Television still spewing sitcom sweetness, I wake to an alien sound: the ring of a telephone. The dull drrring of the bells inside my phone comforts me; I'm overexposed to the micro-technic sounds of cell phones. Dreary still, I get up from my mouldy couch and fumble around in the flickering light of the television for the receiver that I know is on the table nearby. Finally I find it, but before lifting it to my ear I clear my throat: there's nothing more embarrassing than answering the phone with no voice.
"Hello?" No matter my throat-cleaning exercises, my voice will remain hoarse of the rest of my days.
"Hello, Uncle Kay?"
Pause. "Who is this?"
"It's Anastasia," the voice says, now distinctly feminine. How did I not recognize her?
"Ah, Anastasia," my voice says, melting the air with fake enthusiasm. "How are you?"
"I'm great," she says, excited to say more. Instead she vouches for the more common: "You?"
A thousand answers float around in my head, hovering on the tip of my tongue, forcing me to near tears as I take a quick look around the grey walls.
"I'm good." The lies come easier than the truth.
"Great! I just wanted to confirm that you're going to be coming to my wedding this Saturday. Please say yes, we really want you to be there."
I think ahead, wondering if I have anything to do on the date. An ironic smile wants to form on my lips, but I won't let it; it doesn't deserve to show itself. I never have plans, my dear, is what I want to say, although I'm afraid this will spark concern. I've had enough with concern.
"I can make it, indeed." Sigh of relief in my ear. "What time does it start again? I'm afraid I may have misplaced the invitation." The truth was that I had thrown it out the instant after reading it, assured no one would follow up on my attendance.
"The ceremony is at four and then the reception starts at five."
"Uncle Kay, you've never called me dear before." Surprise tints her voice as well as a reproachful withdrawal. I'm afraid I may have let something slip, some part of me I don't want anyone to see. My mind races with excuses.
"I must be getting old then," I say with a strained chuckle. She laughs and I know nothing has been revealed. There is a cold wave of relief inside me.
"That's why we love you so much," she says, still chortling. "You can come though, right? It's at the Shaw. Room 1-B."
"Okay, great! I'll see you then! Bye." Click.
"Bye." It falls on deaf ears.
I hang up the phone, glad to be rid of the instrument of tension. My age seems to become a burden on my shoulders, heavier than ever before. I try to recall my marriage, my fruitless attempt at what they call "happy." I can't seem to make any memory crystallize in my mind, images floating around, dancing and laughing, in my head. They are playful but malicious, scheming for my demise. One is of a white dress and a veil, although I can't see who is underneath it – perhaps no one. Another, a flaming red sari, the guise of Indian dervishes, the silky material covering its wearer in mystery. I try desperately now to reach them, to wrap my cracked fingers around at least one of these damned things. What do you want with me? I ask them furiously as I lay on my couch, eyes closed but flittering. Frustration begins to take hold as they continue to evade my grasp, flickering in the empty space in my mind, tickling the walls of my skull.
My eyes shoot open and I abandon my musty post. Make my way to bathroom. Search for crinkled magazines under the counter: the only escape from weddings and memories of them.
It is the day after the party at Laura's house. I have put away my Aladdin tape in my room, although my aunty tells me to keep it downstairs, with the other movies. I feel I shouldn't have to do this, because it is mine, but my voice is easily drowned by the voice of reason:
"It's a movie, it should be with the movies."
It is lunch time, recess. Laura suggests that we make snow angels. I think this is a girly thing to do, although the look in Laura's eyes tells me that my opinion doesn't matter.
We make fifteen snow angels all in a circle, all of their heads pointing inwards. Laura tells me this is what Heaven looks like. I mean to ask her what Heaven is but I am afraid of looking stupid so I don't. Laura makes sure I don't make too many footprints around the mosaic of imprinted snow, so as that I don't wreck the image.
"There, see? Perfect." Her smile is as smug as can be, although I can feel she is still dissatisfied with something.
"Yup, sure looks good." My own smile can ever only be a reflection of her own dark beauty.
Suddenly she turns on me, the snow ripping up under her feet because of the abruptness of the action.
"So did you like my party?" The question was less inquisitive as it was demanding. My mind races to find something to say, some praise to give.
"Was really fun," is all I can say. The expression on her face tells me this is the wrong answer.
"You sure had a lot of fun with Jenna."
"She's pretty fun," I say, trying to appear as if there were nothing to it, as if I couldn't still feel Jenna's legs streaming lithe-like across my own.
