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Running Amok MAG
The room is full of kneeling people. One girl in particular seems to be meditating fervently: head bowed, hands clasped, face tense. On closer inspection, one can see she is texting. Since everyone else in the room is supposed to be praying, this should have been a transgression strictly between the girl – Mona Humke – and God. But another girl sitting behind her sees something on the tiny screen that galls her, so she reaches forward, grabs the phone, and hurls it against the wall.
A shredded pop ringtone erupts from half the phone. The other half ricochets across the sanctuary and strikes 73-year-old Wally Vanderheiden in the head. He is dead.
I run into my dad's room. He's still asleep. Maybe he was planning to attend the later service. I shake him.
“What's going on, duck?” he groans. I wasn't emotional in the slightest when the police questioned me, but hearing my nickname really smarts in light of what I've just done.
“Dad, I killed a defenseless old man in church today,” I tell him as he sits up in bed.
“Which one?” he asks, his eyes searching my face for some mirth, like this is one of my little capers.
“Well, he's been waiting to die since his wife left him.”
“But I was aiming for Mona Humke!”
“Daryl's daughter?” Dad asks.
“She prettier than you?”
“That's beside the point. She was disrespecting God.”
“My generation had a film called ‘Heathers.' You can't fool me, daughter. I know your violent cavewoman urges.”
“Can you tell me my options, Dad?”
“Well, if you're serious, duck, I'm going to tell you that there is no way I am going to be your lawyer. Furthermore, you're about to be run out on a rail by the citizens of this quaint little dump before I even start reading what-all you've been charged with. Here's Myrna!” Myrna is Wally's daughter. She is at our door.
I am not fond of the smell older people tend to exude. Maybe it's not their fault. Maybe it's just something that happens to your body, like puberty. But I have the decency to wear deodorant. Myrna Dickinson is not burdened by that sense of altruism. But I don't have to suffer for long. My dad makes an urgent “Abort!” face, and I bolt out the back door.
I feel bad for the maelstrom my dad is going to have to weather. I really do. Nobody in this town trusts him. Not only is he a lawyer, he's a Jew (he converted to Christianity when he married my mom but retained the last name Cohen). I already sense he is going to be blamed as the fake Christian who goaded his kid into attacking churchgoers.
There's an expanse of alfalfa field behind my house, so I decide to run around for a while to burn off my violent cavewoman urges. I was on the track team in middle school and was pretty good, if I do say so. But when you run solo, you can tell yourself you are the greatest runner who ever lived. That's why I quit. That, and Mona's crowd would trip me.
So I'm running, feeling like the greatest runner who ever lived, when a semi-familiar truck slows down and the driver makes a hand gesture. I can't tell if he's hitting on me or threatening to kill me. I reciprocate the gesture and run in the opposite direction.
Unfortunately, this takes me straight toward the pool, where the cool kids loiter and talk about how they're going to leave this god-forsaken town, much like their parents did (according to my dad).
And they've seen me, damn it all. I can't turn tail now. I wish I'd shaved my legs. I wish there weren't three-foot sweat stains under my arms and down my back. I wish I hadn't killed that one guy.
I rue the day the clever one in the group figured out that “d*ke” rhymes with “k*ke.” They chant it as I lumber past: “D*ke k*ke! D*ke k*ke! D*ke k*ke!” Nothing rhymes with Anglo-Saxon except Eric Clapton. I flash them the hand gesture.
It was incidents like this that made Dad and me decide that it would be best if I completed ninth grade online. The only problem is that the district has a home economics/etiquette requirement for girls that can't be fulfilled virtually. So whenever anyone sees the village sociopath, she's baking cakes, folding napkins, or sitting in church. That sure confuses them.
I have a keen desire for a pop, so I hop onto the porch of Angstrom's Mercantile. I pretend to be itching my hip as I discreetly pull a buck out of my panties.
“Hmm,” a voice grumbles behind me.
“Sue me – it's a vending machine and I can't very well run with a purse,” I snap without turning around.
“I would, but you'll probably be in court enough as it is,” Ethan replies. Ethan is a half-fifth cousin of mine or something who works at Angstrom's. “Can't you read the sign? We reserve the right to refuse service to felons.”
“Dad's right. I'll never get a fair trial here.”
“Oh, Philippa,” Ethan starts. Then he can't think of anything reassuring to say. “What else have you been up to?”
“My facial hair is thriving. I ran five miles. I have a mad crush on my online math teacher.”
Ethan is one of the few people who can tolerate my talking for more than a couple of sentences, but I still check his face before continuing. He has a very dry, dark sense of humor, and I can't always tell when he thinks I'm amusing and when I'm annoying him.
“I plan on writing him fan letters.”
“How do you think he'll react?” Ethan asks.
“Oh, gosh, you never know. Remember that spaz Mr. Gottleib? I wanted to call him erratic but instead I said erotic and got suspended.”
“A malapropism,” Ethan suggests. This makes me happy for a little while, but I know that amongst his guy friends – his real friends – Ethan will revert to a typical banal, cursing 15-year-old who doesn't want to be associated with me. “Let's go. The skeeters are trying to eat my face.”
DelMar Angstrom is Ethan's uncle, and he doesn't get paid for working here, and nobody shops here when they could go to the Wal-Mart on the edge of town, so Ethan and I don't feel guilty about reading aloud the gaudy romance novels next to the register and supplementing plot twists, like scandals with online math teachers.
I walk home the long way, swigging my pop from a six-pack like the yokel I am and chasing unsuspecting rabbits. I check for Myrna's Buick, then swagger in.
