Chapter 2 Recap: As she color-sorted plastic beads on the floor of Colson’s (thanks, Gary), Charlie thought back to the day her mom left to run a garden center with Bill, the live-in boyfriend who couldn’t have been happier to get rid of her.
I shut down. Like some toy with dead batteries, I just stopped working. I sat at home, in Gram’s car, in school. I brought home my books— all of them— every day and dumped them on the kitchen table. I couldn’t remember my homework assignments. After two weeks of turning in blank quizzes, Mrs. Demalco stopped sending me to the principal’s office and started sending me to the nurse. The nurse took my temperature and sent me back to class.
On the weekends, I slumped in front of the TV for hours without knowing what was on. “What are you watching in there?” Gram would shout from the kitchen. “Nothing,” I’d say.
I was tired no matter how much I slept. Everything I did, even when I didn’t do anything, was hard. I fell asleep everywhere. I’d wake up shivering in freezing cold bathwater. I’d sit down on the floor to tie my shoes, and Gram would be shaking me awake 20 minutes later.
“I think you have mono,” Gram speculated and drove me to the doctor.
“It’s not mono,” the doctor said. I slouched on his table, crinkling the white paper beneath me.
“Are you sad?” Gram had asked me in the parking lot. She’d already started the engine but then turned it off and unbuckled her seat belt so she could turn to look at me. “Maybe because your mom moved?”
I remember looking at her face and sort of waking up for just a moment. Like when you rearrange the batteries to get that last bit of juice. Her eyes were wide and watery. They searched my face for some kind of clue about what was wrong with me.
“I think…” I started. But then the juice ran out. The power went off again. “I’m tired,” I said and leaned back against the headrest.
The next day I slept until Gram woke me. She bustled into my room, carrying with her an outside chill and two plastic shopping bags.
“What’s that stuff?” I asked, rubbing my eyes.
“Well, I had an idea,” Gram said as she peeled off her coat and threw it over my desk chair. She lowered herself onto my bed and started pulling items from the plastic bags and placing them on the bedspread: a package of paintbrushes in various sizes, a set of watercolors— not the cheap, kiddie watercolors you got in birthday goody bags, but the kind that real artists used. A set of colored pencils in a tin case that snapped shut. A package of three black ink pens and a notebook.
My eyes settled on the notebook. It wasn’t like the spiral kind I had for school. It was slim and hard-covered. No hearts or cartoon kittens. It was all black and held shut by a cloth-covered rubber band.
“You got this stuff for me?” I asked.
“Well, while you’re resting, I thought you may want to paint a picture or draw something. Maybe write a story,” Gram said, shrugging her shoulders. Something about her tone was off. She was being gentler than her usual matter-of-fact self. Her mouth was smiling, but her eyes were still wide and watery, like they had been in the car the day before.
I glanced between her and the pile of items with curiosity and suspicion.
“I just had a feeling that you might have some important pictures to paint or stories to tell,” Gram said. She squeezed my knee through the blanket. “I wanted you to have the right materials. This is what real artists use.”
Artists like my mother, who had dozens of unfinished canvases. She’d always kept the frames leaning against each other in her bedroom closet behind dresses and long coats. When she wasn't paying attention, I used to climb in there and flip through all of them. I could tell which paintings she started only because they were assigned and which ones she really wanted to do. The landscapes and abstracts and clusters of random objects were all fine, but anything with a person or even just a body part was so much more detailed and intense. There was one of two folded hands that were cracked and wrinkled. Like the person attached to those hands had been out raking leaves in weather that was too cold not to be wearing gloves. I could feel their raw chill.
My favorite was this one of a woman's face. It's of the whole woman, but the most amazing part is her face. Her expression is this combination of understanding and sadness. Like she's just come to some kind of realization and knows what she has to do, even though it makes her sad. She's standing in the middle of this field and looking up at the sky. It's so realistic. It looks like a photograph.
One time I'd worked up the courage to bring it to her and ask if I could hang it up in my bedroom. She'd only stared at it for a minute and said, “No, it's not finished.”
Had she taken them with her? Were they tucked away in her new bedroom closet?
“I like this notebook,” I said, sliding off the elastic band keeping it shut. I ran my hand over the first blank page.
“There’s something inspiring about a fresh notebook,” Gram said.
“The binding’s not broken, and all those crisp, clean pages,” she added. She leaned in, as if someone else was in the house and might hear us, and whispered, “I even love the smell.”
She took the notebook and opened it up beneath her nose.
“Ahh!” she said, inhaling deeply. “Here,” she said and handed it back to me.
I lifted it to my face and breathed in. It mostly smelled like glue. I liked it.
“Writers,” she explained, “take what they’re feeling or what’s happening to them and turn it into a story.”
“Like an autobiography,” I suggested.
“Fiction, too,” she said. “And all your favorite books, and movies and song lyrics,” she said. “It all starts with a feeling and a fresh notebook just like this one.”
My back pocket vibrated. It was Jackie. Gary had only been gone for five minutes, so I took my chances and answered it.
“Hey,” I said quietly, holding the phone with my shoulder as I picked through the beads.
“Are you still at work?”
“Unfortunately. Gary's actually found something for me to do that's worse than touching people's feet.”
“Ew,” she replied. “So what about tonight?”
“Yeah, what did you want to see?” I asked.
“I don’t really feel like the movies. I want to be out. Like, with people.”
“There are people at the movies,” I said.
“You know what I mean,” she said with a sigh. “We need to be more social…It’s always just the three of us,” she added.
I furrowed my brow and switched the phone to my other ear. I didn’t get how that was a bad thing.
“Well, okay,” I said. “What social thing did you want to do?”
“There’s that football game that everyone thinks is important.”
“You want to go to a football game?”
“Well,” she answered. “It's the last first home game of our high school careers.”
“What?” I asked, laughing a little. “Who cares?”
“Well,” she said again. “I was thinking about it today. We've never done the whole 'root for the home team' thing.” I pictured Jackie opening up a perfectly organized day planner and placing a careful checkmark next to Display School Spirit.
I held a bead up to the light to determine whether it was blue or purple.
“You don't even like sports,” I said.
“Nobody actually watches the game. It’s just somewhere to go. C'mon, I'll buy you some peanuts and cracker jacks.”
“That’s from a song about baseball,” I said. “Is this Jared's idea?” Jackie's boyfriend was president of the student council and took half of his classes at the state college. He rarely did anything extra-curricular that he couldn't put on his college applications.
“No, he's not coming. He has some volunteer orientation. You're going with me,” she stated.
“Okay, fine. I better get off the phone,” I said, peering over my shoulder at the back door. “Pick me up at seven.”
“I'll text you when I'm on the way.”
“Don't forget your letterman sweater,” I teased.
“See you later.”
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