Laura turns away from me and her face contorts into an expression of childish rage, a frustration that calls more for attention than appeasement. She begins to walk back towards the school, taking slow steps, the silence a subtle command to follow her. I do.
"Go away," she says, never turning her face. She can hear my feet crunch the crusted powder beneath.
"What's a matter?" Confusion gives way to panic as I catch up with her. Where has this sudden brush off come from? Have I done something wrong? I can't feel anything but the heat coming from Laura's eyes, the pain she feels, the hate she yearns to unleash on me. My heart is beating faster now.
"Why don't you go play with your best friend Jenna?" Her voice is higher than usual, almost shrieking. I think I see her chin quiver now that I have caught up with her, but it must have been my imagination for her face is as stony as ever.
"What? We're not best friends." My hands begin to shake. Not from the cold. From the heat. I do not know what to say. What is there to say? Sorry doesn't seem good enough. "I'm sorry." Immediately after saying it, I feel stupid. I do not know why I am apologizing, only that I must. That's what they teach us anyways, to say sorry, to make sure they other person knows you feel bad for what you've done. What have I done? I ask myself again. I do not know. It doesn't matter.
Laura doesn't speak to me for the rest of the day. We cut paper into shapes in silence; my bats now have ears, although they are still uneven.
I walk home with Michelle that day, unwilling to face Laura's wrath. I learn that Michelle has begun to play the recorder in her music class. I ask her to play something for me as we walk but she laughs and says that she has to warm up first. I ask her to play something once we get home, when she's warm, but again she laughs. She takes out her instrument though, flashing it in the grey sunlight. It is creamy-coloured, like the tusks of elephants. Again I ask her to play something but she refuses, a spark of anger igniting her voice. I take this as a clue to stop asking her questions. She puts the recorder away, a treasure stashed away for her alone to see.
At home, Michelle hides away in her room after our daily after-school snack. I am instructed to do my homework – a simple colouring exercise – in my room. Hands and necks and faces of characters from a medieval age fill in with peach crayon, their eyes green, their hair yellow. I add a splash of grey for their armour and black for the horses. The shields are all red and blue, frighteningly large for being metal.
As I am adding the final touches to my masterpieces, I hear a sound wafting from Michelle's room, across the hall. A screechy sound is emanating from the crack under the door, reaching my ears only to deliver a painful melody. I think it is Hot Crossed Buns, although I can't be certain because of the incongruity of the notes. The noise intrigues me so I step into the hallway, creaking my door open slowly. I make my way to Michelle's door and lean down to peer under it. I can see only the bottom half of a body sitting cross-legged on the floor, a piece of crinkled paper in front of it. Suddenly it dawns on me that she is playing her recorder. Not very pretty, I think, my pre-conceived notions of the magical instrument shattered.
In the months to come, I will hear recorder music playing in the halls at school. It will sound much better than Michelle's music. Eventually I will realize that she is no good at recorder. The thought will comfort me.
I back away from the door cautiously and go back to my drawing, my thoughts drifting from the cacophony of Michelle's recorder to the events of today's recess. She'll still be mad at me tomorrow. The thought creeps into my head like a curse, something to be avoided lest it be allowed to fester up and choke me to death. I decide that I must do something to make it up to her. I search my memory for Saturday morning cartoon retributions, a fictional situation to match my own. I can remember flowers and chocolate as being forgiving objects. While Laura might not enjoy the flowers, I bet that she would love the chocolates. She might like the flowers though. This is when I realize that understanding what a girl might want would be pointless to try. They're so different, so odd, compared to boys. Frustration takes me over as I try to think of something, anything, that I could give her that might make her approval of me return. A drawing? I am a terrible artist. Chocolate? We have no chocolate in the house except for hot chocolate, and I doubt she would enjoy eating a mouthful of chocolate powder. A colouring? I look down at my current project and see that I have massacred my perfect, armoured knight: he is now covered in red; the peach, the grey, the red, the blue, the yellow, all of it red. I am holding a wax stub in my hand, the paper covering long ago ripped to shreds.
Sadness overcomes me, a deep, pained sadness that springs from somewhere inside me, some darkened corner that can only be tapped into when nothing else can exist. I have wrecked a perfect colouring. I feel like ripping it in two, like throwing it against the wall. I refrain only because I know this will draw attention to me, along pain and punishment. My bed creaks as I jump onto it from the floor on which I have been working. Tears stream from my face and are absorbed into the sheets, the blanket, the pillow. I don't notice until the room stops absorbing my muffled screams, the Ninja Turtle goodness of my pillowcases taking the brunt of the attack. No one knocks on my door to see if I am alright. I am pleased by this; I wouldn't want anyone to see me now anyways.
