair and she’s the palest of the three. And neither of them look remotely like the exotic Fiona.
Fiona joins their conversation and soon they’re talking about scenes and people I’ve never heard of. They don’t include me, but they’re not rude, either. I just feel like a total outsider.
I spot a small, trendy-looking office supply store, and tell Fiona I’m going to look for some school stuff. I’m lying; I just don’t want to feel so invisible anymore. While I like the office supply store, it’s the type of store that is full of things I shouldn’t spend money unnecessarily on. I only have a small amount of money in my bank account. When Nana’s estate is settled I’ll receive a small amount of money, maybe a few grand, if Aunt Marie doesn’t sue me for my father’s share. Still, I won’t get it for a while. And that’s for college, anyways.
It’s settled with the girls; after a lengthy admonishment about how they’ll never find me since I don’t own a cellphone, I agree to look for them later at one of three clothing stores where they’re going shopping. As I walk to the office supply store I try not to take the whole conversation personal, but it’s so hard. It’s like they were making fun of me for not owning a cellphone. I can’t help it—a combination of growing up with old people and being poor. And even before the phone issue came up—the reason I announced I was leaving in the first place—they just went on and on with their stories. It felt like they did it on purpose. How could they not tell that they were leaving me out? I regret coming here. But, on the bright side, I met them before school started. If this was the first day of school I’d be crying under the gym bleachers.
Inside the store, by myself, I feel much better. I make my way to the school supplies aisle in automatic mode, in search for the art notebooks. I love blank notebooks that have pretty stationary; my Nana Fran gave me my first journal when I was six and told me to write or draw in it whenever I needed to. Since then I’ve always had one, and used them for writing my feelings, sketching, or writing poems. Whatever keeps me from hating life.
I move up and down the store reading the aisle contents. I find the one I’m looking for and move towards it. As I turn into the aisle, I see a guy poring over the blank books. He looks cute from afar; nice clothes, nice body. Brown hair, short but not cropped. What I call the perfect length, but with an extra bit of length towards the front, which makes him look boyish and attractive.
I’m instinctively self-conscious although I haven’t even seen his face. As I get closer to him, the picture keeps getting better and better. Then he looks up and I have to pretend I’m looking at a point behind him, some item on the wall. I’m doubly embarrassed because he caught me looking, and he’s very cute in the face as well. Blue eyes and nice features.
Well, there goes that.
I lose interest immediately. Unfortunately for me, he’s a hot guy. Hot guys turn me off because they’re always full of themselves, and that leads them to cheat on their girlfriends, as everyone knows.
I give him a brief, courteous half-smile with a half-nod, in acknowledgment that he’s there. He replies, “Hey,” with a polite smile. I pick up one of the blank books and flip through the blank pages. I close it and look at the cover.
“Oh, that’s kind of pretty,” the guy says next to me. I look up and get a close-up look. His skin is flawless; holy shit. I can’t tell his age, other than he looks a few years older than me.
“Yeah, I agree,” I tell him. The cover fascinates me. It has an intricate vine pattern etched into a black background. Gray metallic swirls merge into clouds filled with crisscrossing lines. It’s artsy without being overly girly.
“I’m looking for a journal. I think you found the one for me,” he says with an easy smile. “I might get it, if you don’t mind.”
“No, why would I mind? Go for it,” I say. As he picks up another copy we both notice it’s the last one on the shelf.
“Last one! It’s fate, then,” he says.
“Did you see the sheets? Pretty decent quality paper, too,” I say. He’s friendly, so I can’t help but mirror his mood. I don’t show any interest other than what he shows in me. A nice guy talking to a nice girl in a store.
He flips open the journal and touches the paper. “Wow. I’ve been staring at these over here”—he points to a group of seemingly inexpensive ones a few feet away—“for five minutes, but nothing caught my fancy. You come in here, and the first book you pick, bam. Perfect.”
