Friday, March 20. 2009
Posted by Daboo in Playing a meta-game with the same theme
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The next morning Linda woke to her father's ranting shouts from the front yard. She hurried down the white spiral staircase to the front door, which was standing wide open. A steaming coffee mug was sitting next to the newspaper on the front step, where her father had abandoned it. He was in the driveway, circling the yellow porsche, screaming.
Linda opened her mouth to ask what he was doing, when she saw: all four of the tires were slashed, the car sunk low down on them as if exhausted. She took a few steps and then stopped, her eyes following the deep gouges in the car's body, made by something strong and heavy. “A crowbar!” screamed her father, pointing to the offending object, which was lying on the grass a few feet away from the car.
Aghast, she crept closer. The headlights were smashed, the upholstery ripped to shreds. Unconsciously, Linda began mouthing a prayer. She walked down the steps and circled the car, then stopped as she came in sight of the garage. There, in violently red spray paint, were scrawled the words, “I LOVE YOU.”
The police report took most of the morning, and by the time her father had calmed down, she had been able to pull one of the officers aside and tell him about James. “We broke up last night,” she said hoarsely. “He was really crushed, you know . . . and there's something not quite right about him. He's got a temper, I guess.”
The officer nodded and wrote illegibly on his form, and then went to look at the car again. They all spent quite a lot of time around it, silently drinking in the damage. It was like a funeral. Linda saw tears in her father's eyes, but whether from sorrow or fury she could not tell. She felt sick, suddenly. Her muscles felt tight and full of poison, and she wanted to either lie down in the soft grass, or vomit, or both. “Aughh,” she said.
“Lin, you should get to school,” called her father over the corpse of the car. “Go tell your mother to give you a ride. This just . . . this is just . . . .” he trailed off desolately, staring at the crowbar, which no one had moved and yet no one had done any fancy police-detecting on, as far as Linda could tell.
Sighing, she walked into the house. “I don't want to freak Dad out, but I think I know who did this,” she said to the tabby cat who was squeezing his eyes shut at the top of the stairs. “I think it was my psycho ex-boyfriend.” The cat did not deign to respond.
She didn't expect him to show up to school today – wouldn't he be dodging the law, or whatever? But there he was, in third period, writing a practice AP essay with absolutely no expression on his face.
Reluctantly, she sat in her chair next to him, unloading her backpack onto the floor next to her desk, and taking the test sheet that Mrs. Mac was silently proffering her. Mrs. Mac gestured for silence and then mimed writing to show Linda what she was supposed to be doing. Class was halfway over already, and Linda did not feel like writing an intense discussion of “Porphyria's Lover.” She sighed and leaned back in her chair, closing her eyes. She felt the hairs prickle upright on the arm that was closest to James. When she couldn't stand it anymore, she opened her eyes to slits, to see what he was doing.
He was smiling at her.
Emily was not at their locker at lunch. Linda waited forlornly for a while, hoping to be able to confide in someone about her morning.
“She won't be coming,” said a deep voice at her ear. Linda jumped and just stopped herself from squealing. A week ago she wouldn't have stopped herself – a week ago she would have giggled and turned to crush herself against him. But not now.
“Get away from me, asshole,” she said in a quavering voice. “I know what you did last night.”
He widened his eyes in surprise. “What are you talking about?” he said.
She shoved past him. “You know exactly what I'm talking about, James,” she hissed. “My dad's car? With a crowbar? I told the police all about you, so just give it up.”
“I was at the movies last night,” he grinned. She felt a chill up her spine as she saw that familiar dimple blossom in his cheek. “With Emily. We had a great time . . . caught a late show, and then spent the night at my place. And she can vouch for me, believe me. In fact,” his grin widened, “all the neighbors can probably vouch for me too. She had a blast.”
Linda opened her mouth in a wordless protest. Sickening dread crawled up her bones from her feet to her stomach. She stared at him, agape, and then managed to choke out, “You're disgusting! You're a LIAR!”
He chuckled, shrugging slightly like someone who is deflecting a compliment. “Well, you know,” he said genially. “But I told Emily all about you, so she'll be sharing a locker with me from now on. And she's mad. You'll see.” With that, he turned away from her and strutted down the hall. Linda watched him go, unable to find words through the thick choking sensation in her throat. If she didn't know better, she could have sworn he was whistling.