The idea comes to me the next day as I watch my aunty packing our lunches. She has bought cookies for some get together she has planned in the near future. From the box I see that they are cream-coloured, like a recorder, and that they have a red dot of fruity jelly in the middle. The image alone is enticing enough to make my mouth water.
"Can I get some cookies for lunch?" I ask, hopeful while knowing full well the answer.
"No, they're for this weekend." Disappointment isn't as strong when you don't expect anything. But still, a thought forms in my head, a plan to beg for Laura's forgiveness. I eat the rest of my breakfast in silence, chewing diligently.
Michelle finishes her meal first, as is customary, and leaves the table to brush her teeth. I linger. Eventually my aunty leaves as well, our lunches packed and waiting on the table in front of us. I look around conspiratorially and make my way towards the cupboard in which the cookies have been placed – thankfully at a low enough level for me to reach. After taking one last look over my shoulder, I reach inside and pull out the crinkly box of cookies. I try to pull open the top with the least amount of noise possible, but this is hard; the "box" is made of the type of plastic that likes making noise. Eventually it comes open and the treats within are left within reach for me to grasp. I place four in my pocket while taking pains to assure their safety; I need them to be perfect for Laura.
No one catches me, although Michelle notices the way I am walking. Of course I cannot tell her that I have cookies in my pockets; that would be suicide. Instead I say that I have hurt my leg a little but that it isn't so bad. She accepts this with a shrug and ignores me for the rest of the morning.
The first recess bell rings and I chase down Laura in the playground. She is alone, bouncing a small rubber ball against the brick wall of the school. Suddenly I am sad for her, as if she has become a smaller creature now that I have abandoned her. Just thinking this makes me even more determined to do what I have set out to do.
"Laura?" She turns. Does not smile. Does not respond in any way. She looks past me, as if she is looking for the person who has called her, as if it could not have possibly been me.
"Here." I reach into my pocket slowly and pull out the four gifts. They have begun to crumble at the edges but the jelly center has held the majority of the cookies together. I pick off a piece of lint and offer them to her.
She reaches out slowly and grabs one, only one, from my hand, inspects it, even smells it. Finally she puts it in her mouth and chews slowly. A small smile flitters on her face but is soon replaced with the previous flatline expression. She takes the rest of the cookies and caches them in her left hand while still holding the first to her mouth. I watch as the seconds tick in agonizing silence, each motion of her white teeth taking an eternity to complete. She picks up the second one and does the same thing, although this time a bit quicker. The third. Finally, the fourth. This last one is devoured almost instantaneously. I am pleased to see this and my hands stop shaking. They begin to cool as well.
"Thanks," she says, swallowing. I know I do not deserve any thanks for this, that my offering is merely an act of begging, but her tiny Thanks touches my stomach and warms it.
"Wanna play hopscotch?"
The rest of recess is spent playing with Laura. By the time we reach the classroom, I cannot even remember what we have played, only that everything is alright now. The classroom seems bigger now, as if space has been made for my forgiving. Laura smiles at me as learn about adding numbers with two digits. I try to concentrate, but all the numbers keep flying around the chalkboard and landing in a mess in one corner of the green expanse. They mould into a single being, a flashing white smile.
The recess after our lunch is eaten proves to be just as enjoyable as the first; Laura and I play by ourselves in a corner of the playground, mushing about in the dirt turned mud by the melting snow. The weather is warm enough now that we don't have to wear any mittens or toques. Laura's hair rustles in the breeze, sometimes crawling over her face, covering her eyes. I like it when it does this though; it triggers something deep inside me, some pleasure that I cannot explain. A magazine flashes in my head then flashes out.
We draw a hopscotch grid in the mud now, this one counting up to twenty. Laura and I are familiar with double digit numbers now. I can count to fifty and she can count to sixty. Michelle says this is stupid, that once you can count past twenty you should be able to count to a hundred. I feel as if I am lacking from being so bereft of the knowledge of counting but Laura never points it out.
"You didn't hit both squares that time!" Laura cries out from the far end of the grid. She is watching that I don't cheat.
"Yeah I did!"
"No, you missed the fourteen square."
"No I didn't." I walk off the grid now, giving up on the game, knowing full well I won't be able to achieve any accepted victory once she has begun to argue.
