Category: Young Adult Fiction

The Spectrum Club of West Jefferson High

One

The air conditioning vent was behind and above Dr. Berger’s head, so Katie could look at it instead of at the bearded school counselor who was watching her too intently. Another bonus: there was a small piece of paper wedged between the metal bars of the vent; it flapped wildly when the air conditioner came on, making a comical whizzing sound, and then went limp when the air turned off. Dr. Berger didn’t seem to notice this, but Katie watched the little piece of paper when it did its spastic, solo dance. It was surprisingly entertaining.

Outwardly, she pretended to listen, to care about what Dr. Berger was saying, her expression thoughtful one moment, earnest the next. She had perfected what she called her “session faces.” She ought to win an acting award, she thought, although nobody won acting awards for faking out a school psychologist. She wanted to like him. Katie wanted to like most people, particularly adults, and wanted them to like her. She couldn’t help it, she wasn’t one of those girls with simmering disdain for authority, one of those girls who didn’t give a rip what other people thought. She was a pleaser, she knew it, and if that made her meek or anti-feminist or something, she’d deal with that later. In college or her twenties, when she would surely be confident and passionate about things. But  Dr. Berger wasn’t even trying, and she resented him for it. He could at least try to be normal. And who decided to employ this strange, monosyllabic man with his fat fingers and beady eyes? Who decided he would be of use in a high school?

Plus, she was hungry, and the bit of the window she could see revealed a strip of turquoise sky and marshmallow clouds. A Bierstadt painting, she thought, aware that most of her peers would not think of that, would not know Bierstadt. t was a perfect, early October day, and she wanted to be out there with the sun on her shoulders, or at least at lunch. Anywhere but here.

He was asking her again about the colors, and if her difference was getting any easier to assimilate, and whether the teachers were accommodating her sufficiently. That was what he called it: her difference, something she possessed, like a ball or a cup you could hold in your hands. It must have been intentional; problem, or, worse, learning disability,  sounded more like a bag of bricks you’d drag around. Difference sounded light and special; a blessing. A golden privilege.

She was privileged, Katie knew that. She did not live in a mansion or wear designer clothes, and she went to public school, always had. Even now, despite living in a nice little suburb in close proximity to several posh private schools and only slightly less posh Catholic schools. But Katie had seen the National Geographic specials where a girl her age might already have a baby, might already be worried about how to feed it. She’d seen the commercials for End Hunger Now, the children with distended bellies and dirty fingernails, their doleful eyes pleading with the camera. She knew that the doted on only child of an American Navy Captain was among the most privileged young women in the world. Despite her clothes from Target and knock-off Uggs. Despite her mother’s coupon envelope.

She also knew that Dr. Berger’s use of big words and clinical language was intentional. He didn’t say, “How’s it going dealing with your weird color issue?” Or, “Are your teachers letting you have extra time and bring your colored pencils?” Instead he talked about assimilation, synthesizing information, and teachers accommodating her. It was both an affectation and an implicit challenge: understand me, he was saying, and of course she did, so perhaps he was complimenting her, too.

The thing is, he was weird, with his little eyes; like a mouse, she thought, or, no, a gerbil. Dark brown eyes that looked brilliant and calculating one moment, lifeless and dim the next. The gerbil effect was  magnified by the bushy beard with the streak of white running through it. Katie imagined it was white paint, or milk, dried on the coarse, wiry hairs of his beard. How could hair turn gray in a steak, like Cruella Deville? But it did, apparently.

Dr. Berger was a short, thick man who smelled like cough medicine and seemed to be lacking a neck, and when he sat down, his collar pushed into his cheeks. His jowls, Katie thought. He was not unkind to her, exactly, but he asked question after question, and then gave no reaction to her answer, except “Mmm-hmm.” He didn’t even write anything down, like a psychologist in a movie, he just sat with his small, thick hands folded as if in prayer, but with his fingers facing into his palms. It made Katie think of the little rhyme here is the church, here is the steeple, open it up, see all the people… She vaguely recalled liking that when she was very little. Or maybe she imagined she had. That moment, when you could drop your elbows and turn your fingers up to wiggle them, always a small surprise. Open it up, and they all run away. Only Dr. Berger never opened his hands, he just sat there until the period was over. She had lunch next; Wally would be waiting soon.

