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Harry walked along the rocky shore, enjoying the spring sunshine, the tang of the sea, and the solitude. His phone rang. His sister, Lorelei, said, “Where are you?”
“At Llanddulas, on the beach. The school’s closed.”
“I know. Mum told me. Something to do with midges?”
“Yep. They’re everywhere. The pest control people are fumigating the place. Did she ask you if I can come to yours for lunch?”
“Yes, that’s why I’m ringing. Get here for half past twelve. I’ll be on my work break then and I’ve got a surprise for you.”
“Okay, Loz. Laters.” He ended the call.
This was a good day. For the only time in his fourteen years he was enjoying the first day of April. He usually hated it. April Fool jokes were a nuisance. He saw nothing funny in teasing, humiliating or upsetting people. A few of his classmates would have been behaving like morons, but thanks to the midges he could keep out of their way, at least until the morning was over and sanity returned to keep the jokers in check. Some of them anyway. Harry liked animals more than people. They were usually kinder. He had no fear, therefore, when a large, black dog, bounded along the shore to meet him. He had little interest in its pedigree or breed. He wasn’t breedist. The beast stopped in front of him, cocked its head on one side and whimpered. Harry crouched down and examined it for injuries. It was a girl dog. He disliked the word ‘bitch’ so he never used it. She appeared to be unhurt.
The sun radiated molten fire as Michael & I walked home from school. Around us, San Francisco suburbia hummed with activity as people bustled from place to place; walking dogs, picking up kids, returning from work, and so on. I stopped to wipe some sweat from my eyes as the concrete sidewalk bubbled beneath the heat. Michael kicked absentmindedly at the grass, watching the cars blur by; with his screen-addict eyes, overweight physique, and unshaven chin– he did not cut a very imposing figure.
“Are you going to Sam’s thing tonight?” asked Michael, with the deep squeak of adolescence.
“Dunno,” I said. “Did you understand what he was going on about earlier? Automated programming, neural networks, pattern recognition… way over my head.”
I readjusted my backpack, and we continued walking. I wished—as I always did—that I’d remembered to pack a water-bottle and cursed my past self for subjecting me to this torture, as the temperature eased towards the hundreds. My feet rubbed unpleasantly against the sides of my sneakers.
“He was talking,” said Michael, “about a process of automation that would allow an AI to generate certain patterns of text.”
Jane, heiress of Moorcroft Grange, climbed the ancient beech tree in the overgrown hedge in an attempt to rescue Harriet, the stable-boy’s cat. She crawled along the branch on which Harriet was balancing. It snapped. The cat yowled, leaped out of the tree and fled back to the stables. Jane and the branch crashed into the hedge.
She pulled herself to her feet and looked around. The estate gardens had become an uncultivated meadow. Wild flowers: buttercup, cowslip and yarrow invaded the long grass with bursts of colour. The grange itself was a burned-out ruin standing stark as bare bones against the red and gold sunset.
A white mare trotted towards her and nuzzled her neck. She heard no words, but the horse thrust a thought into her mind “Who are you? Where do you come from?”
“My name’s Jane,” she said, “How can I hear your thoughts?”
“Why shouldn’t you hear them? What’s a Jane? I don’t know that sound.”
She must be hallucinating, of course. Maybe she hit her head when she fell, knocked herself out and was imagining this. Whatever. Go with the flow. “It means precious gift.” She said, remembering her mother telling her the meaning of her name ten years ago, on her seventh birthday, a few days before running off with an astrophysicist and out of her life forever. Obviously she wasn’t precious enough.
The mare responded, “Bit of a mouthful. I’ll call you Gift. My name is Little Girl. Not very appropriate, I know, but it’s what Horse-Master called me when I was a foal.”
Lenny rubbed his salt and pepper stubble with his shoulder as he tightened the coupling. He tried to remember what was wrong with the college kid working with him. You have to explain things carefully, Lenny remembered Stanfield telling him. And you will take it easy on the young man.
"You're denser than a damn fence post,” he told the kid.
Alexander raised an eyebrow. "Ah, I am not. My body is made up of approximately 62 percent water while a fence post is composed of wood or even metal."
Lenny raised his own furry eyebrow back at the lanky kid with large brown eyes and straight teeth. He figured the kid could do well with the girls if he wasn’t such a moron. “I’m telling you, you’re dumb.”
“Urr,” Alexander said. “I graduated from high school at the top of my class.”
Being named after a famous character has a certain effect, especially when you’re still a sophomore in high school. When people are first introduced to me, they’ll make a joke, say something like, ‘Oh Romeo, Oh Romeo’, and snigger. On the first day of school when the teachers are taking roll and my name is spoken, every single girl will turn their head to look me, their eyes scanning me up and down to see if I’m truly a handsome, leading figure of romance. After a moment they’ll squint an eye or scrunch an eyebrow, perhaps their way of answering maybe, or I don’t know. Or just plain no. I can never tell.
I’m not a dreamboat by any means. I’m tall, but that’s pretty much all I have going in terms of appearances. I wear small-framed, circular glasses and am skinny but not too skinny. Although I used to get straight A’s and probably still could if I wanted to, I’ve never had too much of a reason to try. I’m average-looking, in my own eyes, but I don’t really mind. I like to stay in the background. I’m attracted to pretty girls like any other teenager, but I’ve never been madly in love.
