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I hate Mondays. The slick sweat trickled down the back of my neck, and I shifted in my seat uncomfortably. The air conditioning was off and I had the worst feeling it wouldn’t be coming back on for a long time, because one girl decided she was cold on this god awful bus. I leaned my head against the window, but reared back immediately from the burning glass on my cheek.
Sighing heavily, I gave up on the idea of sleeping during the seven hour trip and focused on Brian, who sat next to me on the bus, immersed in a card game with Scott and Pierce. A bandana was tied around his forehead, and his long, curly hair had begun frizzing to enormous heights. His skin was flushed.
At least I wasn’t the only one who thought it was hot in here.
People watching was a safe hobby, and I scooted forward subtly in my char to observe the action that played out before me.
“What card game are you guys playing?” the boy in front of us (Zenith) said, leaning across the aisle.
“Egyptian rat screw” Scott said before turning his attention back to the tray that held their cards.
Pierce turned to him and grinned. “It’s a smart people game,” he said, nodding his head with a smug smile on his face.
“Then why are you playing?” said Kyle, a boy who had turned around in his seat to join in the playful ribbing. Pierce glared at Kyle and shook his fist. That only caused the guys to laugh harder until Brian finally shushed them down, saying that the bus driver needed to concentrate.
I snorted to myself quietly. Bert could drive through a blizzard one-handed, and blind-folded, and everyone would get to their destination just fine. Bert was like Superman, and I’m not even joking. I had great suspicions that he had uber-amazing mind powers.
Everyone seemed to be getting back into their zones, though, so I grabbed out my prehistoric iPod video and gave it a tap, sending it to shuffle, and immersing myself in Linkin Park’s rapping.
The bus was dark, and few people had their reading lights on. My watch said that it was ten forty-five. I looked out the window, surveying the ruins that made up this part of Mississippi. Churches, schools, and houses, ripped from the roots with only the plumbing and the fireplaces left. I nearly broke down into tears. The sight was heart-wrenching, and I shoved at Brian until he woke up. I didn’t really mind talking to Brian. He’d been my youth minister for a while, reaching out to me when others simply pretended not to see me. I could reveal myself to him.
When he gave me a glare, I pointed out the window, and his mouth popped open. I turned my iPod on pause, and looked at him thoughtfully. “What do you think?” I said softly, not wanting to disturb the people around us.
“It’s so…” he paused; I’m pretty sure to try and find the right word. Finally he settled on, “desolate.”
I nodded, turning my gaze back out the window.
“How are we going to help these people, Brian?”
“We’ll make it all go away.”
“But that’s the thing. I don’t think that we can. This is definitely something to remember.”
“We can make it better, though.”
“Well, we can build them new houses, and provide them with fresh food.”
“Will that make them happy?”
“Marie, what’s up?”
“They’ve just lost so much already. I need to know that I’m helping them.”
“Of course you are. Why wouldn’t you be?”
“What if they think we’re intruding?”
“Okay.” Throughout the entire conversation, both of us kept our gazes locked on the destruction outside the window. I shuddered, and Brian grimaced. He put his hand on my shoulder, and patted it reassuringly. Then, he shifted and went back to sleep. I was alone. Again.
I woke up as the grumbling engine stopped, and gathered my things. My watch said that it was midnight, and I grimaced. Bert said, “What’s up?” as I got off of the bus and I just shrugged, letting my bangs fall in front of my face. Everyone was unloading their suitcases and carrying them off to the bunkers. I saw mine tossed to the side, and kind of wanted to say something about it, but then assured myself that it wasn’t that big of a deal.
There were stars above me as I walked to the women’s bunker. I wanted the stars to be beautiful, but I knew that they didn’t belong in Mississippi and I knew why they had intruded. It made me tear up a little bit, and I quickly blinked them out of my eyes before tiptoeing inside the bunker, over to an empty bunk bed. I bent down to crawl into the bed, clothes still on, but not low enough because I hit my head on the metal beam, and tried to rear back from it but my hair was catching in the springs. I shook my fist at it and untangled my hair. I slid onto the bare mattress, too tired to care about putting my sleeping bag on it, too tired to care about taking off my Chuck Taylors.
At 5:45 A.M. I woke up, unable to catch anymore sleep. Unaware of my surroundings, I rolled over, expecting to feel my mattress but instead feeling my suitcase as I fell two feet. I groaned, and then painstakingly got up and opened my suit case. I grabbed gym shorts and a t shirt and slung those on before putting my shoes back on, grabbing my notebook, and walking outside. The sun was creeping over the bay slowly, only showing the beginning of its circle, the sky a pink and purple, its stars still twinkling brightly. I smiled at it, and took a mental picture.