She was walking across the parking lot after school, when a couple of the football players started yelling, “Hey, Linda! Five dollars!” and making obscene gestures at her. Everyone in the parking lot around her either laughed or averted their eyes.
She flipped them off and turned her face away, unable to stop the hot rush of tears that made her face mottled and red. But it didn't stop there – Jake, the boy who had been her best friend in Kindergarten and to whom she hadn't spoken since, brayed, “Yeah, guys, she'll give it to her own father, I think she'll do us for free!”
Linda stopped short and stared at him, watched the open laughing mouths of his friends. They found her attention even more hilarious. “What's he pay you, honey?” called one of them, a boy she didn't know.
“Shut up, pervert!” she screamed in an animal snarl, but they laughed harder at that. She stumbled to the curb and onto the grass, wishing with her entire soul that she had a car so that she could run them over. But instead, she was forced to keep her head erect as she crossed the football field and walked into the catwalk on the other side. She heard more whistling and calling, and her ears pricked with the sounds, but she pretended to ignore them.
By the time she got home, she wasn't crying anymore, and was relatively calm – that is, until she saw the police car parked out front, and heard the officer speak into his handset, “We've got her.”
The police station wasn't like the movies she had seen. She wasn't shown into an interrogation room, and they didn't give her donuts. All they did was show her to a plain wooden chair sitting alongside a very ugly metal desk, and a woman who looked like she needed about two weeks' unbroken sleep or she would die. The woman sized her up wearily. “All right, hon, we've got some questions about the vandalism that occurred at your home earlier this a.m.,” said the woman.
“It was my boyfriend. My ex-boyfriend,” said Linda, in as decisive a tone as she could manage.
“Uh . . .” the woman flipped through some papers. “Name?”
“Yeah, we . . .” more flipping, and then folding of hands. Warm brown eyes met Linda's. “I want you to know that you are perfectly safe to tell me the truth here,” said the woman. “There is nothing that you can tell me that will cause you trouble, or make you unsafe.”
“Okay,” said Linda, her forehead suddenly feeling hot.
“We did speak to certain witnesses, and we are concerned about the relationship between yourself and your father,” said the woman gently. “We feel that there is a probability that there are some . . . issues there. Now, I know you're probably afraid that you'll get in trouble, but that is just not true. Nothing that you may have done will . . . will outweigh what might have happened between you.”
The dread Linda felt was like a molten lead poured down her forehead, and she drooped her head until she realized that it might look like guilt. She wanted to play dumb, to act like she didn't know what the woman was going to say, but the knowledge was there in her mind, clear and absolutely horrible. “You think my dad and I . . . you think he . . . slept with me,” she said, with numb lips. “James told you that. He lied to you. James. He lied.”
The tired woman responded with a deeply compassionate look, and uncapped her pen.
Four and a half hours later, after she'd answered all the questions, after the tired woman had become grim and disappointed in her, after her mom had driven her home in complete silence, she saw that nobody had washed the spray paint off the garage. It was there, screaming its message in bloody red as the headlights caught it.
James was there, leaning against the garage. Linda's mom didn't see him, or didn't want to. She pulled the SUV up the side of the driveway with the least broken glass, and Linda watched the “I LOVE YOU” become slanty and shaded, and then disappear as the garage door went up. Her mom parked the car, got out, and walked into the house without a word.
Linda sat in the passenger seat, her muscles burning with dread and a sickness she had never felt before. She watched as James slowly and cautiously walked up to the window, his hands up in the air in a gesture of surrender.
“Hey,” came his muted voice through the glass. “Can we talk?”
She ground her teeth together stared icily at the wall of the garage just beyond his left ear.
He put his hand on the door handle, but didn't try to open the door. He leaned his forehead against the glass, and sniffed deeply. Was he crying? She glanced over to see, and indeed his eyes were moist and he looked completely miserable. She flicked her gaze back to the wall of the garage.
“I didn't do it,” he called through the glass, tapping it gently with his fingers. “I can't believe you think I'd do that.”
She glared into his deep black eyes. “Do what?” she snarled. “You mean destroy my father's car? Spray paint my garage? Sleep with my best friend? Or completely TRASH my reputation at school and everywhere else by telling some story about how I SLEEP WITH MY OWN FATHER?”