“Well, I’m glad I helped. Although I’m sure you would’ve found it eventually.”
“Now we’ll never know,” he says mysteriously, smiling at me. I become self-conscious and look down, anywhere but at him. At least I’m able to mask it as me inspecting the book, and not that I’m dazzled by him. As I look down I notice the price of the journal in my hands. Twenty dollars! There’s no way I’m going to pay twenty dollars for a notebook. I mean, I shouldn’t.
I move to put it back.
“You’re going to leave yours?” He asks me, and he sounds surprised.
The thought now makes me sad. It’s like we bonded over this journal. I don’t want him to think that I didn’t like it; I want to pretend that I can be cool, like him. I say, “No, I’m getting it,” with a smile.
I figure I’ll put it back after he leaves.
He doesn’t leave.
He keeps talking about stationary, stickers, cursive and calligraphy.
He finally moves as if to leave, and because he’s talking I feel like I have to go with him. I don’t put the book back.
“Are you getting anything else?” He asks me, as we move down the aisle.
Tricky question. If I say yes, he might ask what, and if he’s happening to look for the same thing, I’m so screwed, because I’ll have to end up buying that too, or fessing up. So I say, “No, I’m done,” and I hope he turns around to keep shopping before I get to the checkout.
But he says, “Me too,” and keeps walking to the checkout counters.
As we get there I start to panic. As much as I want it, I really shouldn’t buy this notebook; but I’d feel like an idiot if I don’t. It’s too late to tell the truth. Thinkofsomething thinkofsomething—
A brilliant idea comes to mind. I pat my back pockets.
“Oh! Bummer! I don’t have my cards with me,” I say. I even laugh, a little. “I do this every time.” I stop walking abruptly and he takes a few more steps before he stops. He’s a few feet ahead of me. “Hey, it was nice meeting you. I gotta go put this back.” I point back at the aisle, unnecessarily.
“Oh, same here. But hey, I can get that for you,” he says.
“What? No, I couldn’t.” It’s twenty dollars. Twenty. And he’s already getting one for himself.
“Don’t worry about it. It’s not expensive,” he says, like it’s no big deal.
Not expensive? Regular notebooks are less than a quarter of that price.
I say, “Yeah, but don’t worry, I live nearby; I’ll just come back later.”
“But it’s the last one!” He says, shaking his copy in the air dramatically.
I have to return his smile again, tempted to say yes, but I shake my head. “You know they probably have more in the back, right?”
“You can’t know for sure! Let me get it for you. It’s nothing, really. Or hey—you can pay me back.”
Okay, for all my inner talk about hot guys and how much they turn me off, I have to say that the idea of this random guy paying for my notebook thrills me.
“How do you know I’ll pay you back? You don’t even know me,” I reason with him.
“Well, tell me who you are, then. I’m Thierry,” he introduces himself in what sounds to me like Tee-airy, but I don’t recognize the name.
“Terry?” That’s what my brain says I must’ve heard.
He grins, flashing perfect white teeth. He fishes out his wallet, pulls out a business card, and hands it to me.
The card only has his name on the front. I flip it around and I see a number and an email address on the back.
“Thierry,” he enounces it distinctively. He offers me his hand.
“Tori,” I say. We shake hands.
“Tiori?” He asks, and I laugh.
“T-O-R-I. Sorry, I don’t have a business card. I’m seventeen and still in high school. Do you work?” I ask, because his business card is blank.
“I don’t—I’m a college student. I’m twenty-one.” I think of twenty-one as old, but he doesn’t look old, not with that fantastic skin of his. He’s cute though. Maybe I’m forgiving him too easily. I don’t even point out the vainness of having a business card when he doesn’t have a business on it.