I surveyed the area around me, walking toward a single picnic table that was in the middle of a clay path of ground. I sat down on it and opened my notebook to the next empty page. Then I wrote.
Brian came walking out of the men’s bunker an hour later sitting down at the table and startling me. I shut my notebook. Brian said “What were you writing?”
“Stuff” I said.
He raised his eyebrows but didn’t push it.
“Did you know that there are four other churches here besides us?”
“Wow. That’s amazing. Incredible.”
“Marie, it’s too early for sarcasm.” I smiled at him, before rubbing my stomach in hunger.
“Hold on. Let me check my watch.” He checked his watch, “It’s seven right now, so breakfast should be served at eight.”
He stood up. I questioned his motives and he said he was going to go wake the beast. He was referring to Martha, who was “the beast” because she was pregnant. I teased him about going into the women’s bunker but he just stuck his tongue out at me and continued walking away.
The only thing I could manage to choke down was a granola bar and a bottle of water. The butterflies in my stomach swarmed restlessly, and it made my left eye develop a slight twitch. Pierce raised an eyebrow at me, but I just shook my head and sipped tentatively at the lukewarm water. Brian sat down next to me with a full plate of pancakes, scrambled eggs, and sausages. Immediately he dug in and the eye twitch worsened at the revolting sight in front of me. When he stopped to take a sip of his milk, he looked at my single granola bar “You’re nervous about the job.” He was right, of course, because Brian could read anyone on planet earth like an open book, even Darth Vader. We had been given our sites for the week about fifteen minutes before breakfast, and I wished they had waited until afterwards.
Our church group got assigned the job of tearing a house down, because it was moldy and water logged and broken beyond repair. Next week a different church group would begin building a new house. It wasn’t tearing down the house that made me nervous, though; it was the guy who owned the house. I know if someone tried to tear down my house I’d be very angry, and I didn’t really like making others angry.
After breakfast we all began loading up the bus with shovels and weed whackers and sledge hammers and a bunch of other tools. Scott was practically salivating at the sight of so many tools in one area and I rolled my eyes, remembering a quote that I had once read in a book, “Women want babies, and men want power tools.”
The bus ride there was difficult, because it was daylight and I could see everything clearly. No open businesses, no houses; there was only debri and mud, and other depressing things like half of a brick house. When Bert found our road, I was surprised to see an open shop. It was a voodoo shop, filled with herbs and lucky charms. I smiled a little bit, nearly laughed, when I saw the shrunken heads dangling around the outside of the store like someone else would hang windchimes. But the smile ended as soon as we pulled up at our sight.
I got off of the bus, frowning. A one story house was in front of me, made of wood. A lot of paint was washed off of it, and there were holes in the walls. Beyond the walls I could only see black, and it gave me a bad feeling.
There was a van in front of the house and its trunk was propped open. An old, grungy African-American man sat in there, picking at an old scab. He looked up and scowled at the bus, and when his piercing gaze turned to me I almost fell down. This was definitely not a good idea.
I stopped to pant, before picking the hammer back up and willing the plaster to give. A small piece came off and I had to stop myself from dancing in victory. We had been working for three hours, and when Brian called lunch time I sighed in relief. I was left alone in the kitchen, and chose to go out the back porch way. The backyard was empty, and when I swung around the corner I gasped, my hand moving instinctively for my heart. Elton, the man who had earlier occupied the van, stood in front of me, his eyes narrowing in hatred. He stood a couple inches taller than me, and was wiry thin. Grey hair grew out of his head, I knew he couldn’t hurt me, so why was I shaking?
“You ought not to be messing with my house,” he said, his scratchy voice giving me goose bumps, “It’s my house. It’s not yours, and you can’t hurt it. I’m not gonna let you.”
I struggled to find sane words that would help him understand, but pushed it all back and spoke what I thought.
“Your house is sick” I told him, trying to catch on to his metaphors and the way he spoke about his house, “it’s dying. Everything has its time to die, Elton, and”—
“Don’t call me Elton, you little swamp rat. Don’t call me anything.”
“I’m sorry.” I cursed my mousy voice because it wasn’t persistent enough.
He scoffed and walked around me, and I quickly scampered onto the bus. Brian patted the spot beside him and I sat down, trying to keep from hyperventilating. “I saw Elton talking to you” he said, taking in my current state. I paled at the mention of his name, and nodded slowly.
