Disclaimer: This story has been edited so it meets the Apricot Pie standards.
I’ve got the address in my hand, printed on the school’s yellow stationery. Aleksandr Nadeau, 1987 rue Vallée, Chambly, Quebec. It’s in Canada. The school’s paying the postage.
In fact, I have three stamps in my pocket right now. I should be sticking one on the back of a white envelope--the business-size kind that irrationally make me think of bleach--but I’m not. It’s Monday morning, and my first letter is due to Mr. Worth in sixth period English, which is approximately seven hours, twenty-eight minutes and forty-three seconds away. I’m precise like that.
Millie is chattering into my ear, helping to carry over last night’s migraine. I took my medicine this morning. It’s a white, powdery pill that’s supposed to help with the pain, but all it does it confuse the edges into something more tolerable. I can think past them now, at least, and I wasn’t always able to.
“Could you give me a minute?” I interrupt, when Millie is halfway through a story about Pre Calc. I don’t really care, though I’d never say that. Millie isn’t a good friend of mine, but she’s sweet (a freshman, of course), and I’ve never had the heart to brush her off like the other girls do.
Maybe because I used to be like that. Oh, I don’t know. I just have a soft spot in my heart for people who try harder than they need to.
“Sorry,” Millie replies, cringing delicately. “I’m being annoying.”
“Not at all.” I sit up, adjust the address in my lap. “I’m just stressed about—” I flash Millie the paper and her face splits across in a smile.
“Oh, man! That sounds so cool. I can’t wait for the project.”
“People either love it or hate it,” I add, not specifying which attitude I’ve adopted. “I haven’t been able to think of anything to write. I mean, what do you write to somebody who speaks French?”
Millie considers this for a moment. “Um...comment ça va?”
“What’s that mean?”
She squints down at something in her hand. “How are you.”
I nod thoughtfully. “Okay. What else do you have?”
“Um...Je suis très heureux de vous connaître,” Millie continues, fumbling over the pronunciation. “That means I’m excited to get to know you.”
“You know French?”
“Nah.” She holds up her phone. “Google Translate. It’s a lifesaver in Spanish class.”
I consider these openers. The bus doors swing open to let in more kids, and the steady hum in the back rises a few decibels as groups of friends are reunited. I hate the bus. Normally I don’t ride it, not if I can help it. But Dad and Mom had to take the cars this morning, and I didn’t have time to talk to Harvey.
“What if I’m not?” I pose introspectively. Millie perks up at my words.
“What do you mean?”
“What if I’m not excited to get to know him?”
Her smile twitches into submission. “Oh. Well, then that changes everything. Give me a minute.” She furiously begins punching words into her phone, and I turn my head to stare listlessly out the window.
“How about...hm...okay: Je pense que ce sera intéressant. I think this will be interesting.”
It’s generic, but my headache is raging, and I nod. “Can you spell that for me?"
She must think I only speak French.
Her translation is botched. It takes me a full fifteen minutes to come to a consensus on a letter that should’ve taken three. It’s terrible.
I call Dominique and read it over the phone and we have a good laugh.
“I’ve never had a pen pal before. Have you? It’s a new experience. I think this will be interesting. I look forward to hearing from you. Sincerely, Capri.” I’m rolling.
Dominique can’t catch her breath, she’s giggling so hard. Her voice comes out in tiny little hiccups. I imagine her, sprawled out on her bed, black hair fanning in pools on her bedspread. She’s cute, my Dominique. I’m lucky for her.
“She sounds like she’s twelve! Ooh, Aleksandr. Do you have cooties?”
I shake my head, folding the letter back up the way it came--in thirds, smelling of pink eraser and coffee. “What kind of name is Capri?”
“She’s probably saying the same thing about you, Alek.”
“Oh, okay. Now it’s wrong to have a laugh at her expense.”
“Naw, it’s great. I was merely pointing something out.”
I could listen to Dominique talk for hours on the phone. It’s a religious experience. She grew up here in Chambly, unlike me, and she’s got the French accent I find so enticing. She’s been to France, actually, went to a boarding school there all through middle school. She said Canada’s better.
“I wonder if my next letter from her’s going to have Fargo references.”
“'Ay, Trinity. Why don’t you go jump in uh lake?”
“Alek,” she mocks. “I’m just joking.”
“Should I make a Fargo reference?”