His eyes were wide and round, and he again put his hands in the air above his head. “What?” he said, bewildered. “What are you talking about?”
She lost any last shred of calm she had possessed. “You LIED to the police! I broke up with you last night, so you lied to everyone about me! I hate you!” She was sobbing now, and when he opened the car door she couldn't slide away from him fast enough. His strong arms wrapped around her.
“No, no, no,” he soothed. “Lin, no. I wouldn't do that to you. How could you--” he broke off, searching her face with a wounded expression. “I can't believe you thought that I would hurt you like that.”
She looked back, looked into his glistening, teary eyes. She saw the sweet boy she had loved, not too long ago. He was completely sincere, and she could not see a lie in that face. “But . . . then who would?” she whimpered.
At that, an impish smile touched his lips. He smoothed it into a worried frown so quickly she wasn't sure she had seen it. He hugged her close, buried his face in her hair. “I don't know, Lin,” he said soothingly, “but everything is gonna be okay. I'm gonna be the guy you need. I won't let you down. I'll be everything you want me to be.”
They walked hand in hand through the hall the next day. With him by her side, nobody dared to taunt her, and she started to see the incident in the parking lot in a more forgiving light, with more rounded edges. It hadn't been so bad. Things were going to be okay.
Emily was not at the locker, but Linda told herself she didn't care. Everything would work out. It had all been a misunderstanding anyway. She was sure James wouldn't have slept with Emily. And Emily was her best friend—surely she wouldn't do something like that.
Mrs. Mac was really on a roll in third period, babbling on about perfect AP essay scores, and it took Linda a while to realize that she was talking about James. With a glow of pride, she glanced over at his handsome face, and saw that he had eyes only for her. The paper on his desk did have a perfect score, but he couldn't care less. He was only concerned with her, and had eyes only for her. She smiled at him and saw his dimple bloom as he grinned in return.
“You wanted to talk to me?” He lingered in the doorway, looking steadfastly at the floor.
“Yeah, I did,” said Mrs. Mac, pushing her pile of papers away from her. “I wanted to tell you that you scored over 200 on the NMSQT test, and you're guaranteed a scholarship to pretty much any college you want.” The news was good, but she spat out the words as if they were bitter seeds.
“Great,” he said tonelessly, still looking at the floor.
“It is great,” she said forcefully. “It's great! You . . . you have such potential. I'm really glad that you let me help you this year. I wish . . .” she let the sentence die on her lips.
He shuffled into the classroom, slinging his backpack onto the floor. “You're disappointed in me,” he said matter-of-factly. “But I don't care.”
“No, I'm not, I'm proud of you,” she said lamely. He swung his gaze from the floor to her eyes and held there, quietly. She flushed and looked away.
“James, I just don't . . . I just don't understand you anymore. You used to be such a good kid. What happened?”
He shrugged, his eyes glinting like obsidian. “I changed,” he said darkly. “I change sometimes.”
“Everybody changes,” she said gently. “It's normal to change. That doesn't make you bad. But what I don't understand are the choices you've been making. You've been lying to people. To people who care about you. Why would you throw those relationships away?”
“I'm not throwing anyone away,” he said flatly. She met his cold black eyes for as long as she could before lowering her gaze to the desk between them. Silence stretched between them.
“Well,” she finally attempted, and then cleared her throat. “Well, look on the bright side. You've got that scholarship, and you're headed up in the world. There's no reason to throw . . . to give up on that. You'll go to college. You'll be fine. You're resourceful, if nothing else.”
She glanced up and saw him studying her face intently. “Yeah,” he said thoughtfully.
“I believe in you, James,” she said gently. “I care about you and I care about what happens to you. You'll figure this out.”
He smiled shyly at her for the first time, and she caught a glimpse of the boy he used to be. “Thanks, Mrs. Mac,” he said softly. “It's nice to have someone care about me, you know? That means a lot.”
Relieved, Mrs. Mac smiled. “I do,” she said brightly. “Just . . . I don't know if it's a great idea to . . . to get back together with Linda. She's a really vulnerable girl. I think she needs some time, you know?”
He said nothing, just watched her face hungrily. She stumbled on, “I think a relationship might not be the best thing for her right now. She cares about you too much to be able to deal with . . . with some of the things you've . . . she's been through. Lately.”