“I had a lovely afternoon,” I tell my father.
Then I see his face. He looks old.
“We have to talk, duck,” he says.
“Why, Philippa! You are simply aglow! That girdle I bought you is working wonders,” my grandmother chirps.
I spin around and see my mother and her mother sitting at the kitchen table, which hasn't happened for at least three Thanksgivings.
“Thanks, Grandma. Hi, Mom. How's the commercial chicken business?”
In spite of herself, my mother brightens. “We're at the forefront of a revolution. I'm heading an experiment where we compare the egg production of blind hens to normal ones. See, chickens form social hierarchies even in the most controlled environments. But if they're blind, they lose that capacity. Thus, there's no pariah chickens, everyone's happy and egg production goes up, which means bigger profit margins!”
“That's very ‘Slumdog Millionaire' of you,” I mumble.
“Esther, what a morbid anecdote!” Grandma pipes in. “But it does remind me of that Saramago novel, Blindness. When my granddaughter goes to prison, she should read it. But skip the inappropriate parts, Philippa, dear.”
My grandmother said the same thing about A Farewell to Arms. Among my many superpowers, she thinks I can anticipate sin. I wish that were true.
I look at my mother and feel a familiar pang of superficial sadness. She's been around the block but bears telltale remnants of beauty: arched eyebrows, a taut jaw, generously proportioned teeth. I'm no eugenicist, but it seems that each generation should glean the best qualities of its parents and become successively more attractive. That obviously backfired, for I am the ugliest progeny you have ever set eyes on, and no backhanded compliment from my grandmother can convince me otherwise. For a woman whose job it is to force chickens to produce unnatural quantities of eggs, you'd think she wouldn't be so stingy with her own. But here I am, her sole child. A lonely disappointment.
I need cereal.
“She was trying to attack Mona Humke, apparently,” I hear my father say in a low voice while I ferret around the cabinets.
“Such a sweet girl! She's the track star, isn't she?” my mother clucks.
“I'm a sweet girl,” I protest. I peer at my Lucky Charms. “Question: Have any of you come across a ‘specially marked package'?”
“It's kind of like Carmen Sandiego or the Northwest Passage,” my dad said, rubbing his face. “You can look for it, but you're not supposed to find it.”
“Philippa, you know we love you, but you don't fit the bill of a sweet girl. You were expelled from middle school, for God's sake,” my mother laments.
Dad cringes. I feel the air leave my chest. “I-I wasn't expelled,” I falter. “It was a mutual decision.”
But as soon as I say it, I know it isn't true. My parents said they made a mutual decision, but my mother left my father. There's no such thing as a truce. Someone always capitulates to someone else.
“Why?” I sputter. “Why was I expelled?”
In my town, during Homecoming Week, there is a tradition stemming from the Cold War called Commies and Patriots. It's part Cowboys and Indians, part inaccurate historical reenactment. It fills that cerebral hunger for a war with clearly marked good guys and bad guys.
On Friday night, there's a secret raffle wherein the populace who chooses to participate (easily 90 percent) is divvied up into Commies and Patriots. The object is to pummel the Commies with water balloons before they can get back to Russia. Russia's location is chosen by the Commie kingpin, whose job it is to spread the word to his fellow commies. Russia is supposed to be a landmark, like the lake or the playground.
One year, however, some clever kingpin designated that Russia should be my father's law office. My father was working late that night when a bunch of revelers, led by my history teacher, Mr. Gottlieb, demanded commie amnesty. They chanted “pinko” outside my father's door until he opened up. Because of who he is, my father treated them like Christmas carolers.
At that moment, I was at my first dance, held at Ethan's house. To simulate a rave, someone decided we should have a strobe light, as in, someone flicks the light switch on and off very fast for several hours. There was a need for a pariah chicken.
I left after several hours. I saw a crowd gathering around my father's office. I heard what my father interpreted as good-natured ribbing about Keynesian economics. I heard verbal abuse directed toward my father. Whether it was due to his political beliefs, his ethnicity, or his marital status was immaterial. All that mattered to my 12-year-old mind was that he was being bullied in much the same manner as I just had been. I waited until 2 a.m., after Mr. Gottlieb and his cronies were cheerfully assaulted by water balloons, as the Commies inevitably are. I waited until he was walking alone.
It was then that I was loudly skeptical of his mother's hygiene. It was then that I accused him of murder, adultery, and usury. It was then that I orated on the inadequacy of his financial standing, religion, and physical form. I harangued, harassed, and followed him as he tried to walk away. I cursed him, his ancestors, and his cats. Then I went home and told my father that I was not going to school on Monday. He said okay.
A couple of years later, I'm in church. I see a text on a shiny phone. It says, “Russia is at the Cohens' home.” I kill a man, and his daughter is pressing charges.
I show up at the Mercantile and tell Ethan to give me the money in the cash register. He grins and says something sarcastic. I look him in the eye and tell him to give me the money. He does. I slide the bills into my underwear.
“Do you want to know why my father calls me duck?” I ask, as he watches silently. “It comes from a 19th-century writer named James Whitcomb Riley, who said, ‘When I see a bird that walks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, I call that bird a duck.' It's a type of inductive reasoning. I looked like a duck when I was a baby, so my father called me duck. But I have a question, Ethan, my dear, stoic Ethan. If I get poor grades like a criminal, get expelled like a criminal, and kill innocent people like a criminal, does that make me a criminal?”
“I don't think you're a criminal,” he replies.
“Well, you're wrong,” I sigh. “Because I am now going to run like a criminal.”
But I run like the greatest runner who ever lived.