“Don’t; it’ll just feed stereotypes.” She pauses. Sighs. “I’ve got to run. Adrienne’s having a dinner tonight with Sweaters.”
“When am I going to meet this infamous Sweaters?”
“Come to dinner with me and you can.”
I think it over. Putting on a button down and sitting with Dominique and her parents, her sister Adrienne and her fiance Douglas--Sweaters--sounds as unwelcome as it sounds.
“I think I’ll pass.”
“Chicken who loves you,” I drag the word into something bluesy and am rewarded with a laugh.
“I love you, too. Don’t go running off with this girl.”
“No worries. If she gets any ideas I’ll just dire que je ne peux pas parler anglais and it’ll dissuade her. Though she already thinks as much.”
“Okay. I can rest easy.”
“Definitely. See you tomorrow.”
She drops two kisses into the speaker, her customary goodbye, and I press the mouthpiece to my forehead. When I put it to my ear, I can hear her breathing, light and shallow.
“Did you do it?” She asks after a minute. “Are you there?”
“Of course I did it. I always do it.
“Good. Then it’s like I kissed you.”
“I wish you would.”
“I wish you would come to dinner with me.”
“Eventually,” I promise, even though I’m not sure I’ll keep it. “I should go. Write this letter. It’s due tomorrow.”
“Good luck. Remember: no Fargo references.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it.”
Contrary to the statistics, I actually do speak English. I migrated from super south Canada. You know, the place that could almost be considered Michigan but that would bend the mitten and, like, ten US state enthusiasts out of shape. Pun intended.
I scan Aleksandr’s letter with a wry hint of a smile. After reading this, I bet he’s one of those boys that dyes his hair auburn and prides himself on his wit. In America, those are called hipsters. Now that I know he’s not French, I’m wondering if that term has made it to Canada as well.
I make a mental note to Google that later. Or maybe not. That didn’t work out so well last time.
I read the rest of the letter as quickly as I can. It came this morning, but we have to turn them in to the teachers, just so they can make a note. You're supposed to wait to open them but I'll just tape it back and say it came that way.
They don’t read them or anything. If they do, they are excellent at resealing them in envelopes and forging the handwriting of the address.
I wouldn’t put it past Mr. Worth, honestly. He’s not my favorite teacher. He draws a lot of our material from 1800s gothic literature--think Bronte and Austen--instead of the feminist stuff everyone wants, like Betty Friedan and Simone de Beauvoir. I wouldn’t say that’s up my alley, though. When I peruse the books section at the library, it’s usually in the trashy romance section.
I’m lacking literary prowess in those respects.
I have one of those books in my backpack right now: The Grape Vine, by Molly DeWitt. I’ve been working through it for about a week, whenever I can catch a moment. It’s a monstrous four-hundred eighty-seven pages of gossip, lust-turned-love, and rivalry. Between calculus and science, history, regular old English and this stupid pen pal thing, I’ve hardly had a chance to become fully immersed in it as I tend to do. Or usually do.
Millie comes up out of nowhere, really. One moment I’m reaching for my book, thinking I have about five minutes until the bell rings, why not? The next she’s stepping into me, stumbling over the hem of her jeans, which pool on the floor.
“Sorry, sorry!” She apologizes quickly, shoving something in my face. Too close to make out. I step back, warding her off with two raised hands, and she backs a few steps away, officially reinstating my personal space.
“My shoes are really slick!” She apologizes, offering to me what I can now see is a candy bar. “But I got you a Payday. Do you like Paydays? I figured that was a safe bet because everyone seems to.”
“Sorry,” I say, “I’m allergic to peanuts.”
“You’re joking.” Her eyebrows scrunch in distress. “I can’t imagine! No Reese's?”
I shake my head solemnly. It’s not a total lie, after all, which helps the believability. After all, I did suffer a minor nut allergy when I was, like, five. I grew out of it.
But I don’t feel like explaining that sugar makes my headaches worse, because that requires explaining my headaches, and having to do that brings them on. Mom once said that’s all psychological, that I’m willing them into existence when I talk about them like that, but it’s not like I can imagine the throbbing. And I just don’t like to deal with it.
Millie is still fixated on the woe of my hypothetical peanut allergy when my eye catches a familiar brown backpack. I follow the line of the zipper up to a green jacket. It blooms into a tan neck, and the neck turns to a head of brown hair, and oh man, Collier Lawry’s coming toward me.