We’re at the checkout counter. “Okay, Tori, now that I know you, you seem like the type of girl who’d pay a debt. So I’m lending you this money,” he says. I’m only a little upset that I’ll have to ultimately pay for the expensive journal, but I don’t mind too much if it means I get to see him again. I’ll chalk it up to an entertainment expense; paying for eye candy. Then I make a parallel with “paying for love” and have to wonder if sometime in the future I’ll look back at this moment like the onset of my downward spiral.
Thierry pays and we get two bags. He hands me one with a wink. We step outside to the mall corridor. Our time is over.
But I don’t want it to end. I realize this is the first time I’ve smiled since I came to the South.
“Where are you headed?” I ask him. Anything, to keep him next to me a little longer.
“I was going to grab something to drink,” he says. “How about you?” Then he snickers at some inside joke.
“I have to meet my”—I struggle, searching for the right word—“cousin. She’s with her friends shopping for clothes.”
“Where are your friends?” He looks left and right, as though expecting a group of people to come running down the corridor looking for me, holding “Tori is the best!!” banners.
I look down sadly. “I have no friends here.”
He makes a sympathetic aww sound. “What do you mean, here?”
“I just moved to New Orleans from Iowa. Or Illinois. Like, yesterday.”
“You don’t know where you moved from?” Now he’s laughing at me.
“No, I do! Illinois, officially. But I was there only like a week.” I sigh. “It’s a long story.”
“I collect long stories. You should tell me yours someday.”
“I definitely could,” I say, and I grin. Aw hell, I’m flirting with him.
“So where in Nola?” He asks.
“Where’s your new house?”
“Oh. Um, the Garden District.” I remember Ms. Johnson telling me what a nice area it was. “What’s Nola?”
He grins at my ignorance. I should be miffed, but I like his grin too much. I’m stupid, I know. “Nola’s just another nickname for New Orleans,” he explains. “It’s technically an acronym for New Orleans, Louisiana. N, O, L, A,” he writes the letters in the air. At the end of the A he draws an invisible flourish. Cute.
Damn cute boys.
“Oh. I only know The Big Easy. And Nawlins.” I say, thinking of Ms. Johnson again.
“Well, now you know a third. How about Crescent City?”
“Oh, I guess I’ve heard that one too.”
“See? You’re not so bad. So tell me more about your lack of friends.”
I snicker. “Nothing to tell. I have a lack of friends.”
“I’ll be your friend,” he offers simply, and shrugs as if to say “Problem solved.” My heart does a stupid little flip.
“You will?” I say, joining my hands over my heart with mock enthusiasm, but I know a little of it is authentic. “But you’re so old,” I add with fake sadness, like it’s a terminal disease, and our friendship will never work.
“Rocks are much older than trees, and look how well they get along.”
“That’s profound,” I say.
“I just made that up,” he says, and he laughs.
Is this really happening? I’m laughing with him like we’re really friends. There’s something wrong with this picture. I say, “Still. I’m in high school. You’re in college.”
“So you’re saying… we’ll be the very first friends that are one in high school and the other one in college.”
“No. What?” He’s messing with me. “No, I didn’t say we couldn’t be friends because you’re in college and I’m in high school,” I protest.
“That is exactly what you said.”
“Not exactly exactly….” Did I? “No, what I meant was, how are we supposed to hang out? We wouldn’t have like, the same schedules. If we’re not in the same—” I stop myself, and roll my eyes. “You know what? Whatever, we’ll be friends.”
“Really? Great! So we’re friends then.” He beams.
“Do you really want to be friends?” I ask, doubtfully. But I can’t seem to stop smiling.
“Sure. Tori and Thierry, BFFs.” He points to the air with his open palm, as though our names were written over us.
“No, no; you can only have one BFF,” I argue.
“But you don’t have any friends!”
“Me? No, I meant you. You’ve got to have friends, like a regular person, right?”
He pauses for a second. “Maybe I’m not a regular person.”
“Yeah, right. You don’t have any friends? C’mon.”
“Come on what? I can be friendless if I want to. Besides, aren’t we working on that? I thought we were making a deal here.”