"Yeah, you did. You didn't put both feet out properly. You had both feet on the thirteen." She is grinning now. A thought flies through my head but I hold my tongue. Instead I run towards her, playfully challenging her to fight.
"You wouldn't hit a girl," she proclaims proudly, as if her status granted her some position above me.
"I'm not gonna hit you," I reply coyly, reaching for her with arms outstretched.
We wrestle in the small patch of remaining snow on the playground. Laura is quite strong, stronger than would be expected from a girl. I feel as if I have taught her how to fight, how to defend herself. This makes me proud, although at the moment I can't think about it too much or I'll end up pinned to the ground.
She throws me sideways as I try to get up. I laugh and fall to the ground on my back; she jumps on top of me, sitting straight up on my stomach. My hands are cold from the snow but there is steam rising from them because of the heat of the battle. Laura looks down at me and holds up her own hands. They are steaming as well, although they are much redder than my own. The grin on her face is wide.
"Gotcha," she says, holding my shoulders down with her red hands. Her face is close to my own, the smell of her breath heavy on my nose. Oddly, it doesn't smell like lunch but like flowers, like sugar or candy. A pulling urge to taste the scent comes over me. I want to wrap my mouth around the taste of it, I want to feel what it would be like inside me instead of her. My eyes close and I imagine what it would taste like, slowing my breathing. It feels good, like going to bed after staying up too late. My toes curl inside my heavy winter boots and my eyes flutter.
Suddenly I feel a pressure on my cheek. My eyes fly open and I see Laura's face inches from my own, her eyes closed, her lips pushing firmly onto my face. Her weight on my stomach immediately feels like nothing, as if it weren't there at all. I try to move my arms up to touch her face but her hands are still holding me down. The desire to touch her becomes too much for me and I turn my head so that her lips my touch my own. Her eyes open and she draws back quickly. Instantly I know I have done something wrong but it doesn't show on her face. In fact, she is smiling. Confusion overcomes me but is soon replaced with a warm feeling, a feeling of return. For a moment, white bumps on the chests of women in magazines flash in my mind, although the image doesn't remain for long.
The bell rings for us to return to class. Laura's weight lifts itself from my stomach and we walk towards the boot room entrance in silence. I am frightened to look at her; I still do not know if I have done something wrong, something I should be chastised for. As we enter the school, the cold from the snow fades and is instantly replaced by a burning heat, a sting that doesn't seem to go away, no matter how tightly I squeeze it under my armpits.
The rest of the day is spent in forced ignorance of what has happened on the playground. The last recess is spent in silent agreement that we shall not speak of the event; instead we play soccer, just the two of us, in the muddy field behind the school. I try not to look at Laura's face because of the fear that she will finally realize I have done something horrible, that I have broken some unwritten rule.
But she doesn't say anything. The ball bounces back and forth between us for what seems like hours until it is time for us to return inside. Jenna's face appears in my mind as we are opening the door to return inside. A feeling of physical sickness overcomes me and I have to pause for a few seconds while untying my boots. My hands begin to burn, as they did before, and the nausea passes. A feeling of safety washes over me and I follow to our classroom where we learn how to spell "teeth" and "sun."
Michelle and I walk home that day; Laura's mother has picked her up. For what reason, I am not certain, only that she does not want to go to it and is being forced to. She refuses to tell me what she has to go to; the only thing that is revealed is that it involves dressing up. I do not want to pry so I accept her explanation and act as if I am sorry for her. It is hard for me to do this, but I try anyhow. I worry that I am not convincing and that Laura will berate me for it later.
Michelle explains to me what she is learning in school now. She tries to define what a fraction is and how to burn through anything with acid. As much as I try, I cannot focus on what she is saying, although she doesn't seem to notice. Or care. My thoughts seem to refuse to concentrate on any particular thing. I am concerned about my situation with Laura now, but images of numbers on chalkboards keep infiltrating my imaginings of her. Her face turns into a seven, her body an eight. The numbers meld into one another and form a nine. I shake my head and try to return to Michelle's conversation.
"…and then the giraffe had to fight with the elephant! It was cool." Her voice drifts into my head slowly, as if it is being siphoned through a filter. I want to listen to her but I can't; my ears are being covered by something soft and cushiony, something that feels strangely like flesh.
"Well?" The question manages to break through. "Don't you think it's cool?"
While the meaning of the word cool eludes me, I agree with her by a nod of the head. Unfortunately for me, this doesn't seem to please her.