If Millie was already being tuned out, I’m completely oblivious to her now. He’s meandering on, talking to Britney Closs, the student body VP. I think he’s on the council with her or something. I don’t know. All I’m certain of is that, any second, I’m going to need to step out of his way. Or he’ll need to walk past me, and probably have to say excuse me, and then what do I say?
No, please don’t worry. This is making my week!
That’s probably too earnest.
No, no, excuse me. I need to go collect myself in the restroom after basking in your glorious ambiance.
Will you excuse me so I can go on a date with you? Ha-ha. Ha-ha.
Reeks of desperation.
When I’m finished running this through my mind, I subconsciously register that Millie has moved on to a story about her cousin and an Epipen. Collier’s closer now, closer still. I’m standing smack in the middle of the hallway that leads to homeroom 5A with Mr. MacNeil. I had him last year. He’s very educated on current events and talks about everyone having an obligation to other people a lot.
Oh boy, Collier’s close. He’s so close. I could reach out and touch him.
“Capri?” Millie says, loud, in my ear. I startle.
“You’re spacing out.” And before I can stop her, she’s reached for my hand and tugged me out of the way, just in time to leave Collier Lawry enough room to pass without a pardoning being necessary. I could kill her. I fix her with a withering look, and she gets the message.
“Jeez, sorry! You’re looking at me like I killed somebody. He was going to run into you if you didn’t move!”
“That’s the point,” I seethe, and hurry off as the bell rings.
But not far away enough that I don't hear Millie behind me, quietly: “Why do I put up with this?”
I understand that you’re disgruntled that I wrongly assumed you were French. I take full responsibility for my biased actions. In return, I ask that you extend me the same courtesy and refrain from thinking I’m American just because I live in Tennessee. Sometimes very educated Russian people migrate to the backwoods of America just because they want to live a quaint and humble lifestyle. Notice I did not say I was one of those people. I only asked that you consider the possibility that I may be one of those people in all of our future exchanges.
I’m sitting on the countertop, reading Capri’s letter between bites of a PopTart when Mom comes in from the garden up to her elbows in dirt. I hear the gush of the sink as she turns the water on full blast. Dad installed a heavy-duty farmhouse sink a long time ago, back when I was five, that’s endured a great deal of torture and is still standing strong to this day. It’s kind of spectacular, really.
“What’re you reading?” She asks, reaching for one of our sunny yellow kitchen towels.
I hold up the letter, not daring to speak past my mouthful of pastry. She hates that.
“Am I supposed to know what that is?” She reaches for it. Instinctively, I pull it away. Her eyebrows shoot up a significant amount, halfway to her hairline. They take residency right above her eyes, so this is actually pretty impressive.
I shake my head to uncloud it and swallow my bite. “Sorry.”
"What’s in there that’s so secretive, Aleksandr? Hm?”
“Nothing.” I shrug, setting it on the countertop. “It’s yours to read. I don’t know why I did that.” And really, I don’t. The best I can do is liken it to a primitive reaction. I mean, it’s only normal for teenagers to want to hide absolutely everything from their parents, right? I certainly wouldn’t let her read something Dominique sent me, even if it was completely inoffensive, since it’s intended for my eyes.
Mom doesn’t pick it up. “No, I don’t need to read your mail. But who’s it from?”
“My pen pal.” I make sure to lay the scathing on thick. “School assignment.”
“Oh, yeah? That sounds fun.” Oblivious as usual.
“Yeah,” I reply simply, rubbing my eyes hard with the heels of my hands. “It’s all right.”
“Well, at the very least, don’t curse in your letters. You know that, right?”
“Of course I ******* know it, Mom.” I grin at her expectantly.
She lashes forward with the dish towel to strike me on the knee, one of the less severe reprimands I’ve received over the years. “Aleksandr!”
“But you’re laughing.” And she is. I got a giggle out of her, at least.
“You think you’re some comedian, huh?”
I slide off the counter. My legs almost reach the floor so when I’m actually standing, I tower over her, and her hands shoot forward to clasp onto on my upper arms before I can escape.
“Look at you. You’re so tall. Gracious.”
My head lolls back. I knew this would happen. Everytime I’m within arm’s reach, she latches onto me and won’t shut up about how big I’m getting. Seriously, it’s like she can’t help herself--the urge is irresistible. She’s even done it in public before.
“Mom. I’ve got to go.”