“She cares about me too?” His voice caught on the last word.
“Yes, James. How could she not? You can be very sweet when you feel like it,” she said, mild irritation creeping into her voice.
“Right,” said James, nodding seriously.
“That's why you should maybe give her some space,” continued Mrs. Mac, almost pleadingly.
“She cares about me too,” said James to himself, slowly. Then, more loudly, “I can't let her go. She's too important. To me.” He picked up his backpack and turned toward the door. “Thanks,” he said. “I'll figure out a way through this. I'm resourceful, right? I've got a few ideas. I won't let you down.”
Mrs. Mac growled an exasperated sigh. “Listen, James! I'm telling you it's a bad idea. She's not going to take you back easily. You could hurt her. Or you could get hurt! You should give each other some space!”
There was no response. James continued toward the door, slinging his backpack up over his shoulder. He nodded his head as he walked.
“You know,” she called angrily, “You'd better be careful. I know she probably hurt your feelings, but you'll get over it. If you try to get back together with her . . . well, you haven't been a very good boyfriend to her. I don't want you lying to her, or hurting her. You're not that kind of person!”
“What kind of person am I, Mrs. Mac?” he called back over his shoulder, casually.
She growled an exasperated sigh. “James Byron, if you're not careful . . . some day you are going to be the death of that girl!”
He stopped. Slowly he squared his shoulders and turned, looking her straight in the eye. As she watched, one side of his mouth curved upward into a fishhook smile. “How?”
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The writing is very well done. The story grabbed me, and didn't let go. I have to say, though, that when you created James, you created a character that I really liked, and by the end, he was a character that I really disliked. I guess that's what would really happen, though, if you let others define who you are
Thanks for playing the game with us. I had a lot of fun with it.
Well, I guess that's what I was trying to say with the story--that letting others define you could go very well if you were surrounded by nice people, but very badly if you were not.
I find it interesting that both you and A0D approached this theme from a viewpoint of "a guy whom others define would have special powers!" whereas my initial reaction was horror, and I felt like it would be a deep, terrible character flaw.
I'm actually kind of surprised that you saw our stories that way.
In my story, the narrator went through three phases. At first, he was a laughingstock because he allowed others to define him. After that, he became a traitor to his people because he allowed Wu Sangui to define him. In the end, he became a friend, because that was how Damon chose to define him.
In Joey's story, his main character was either powerful or powerless depending on how others perceived him. He could be a person of great power, or a man who sat in a corner with his face buried in his hands.
I think that both of us chose to use people with great powers because it gave us more room to tell our stories. Unfortunately, it appears that I didn't take advantage of the extra room that I created for myself, because most of the reader comments that I've heard focus on the fact that the story ended well for the main character, and don't recognize that my character spent 300 years imprisoned in a tea kettle because he allowed a power-hungry person to define who he was.
"allowed?" Did your character have a choice? I guess I would have seen him as a deeper character if I hadn't been under the impression that he was forced to be everything he was -- a mirror of other people's desires.
By the way, I've given it some thought, and I think I'd draw a full-time nanny.
Oh and by "deep" I don't mean you had a shallow story or character, I just mean that your character seemed reflective to me. Hope that makes sense.
I probably shouldn't have used the word "allowed." In my story, he was forced to be whatever others chose for him to be. That was how I interpreted the challenge, and that was actually why I chose to use supernatural means. I couldn't think of any reason why a person who had a choice would allow others to define who he was.
I couldn't either -- unless he was broken. Then he might choose to be whatever he thought others wanted. Which is why my character was so disturbed by the end of my story.
On the other hand, AoD and I were talking about this, and his point was that he tries to be what his wife sees him as, and that makes him a better person. So maybe we all choose to be what others see, to some small extent. I know that I'm trying to teach my children that they are each "a child of God." I want them to mold themselves to that definition, so that their actions follow the moral code I myself follow. If I keep telling them what I believe they are, my hope is that they will believe me and in turn will let that define them.
I shared these stories with some friends and this is what Leah had to say: "Hey, I forgot to tell you last night, I read your friend's foster care story. I'm doing an audit for which I have to read Child Protective Services files about these kids, and her story was so realist I teared up. Really good writing."
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