All this changed when I met Julie. Yes, Julie. Not Juliet. How lucky I might have been if that extra letter had been added to her name: perhaps everyone at school would’ve expected us to get together, and this expectation would’ve gravitated us toward each other like two jigsaw pieces that fit perfectly together, separate from the messy sea of our high school body as if we were misplaced units from a different set.
It was halfway through third period when I first saw her. Mr. Roberts, our relatively young teacher who was lecturing much too seriously for his naturally-laid back style (I figured this was one of those days when he was overcompensating for his reputation as an easy-going teacher), was comparing a quote from Romeo and Juliet—Do not swear by the moon, for she changes constantly. Then your love would also change—to something a contemporary author had written:
I’m all nerves getting ready for this. My fingers shake so badly I ask my best friend Angie to do my makeup. She snatches the black eyeliner from my hand and stares into my face with a sigh. Digging the pencil into the skin just below the corner of my eye, she draws a thick outline below my lower lash line. I feel the skin prickle, imagine it raising into a red welt. When our eyes meet I can tell she’s pleased she hurt me a little. She’s not a fan of tonight’s game plan and she’s definitely not a fan of Jason Sellers.
She grinds the tip of the pencil into my top lid and drags it across. Then repeats on the other eye. “Look -- I know you’re just trying to make some moves. Ain’t nothing wrong with that. It’s just…with this guy? Not a good idea, gurl. He’s out of your league.”
I glare at her for stating the obvious. Of course Jason and I don’t work. I’m geek-smart and socially awkward. My nose is too long, my thighs too fat. He’s a starter on the football and lacrosse teams. His teeth are white, his lips are pink and his eyes are the color of a blue raspberry slushy. He is Zeus, and what he seeks are goddesses, not poor white girls with frizzy hair who only ever have illicit affairs with Hershey Kisses and donuts. “Everyone’s out of my league.”
Angie shakes her head, making that tsk tsk, shame on you sound. “This crazy-bad self-esteem is getting you nowhere.”
Just as she’s about to launch into her shtick, the how’s anybody gonna love you when you don’t love yourself thing, my bedroom door swings open and there’s my six-year-old sister Helen, my mother’s cooking apron hanging from her neck and sweeping her toes. She mixes pink and green slime together in a bowl, her fingers stretching, fumbling to reach the whole way around the plastic pig face that is the whisk’s handle. Helen smiles at us. “I’m making French-made bread. It’s from French.” She drops the whisk into the slime and straightens her tiara, trailing bits of slime through her hair. Her face is filthy and the cuffs of her light blue shirt are smeared black as if she’s used them to blend the hard lines of a charcoal drawing. Not gray, not brown, black. I bite my cheek and smile back, reminding myself that she’s six and practically motherless, of course she looks like she’s climbed through a chimney.
It was 7:50 am, that awkward moment ten minutes before school starts. I stood at the window, watching the other students arrive. A sea of blue and brown uniforms swirled around a small island of adults. A grey-haired woman with a pinched face between two of our teachers.
"Hey, Imogene, who's that lady?" a voice behind me asked.
"Mrs. Yolen, Freya's mother." I attempted a laugh. "Don't you see the resemblance?"
"Oh, yeah, Rat-face," he replied and leaned his blond head against the window and gazed out with his sea green eyes. The heartthrob of the seventh grade, he would have been the hero of this story if any of the other girls were telling it. They wouldn't have made it about me – not in a million years.
As we watched, Mrs. Yolen took a piece of paper out of her pocket. I recognized the long list of names, written in ballpoint pen, marker, pencil, and crayon, my name at the top next to Elliot's. I'd last seen those names over a week ago, when I'd folded the letter and put it into Freya's lunchbox. We hadn't seen Freya since.
Elliot was even paler than usual, his mouth pulled back in an "Oh shit! What do we do now" expression.
I bet you’re wondering how I came to be here, crammed into a mental hospital with the crazies. You’ll notice I didn’t say other crazies because I’m not crazy at all; I’m as sane as you are. And I’m going to tell you how I ended up here so you don’t suffer the same fate. Not only am I sane, I’m a nice guy. Didn’t expect to find that in the loony bin did you?
It all started a month ago, when I first heard the voice. I was in the library looking for a book on some guy called Shakespeare. Okay, okay I know he’s not just some guy, he’s the guy. I hadn’t read any of his stuff though. Why would I? Comics were more my scene. Our English teacher, Mrs. Pleasant, loved this Shakespeare fella though and our major term paper was to write an alternative ending to Romeo & Juliet. Have you read that stuff? I hadn’t but Mrs. Pleasant had quoted plenty of it during class; all those thees, thous and verilys made my head spin, I knew I needed help.
I could see right through my sister. Nobody else could see her at all. She sat on top of my toy box and bossed me about.
‘Are you a ghost?’ I said, the first time I saw her.
‘Don’t be stupid, Lexi,’ she said. ‘I’m your sister. At least I will be, if I ever get born.’
‘What’s stopping you?’
‘I need a mum and dad,’ she said. ‘We’ve got Mum but where’s Dad?’
‘He doesn’t live here anymore. He and Mum got divorced ages ago.’
‘Well, tell him to come back.’
‘I can’t. He lives with Suzanne, now, and my half-brother, Lucas. They wouldn’t like it if he came back here, and I don’t think Mum would like it much, either.’
‘Okay,’ she said. ‘Tell her to find a boyfriend. He can be your step-dad. I can get born and he’ll be my dad.’
‘Anything else?’ I said.
‘Yes. I need a name: something flowery.’
‘Poppy, Violet or Rose?’ I said.
‘Rose. I like that.’