“Fine.” She lets out a trembly breath. “I just cannot believe my little Aleksandr is so grown up. College next year. Where’s the time gone? Oh, I think I want to open a daycare.”
She’s manic sometimes, I swear. “Mom.”
“Okay. Give me a kiss first.”
I oblige her. “Can I go?”
“Yes.” She releases me. “Where to?”
“Be back by nine.”
I snatch the car keys off the hook over the sink. This has always seemed a precarious placement to me; over the years, I’ve pointed out on many occasions that they could end up in the garbage disposal. But they haven’t, and even though Dad always said that yes, I’m right, he should move that, it never happened. They just hang there.
You know what, I should move it. I whip around to reach into the drawer in the island and pull out a hammer. Mom’s moved into the family room, and I hear the vacuum whir to life. I wait until she’s fully immersed in her task before I hook the little claw underneath the nail and start to pull.
It comes free with a jerk and a small shower of white paint chips. I shake the excess off my hand, then blow it when it fails to come free. The nail’s a little bit crooked. It should probably work.
I glance around in search of the perfect spot and find it by the basement door. I hold it so it’s just so and make the first strike.
I’m not even three in before the sweeping stops. Mom comes clipping in, quick on her feet. She rounds the corner and finds me there, the nail halfway in.
“What are you doing?” She asks, sounding way more exasperated with me than the situation demands. I barely glance over my shoulder at her.
“Moving the nail. I decided it’s time.”
“No—” She reaches out to put her hand over mine. I shrug it off.
“Mom. What the heck?”
“Take it out and put it back.”
“Why would I do that? I’m making it better.”
“It was fine the way it was. Now.”
Her voice gives on the last word. I finally look at her, straight-on. The green of her eyes is intensified beneath a sheen of tears. Her face is red, right up to the window’s peak of her hastily-braided hair, and she’s breathing heavily, to ward off whatever demons are currently at war with her rationality.
“Okay,” I say softly. “I’ll put it back.”
She watches the whole time as I take it out, move it back to the sink, pound pound pound until the nail’s all the way inside, leaving just enough to hang the keys from. She reaches over and tugs them out of my grip, depositing them at their resting place.
“No Dominique. Not tonight. You and I are watching a movie.”
“Mom,” I huff, “I don’t want to. I told Dom—”
“Well, Dominique can wait. You see her almost everyday.”
“Aleksandr, I’ll tell her myself if you think it’s going to be a problem. But you’re not going.”
She’s being unfair. So unfair, and she knows it. I can tell by the guilt-ridden set of her mouth. I close my eyes and turn away so I don’t have to see her anymore. I don’t want to when she’s like this. Defeated. Turning into one of those people. Consumed by their grief.
“Where are you going?” She calls after me as I leave the room, go down the hall, up the steps.
I refuse to answer. I pull out my phone and text Dom instead.
I can’t come tonight. Mom says.
I hold my phone in my hand for a minute, then switch to the other. It feels like it weighs more in my left. I wonder if that’s because I broke my knuckle there, when I was in eighth grade.
Dad was the only one who saw me cry that day. I refused to do it in front of Mom, even when the doctor set it. No, it wasn’t until I was home and laying in my room, trying to sleep off the pain meds, and Dad poked his head in and gave me this sympathetic smile—
“Are you all right, Sander?”
He was the only one who called me that. And then I just dissolved into tears, I dunno. It was embarrassing as all-get-out is what it was, but he came in and sat next to me and when I was done he said we should watch Transformers to take my mind off of it.
The last movie he watched was Transformers. I remember that. Not that one time, but five months ago, and we were sitting side by side on the couch. He laughed at the parts nobody else found funny. I remember rolling my eyes, thinking that was an annoying habit of his. Mom kept shushing him.
He died the next morning of a heart attack. Everything fell to pieces after.
Dom still hasn’t texted me back, which either means she’s mad or she hasn’t checked her messages. I don’t bother to look and see if the latter is true. I reach into my nightstand and pull out a piece of paper and a pencil.
Might as well get my reply to Capri out of the way.
This is a new story I've been working on for about a week. I was going to post the whole thing at once (it's still unfinished, at around 10,000 words) but I decided breaking it down into chunks by the month would probably make it more readable. haha! I LOVE feedback and would appreciate yours: likes, dislikes, criticism, critiques, anything at all you think of while reading this. Or not. Whatever. ;)