"It was cool!" At this she pushes me into the waning snowbank on the side of the sidewalk. She watches as I struggle to get up, my small arms trying to lift my weight off my backpack so that my lunch box won't get crushed. This has happened once already and one of the latches had been broken off. I was not pleased.
"Cut it out," I say quietly. She pushes me back into the muddy snow.
"Admit that it's cool." She does it again.
"Stop it!" I yell, a wall of black and red forming in front of my eyes. I jump up faster now and finally make it up to my feet. A rage has suddenly appeared inside of me, like a long dormant stick of dynamite lit unexpectedly. Michelle is now transformed to my eyes. She is the knight I coloured, covered in black crayon, waiting to be torn from my colouring book. I hate her, the pain of looking at her, the revulsion I feel at her smirking face. In a flash of black light, her features blur in front of me and I think I see Jenna staring out at me. I rush forward and push as hard as I can into the figure, damning it to die, to disappear. Jenna falls backwards, arms flailing and crashes into the tree standing diligently behind her. I see the blurred head crack against the trunk and I take off. The anger is still there, although now it is accompanied by an underlying panic, a sort of knowing dread that there shall be consequences for what I have done.
When I reach the front door, I push the doorbell multiple times, certain that Jenna is right behind me, gearing up for a beating. The door opens and my aunty's face is staring at me, a frown on her face. She walks away without saying hello. I don't care. I rip off my boots and run to my room. I sit with my back to the door and close my eyes. A knock, a slam, a turning of the knob, this is what I'm waiting for. Nothing comes. I watch the Ninja Turtle clock on my wall and wait for five minutes to pass.
Michelle is sitting at the kitchen table when I walk in. She is holding the back of her head, her eyes red. She appears to have been crying, although for what reason, I do not know. Surely not me. She glares at me as I walk past, following me with her bloodshot eyes, making sure I know that I'm not going to get away with this.
There is a plate with carrot sticks, celery and a spot of salad dressing on it. I grab this and sit down at the table, trying to avoid looking at Michelle. I can feel her eyes, brown with red rims, boring holes into my own head, trying to force me to feel what she has felt.
"Enjoyed your cookies today?" asks my aunty from the kitchen sink. She is always at the sink when we are eating, although I am at loss as to why.
"Don't say 'what' like that, it's rude," says Michelle, her voice strained as if she has been screaming.
"You opened that box of cookies when I said it was for the weekend, didn't you?" My aunty, turning from the sink, her hands clad in yellow gloves with suds all over them.
"What cookies?" A fright starts to build up in me. What have I done now?
"The cookies that you stole this morning!" Her voice rises above the sound of running water in the sink. Her eyes are wide and a bit of spittle flies out of her mouth.
Suddenly it all comes back to me: the box, the crinkling plastic sound it made, the way Laura ate them hungrily, how she smiled afterwards, how we played hopscotch, how she kissed me…my hands begin to burn.
My aunty reaches into the cabinet and pulls out the open box of cookies. I know without looking that there is four missing. She shoves it underneath my nose, scratching my lips and my nostrils with the sharp plastic edges of it.
"These ones. Look familiar?" Shame takes me over and I hang my head, my left hand holding a carrot stick with dressing smeared on it. Michelle is smiling, a devious smile, a smile of revenge, of knowing that I am wrong and she is right. The worst part is that I feel as if she is right as well. I know that she is right.
My aunty grabs my wrist, the one holding the carrot and shakes it, the rubber from her gloves rubbing roughly against my skin. The carrot stick drops back onto my plate. My aunty picks me up from my seat by stretching my arm over my head and leads me to my room, pulling me across the carpet. I do not yell, I don't have room for it right now. All I can focus on is the feeling of rubber rubbing on my skin, the little raised bumps for grip ripping my wrist to shreds. My aunty shoves me into my room and closes the door with a slam. Only after I am closed in a room by myself do I realize that she has been shouting this whole time.
I sit down on the floor and look down at my wrist. It is red now, with suds dotting its surface. Warmness falls from my face onto my arm and I realize that I am crying. It doesn't feel like it.
My hand grows warmer and warmer until it is hot, hot enough so that I feel as if I need to blow on it to cool it down. As I pull it to my face I see that there is still some dressing on my thumb left over from the carrot. My thumb feels hot in my mouth, warmer than my tongue even. I enjoy this feeling; it reminds me of Laura's lips on my cheek.
I fall asleep on the floor of my room with my thumb in my mouth, all the bubbles from the suds popped and dried now, white scars on my fire-red wrist.