“You’re insane if you think I believe you don’t have any friends,” I say, ignoring his attempt at evading the question.
“Well, I really don’t,” he insists. “Why do you think I need a journal?”—He shakes his bag—“To vent. It’s hard for me to get along with people. At Tulane—that’s the college I go to—sometimes I feel like I’m an outcast.”
An outcast. Hard to believe, but I kinda want to believe. So we can be friends, for real.
I don’t say anything, still debating the truth of his words, so he adds, “Besides, why do you have to own the corner of friendlessness?”
“I don’t! It’s just I find it so hard to believe that you’re friendless. I mean, you’re….” He’s….
Shit. Of course the reason I think he’s lying is because he’s too good-looking to be friendless. Hell no, he probably has many friends. And girlfriends he cheats on, let’s not forget that. Girlfriends he cheats on… with me?
The thought is so stupid that I want to facepalm myself. Does he want me? No way. He shows interest in me, but he can’t possibly want me that way. He’s only talking to me because he’s a horndog that can’t be satisfied unless he constantly hears praise from girls like me. And I’m the only girl in the store dumb enough to fall for his charade like some eager hormonal female. Stupid, stupid.
“Hey, I gotta go.” I tell myself to move, to snap out of it.
“Wait! I’m what?”
“Nothing. It’s been fun, but my cousin’s prolly waiting for me. And we’re standing here in the middle of the aisle.”
“Okay, Tori.” He has a hurt look in his eyes. Only momentarily—he suddenly brightens up. And I notice his eyes are gray, not blue like I thought at first. Right now they’re shining with enthusiasm. “Hey, but you’ll call me, right? Or email me about that money you owe me.”
He means it playfully, I know, but I’m embarrassed. I start to turn around. “Let’s just return it—”
He grabs my arm. “Please, Tori!” He laughs. “You know I don’t care. I don’t want your money anyway.”
The touch sends a thrill up my arm, and I realize I’m dangerously close to being a goner. I’m actually upset that I’m wearing a long sleeve sweater. It would have felt nice to feel his fingers on my bare skin.
What am I saying? I have to go.
I sigh. “I know. I’ll pay you back, anyway. It was nice meeting you, Thierry.”
He lets me go, almost reluctantly. “Same here, Tori.”
I walk away, feeling his gray eyes on my back.
I drift back towards the shops in the area where Fiona and Pals should be, all the while thinking about my new best friend. If only. I know that he isn’t, but it doesn’t stop me from thinking about him. It did feel like he wanted to be my friend.
“Tori! Over here,” Fiona calls from some distance.
I’m smiling like an idiot. “Hey, guys,” I say as I approach them.
“We’re not guys,” says one of the girls. Laura, I think. Or Lauren. Or Megan (whatever—the pale one). She scoffs. “Northerners.”
Her bitchiness actually goes over my head. I can’t care about it. “Girls. Y’all. Whatever,” I say dismissively.
Fiona says, “I’m sorry you had to go off by yourself. We could’ve gone with you, you know.”
No! Would Thierry have spoken to me? Worse, would he have preferred to talk to Fiona? The other two girls are pretty, but Fiona’s clearly the cutest one. I haven’t observed them long enough to figure out who’s the leader, but it’s probably her. “Nah,” I say like it’s not a big deal. “I didn’t mind being by myself in there, at all. I hate making people wait for me.”
Fiona asks me, “So how was your shopping? I see you got something.”
“Yeah, a notebook.” I don’t say it’s a journal. I figure, if I use it to write personal stuff in it, the less people that know about it the better.
“That’s all?” Asks the other girl, Megan (or Lauren? The Asian).
“It’s the best notebook ever, though.” It got me a hot guy’s number.
Then Fiona looks at me questioningly. Is it just me or do I detect…? She seems confused. Like she expected me to be…. How? Gloomy?
Oh. I realize I’m still smiling.