The minute hand on the institutional clock jerked upwards with a loud, mechanical sound, followed by “the bell.” It was not a bell at all, like at her old school, but a sustained intercom beep. Funny that someone, at some point, had decided to call it “the bell,” as if it were a pleasant sound, or as if it’s predecessor were a chime of steel on copper. But West Jefferson was a relatively new school, and there had never been an actual bell. It was just a name, based on something that didn’t exist anymore, like phones being called phones, when they were computers that could make calls.

Katie was already standing up when she saw Wally at the door, knocking with two knuckles and leaning in, which struck her as a terribly grown up gesture. Wally always came, ready to walk with her to lunch because they were going the same way anyway. She thought she saw, just for a moment, a shadow of disappointment cross Dr. Berger’s face as he said what he always, unfailingly said: “We’ll continue this next week.” Was it possible that he liked these sessions? Katie had no idea, and thinking about it was vaguely uncomfortable, so she slung her backpack over her shoulder and shot Wally a look, something between exasperated and grateful, and stepped out into the crowded hall.

*

Of the six members of the spectrum club of West Jefferson High School, Katie McDonald was, in her own opinion, the only one who was average. She was not beautiful, like Dagny and Natasha, and even Joss and Cullen. She was not ugly, like Wally, who could get away with his looks because he was brilliant and nice, and enormous. His un-handsomeness somehow suited him. She was not rich or named after somebody famous, and even her “difference,” which, last year, earned her an invitation to the spectrum club in the first place, did not set her apart. She could not instantly multiply several five digit numbers in her head, she was not a musical genius, a fabulous writer, an aspiring movie director or a science prodigy. She had never tried to invent anything in her basement or been written about in any publication. Katie didn’t have a particular talent that she knew of, and her learning difference did not give her slightly slurred speech or social problems, or enable her to do anything at all. It got in her way.

Katie saw colors. And personalities. All the time. In places where, she learned, others did not. Not in the air, but in letters and words. Letters had their own color in Katie’s mind, and objects had a rightful color even when a particular object was not the correct color. A blue table remained a blue table, though the word table was a green word in her mind, despite the letters T-A-B-L and E having their own color,  and a yellow ball was a yellow ball even if ball was red. Even worse was the fact that ball placed the letter L–an aloof, shy letter, next to a friendly A on one side and an arrogant S on the other. Numbers were similar: three and five were white and orange, respectively, but thirty-five was no color at all in Katie’s mind, possibly because she was too busy noticing that three was bubbly and exuberant, and five was quiet and  hostile; they did not get along.

It had proven particularly problematic in early elementary school, when students spent much of the day coloring and arranging things that were, in Katie’s mind, already colored. Katie had learned to read in preschool, with the help of her own picture books and a box of colored plastic magnet letters. Possibly these things forever printed her brain with what color things ought to be: it was true that BALL in One Hundred First Words! was red, and that CUP was blue, colors that Katie would forever associate with ball and cup. But she still had some of those plastic letters in a little box of toys from her early childhood; the H was yellow, which was correct for H, but the A was green, which was clearly incorrect.  In Katie’s mind, the letter A would always be red, B would forever be green, and C a pale goldenrod. Her plastic letters were not to blame for what would, years later, be diagnosed as severe synesthesia. Eventually, the guidance counselors would know that synesthesia affects one in every two-hundred-thirty-seven people, to one extent or another, causing them to unintentionally assign colors and personalities to letters and inanimate objects. But in elementary school, they knew nothing.

In Kindergarten, on a naval base in Norfolk, Katie un-learned to read, so confusing was this world of wrong-colored letters. She decided to give herself a break from the chaos of it, and temporarily ceased reading. Mrs. Camden didn’t notice, since most of the other children could not read either, and only thought Katie showed a quiet, passive-aggressive streak when it came to coloring.  Mrs. Camden had twenty-seven five-year-olds in her care and only a part-time aide, so Katie’s difficulty with colors was small potatoes.