“What did he say to you?” said Zenith, the perceptive, older boy that noticed too much. I just shrugged, still not able to form words, fearing that my voice would break. Zenith looked to Brian, but Brian shook his head and Zenith sighed, turning back around in his seat. No one messed with me for the rest of the day, not even Elton.
That night, Martha—who was our other youth minister—volunteered us to speak at the church service and said that we would do a sermon. Thirty minutes before the service, everyone (with the exception of me) was still arguing about what the sermon would be about. I quietly asked Martha for the church service, and the Litany stood out to me. So I wrote a response to that, knowing the sermon would shortly follow. The argument was in full swing when I quietly gave the response to Brian, and he read it before turning to me and mouthing, “Thank you.”
I smiled and rested my head on my bent knees, tuning out of the conversation. I tuned back in, though, when I heard a collective gasp from the group. I looked up and everyone was staring at me. My eyes went wide, and I felt immediately self conscious. Did I talk to myself out loud, or something? “Wow, you wrote that?” said Ben, a boy short enough to be a sprite. I nodded hesitantly, and just as I was about to fade out again, Brian got an extremely stupid idea, “You should read the sermon, Marie. You’ll be great.”
If it was even possible, my eyes went even wider than before and I shook my head quickly, trying to explain that it would be a horrible idea. How could they not see the fear in my eyes? Talking in front of people? No way, José, that’s just asking for disaster. Did they not notice my terrible stuttering problem? What about the fact that I never talked!?! I wonder if they saw that!
I shook my head continuously, my only form of communication with them. Finally, Zenith volunteered to read it and everyone accepted that. I let out a shaky sigh of relief.
The Church bunker was loud with applause at the end of the sermon. They were just clapping because they felt obligated to, though. No one could actually like my work. It wasn’t really all that good. I let myself dream for the rest of the service, and only half-listened when the reverend told me about how powerful my words were. Brian clapped me on the back and smiled, silently telling me that I could flee, and I smiled back before rushing out of the bunker and into the night. The other church groups were already back in the mess hall, and mine was in the field, tossing a glow-in-the-dark Frisbee back and forth. I smiled at their care-free attitudes, and sat down under one of the many huge oak trees that framed the field. I cradled my notebook in my lap, letting my head rest on the bark and breathing in the night air. It was so beautiful outside that I wanted to sing with joy, but my voice wasn’t all that great.
I heard the laughter of my church group, heard the scuffles of their feet as they ran across the field, and envied them more than they could ever imagine. They had that ability to open up and put themselves out there…they could speak, and actually have a voice while doing it. I speak, but it’s so hard to hear me. I know it is, because no one seems to understand what I say. And then I just stop trying to say it because what’s the point if they aren’t going to listen?
“Marie” Zenith called from the field. I looked at him, to show him that I heard him. “Do you wanna play Frisbee with us?”
I shook my head quickly, biting down on my lower lip. I received the third pointed stare of the day, and it made me wonder why he wanted me to participate with everything. I worked extremely hard at Elton’s house, and I thought that would be enough to show everyone I did things and that I was normal. A lot of people seemed to buy it but Brian wasn’t one of them, and I was beginning to think that Zenith wasn’t one, either.
Running away from his gaze, I got up and walked through the forest to the only actual building that they had, and decided to take a hot shower instead of eating dinner.
The following morning, Martha woke me up at six to give me my two hundred milligrams of Welbutrin, and smiled in understanding. She took the same thing, making her believe we had a lot in common. Before she decided that we should have a heart to heart, I slipped out of bed and grabbed a different pair of gym shorts and a faded Queen Tour shirt while I smiled apologetically. Martha just waved and climbed back into bed.
I slipped out the door, once again holding the notebook that almost never left my side. I checked my watch; it was only six-fifteen. Forever cursed to be a morning person.
Once again I was interrupted while writing poetry, only this time it was by Zenith. He sat down across from me, drinking orange juice and smiling. I don’t know how he managed to do both at the same time, but he did. I shut my notebook, or at least attempted to, but he stuck his hand on top of the page I was writing.
I wanted to scream, but instead buried it deep inside where not even I could touch it because screams were dangerous things to touch. I looked at him instead, asking him what he was doing in my own, silent way.
“Can I read what you’re writing?” he said, and I looked down at the pitiful poem.
I tried to form my mouth around words that a normal person would be able to say, but could only get out “It’s not good” in a small, slightly strangled voice. After I got it out it was hard to breathe.
“I’ll be the judge of that.” To my surprise (and discomfort), he dragged the book from my claws and began reading it. I recited it in my head and he still wasn’t done, so I decided he was a slow reader. I spaced for a little while, trying to comfort myself with the thought that at least when he hated it, he would tell everyone else and no one would ask to see my poetry anymore.
“Marie, you’re really quiet,” he said, “but your poetry is beautiful.” He smiled at me and I almost fell off of the bench. Certainly he was lying—about the poetry part, at least.
“It’s actually really bad, but thanks for the compliment,” I said quickly, before I could even think about it, and his jaw popped open. Mine locked down; I back-talked to him, even though it was a mutter. It surprised me.
“Is this some sort of sick joke? Your writing is amazing. Just like that sermon last night. Seriously, you’ve got something special. And it wasn’t just luck or something like that. It’s you. You’re special. Deal with it. Jeez.”
His outburst made me want to smile from ear to ear and give him a big hug, but I just gave him a small smile and mouthed “Thanks.”
Brian moseyed over to the table during breakfast, once again with his heaping stack of heart attack. I had improved, this time drinking flavored water with my granola bar. I added the Crystal Lite Raspberry Flavoring to my bottle, and watched as everything turned red. It looked artistic and made me wish I had my camera. Zenith and Brian were in a deep conversation across the table, or at least it looked deep, so I decided not to disturb them.
Thursday, I was up on the roof, yanking nails out of the hot metal. It seared my knee caps and I blocked out the pain, concentrating on hammering. I was nearly dying for a water break, so when Scott volunteered to take my place I graciously accepted his offer.
Elton sat under the shade of his propped open trunk, and I went to sit next to him. I had been bugging him for the past three days and I wasn’t about to stop. Not until I could convince him that in dying there is rebirth.
“Don’t you ever leave a guy alone?” he said, narrowing his eyes.
“Nope, not me,” I said, shaking my head and trying to sound casual so he wouldn’t catch on to the big, fat lie. We both sipped at our waters for a few minutes. He said, “That roof must be hot.”
“I bet y’all get burned,” he said.
I nodded again.
“Y’all deserve it.”
I cracked a smile. “Why do we deserve it?” I raised an eyebrow at him.
“You’re killing my house.”
“We’re not, though. We’re helping die easily. It was sick, so think of us as Novocain.” I thought I saw him almost crack a smile at my comment, but it could have been the glare of the sun, or maybe I was dehydrated. Still, it was something I was confident with.
“You understand.” He said it softly, and I had to strain to hear him.
“What do I understand?”
“You understand that everything has a soul.” I just nodded at that one instead of replying.
“How do you understand?”
“I have a lot of time to think about things.”
“You actually think?” He looked over at me with a mischievous glint in his eye
“Ha ha, Elton. Ha ha.” I called on sarcasm to save me from having to explain my pointless life. It didn’t deter him.
“Really, though. Don’t you have a social life? I hear that’s what teens get these days.”
“Get? You mean, like buy them? Wow, I’ll have to save up.”
“Did you get one on sale at Wal-Mart?”
“No. My money’s no good for them.”
“I don’t talk.”
“You seem to have no problem jibber-jabbering away to me.”
“That’s because you know about the life in everything, Elton. People, who don’t know, have a hard time understanding me.”
“I get that…I think.”
“Jeez, Elton. Thanks a lot. So much for an understanding ally.”
Then he laughed. It was loud too; he had a smile and tears were nearly coming out of his eyes. I guess he appreciates cynicism. I’m pretty good at it. Everyone stopped to look at us, shocked to see Elton laughing, even more shocked to see that I was the one who had made him laugh.
I waved shyly at everyone and they all turned slowly back to there tasks, to whisper about the odd companionship, no doubt. I didn’t care, so instead I went back to talking to Elton until Scott called me back on the roof to take his place.
For the last time, we packed up our tools and as that was being done I walked over toward Elton, who stared longingly at the house on the ground. “The next one will be nice, too,” I said, patting him lightly on the back. He nodded and sighed, and this time I literally did fall down. He turned and looked down at me, and laughed harder (if it’s even possible) than he did earlier. I glared at him and shook my fist, then proceeded to get up and dust myself off.
“What was that about” he said, raising an eyebrow.
“You agreed with me.”
“Wow. You’re right.”
“The customer is always right.”
“Are you a customer?”
“Only when I’m buying social lives.”
“Then why’d you say that?”
“It sounded cool.”
I slapped him in the stomach playfully before giving him a hug, and telling him that maybe I’d see him some other day that was extremely far from now, when he’d have his old house back again.