In first grade, she had regained some of her reading ability, but she was in the low reading group and was so bored with Biscuit! books that she stared out the window much of the time. Miss Gillespie, her earnest, newly accredited teacher, thought something was a bit “off,” and talked to Katie a few decibels louder than the other students but made no other real effort to help her. Second-through-fourth grades, in San Diego, were much the same. By then Katie could read well above grade level, though her scores on standardized tests were below average, and she was prone to near paralyzing panic in situations involving math homework, particularly fractions, which placed numbers not only side-by-side but also on top of each other, in arrangements that clashed and blended, depending on their colors, lending the problem unintentional significance in the wrong places.  Coloring maps was even worse; it took all her strength to follow the directions and color California green, when the correct color in her mind was white. It felt like she was obstructing truth. It felt like a betrayal.

It was Katie’s sixth grade English teacher, at a DOD school in Naples, Italy, who first noticed Katie’s “way of thinking,” as she called it. The class was called ILA there, not English, and there had been an assignment on Johnny Tremain. Katie’s notes were left on top of her desk when the students had to suddenly go outside for a fire drill. Mrs. Houser, taking her purse out of the file cabinet and walking to the door behind her students, annoyed that her lesson had once again been interrupted just when the students seemed at least mildly interested, noticed Katie’s notes; entire sentences shaded in different colors for no apparent reason. It looked intentional, not like doodling, and in fine black pen she had written odd phrases to the side: Whigs NOT BAD–ignore mean letters. Torries liked England. Ignore R and I.

It was Mrs. Houser who would eventually encourage Katie’s parents to have her tested, an experience they all resisted. Katie imagined sitting upright in a chair with electrical wires coming out of a band around her head, her hands tied down, while a  Dr. Doofenshmirtz-like scientist cackled nearby and planned the demise of the Tri-State area. Her parents worried about the results: what would it mean? Wasn’t Katie doing just fine, getting As and a few Bs? For the McDonalds, a few Bs and that one C were better than being someone who needed to be tested. Katie’s parents were people who succeeded, and they were positive she would be, too. She was simply a late-bloomer, a sheltered, only child. Testing was not necessary. She was sort of melancholy; slumped shoulders and mild panic in her blue-gray eyes, but wasn’t everyone like this in middle school? They chuckled when they talked about it; yes, everyone was like this in middle school.

But they acquiesced, at Mrs. Houser’s near insistence. Mrs. Houser had been a formidable woman. A tiny woman, but a woman to be reckoned with. She’d have made a good admiral or general, Katy’s father said. So they had her tested, and Katie’s diagnosis of “significantly above average IQ, presence of both graphemic and ordinal-linguistic personificatory synesthesia” was something of a relief, at least to Katie herself. It confirmed what she already knew: that other people do not see  letters as having personalities and colors. Letters and numbers are, apparently, generic things that simply come together to form words or equations, and most people think of them as no color at all, or black. And this: other people do not find contradiction when two letters or numbers who do not get along must sit side by side; an arrogant R next to a shy, worried U in the word rural, for example–it was always more difficult with adjectives, since the personalities of the letters interfered with the meaning of the word—and that other people do not panic when they are told to “color Indiana blue” on a map when Indiana is pale sage green in their mind.

Briefly, she was something of a celebrity.

The next year, back in the US, there was a faculty meeting at Macarthur Middle School with an entire agenda item called Synesthesia: understanding the needs of our students, and “our students” meant Katie McDonald. She was to be given extra time on tests, something that nearly eighty percent of the student body’s IEPs entitled them to for one reason or another anyway. Most teachers simply let every single student have as much time as they wanted, even letting them take the test home to finish if necessary. But Katie was also to be allowed to use her colored pencils at any time, and to have teachers re-word test questions if anything about the phrasing was difficult for Katie to understand. She was entitled to a private tutor in any class at the location of her choice, the use of a computer at any time (no reason was given but it seemed the right thing to do), and weekly sessions with a school guidance counselor. Their good intentions were, of course, humiliating; Katie politely declined every accommodation except the use of colored pencils. She liked the smooth, shiny cylinders of color, liked how they felt in her hand.

Occasionally, a graduate student or PhD candidate arrived from the University of Virginia, or John’s Hopkins, or, once, Madison Wisconsin, and asked to have Katie be part of a study. This  meant meeting with them during school hours, under supervision of the school counselor, to be asked questions. Katie readily complied if it meant getting out of a math test, and declined if it meant missing art, her favorite subject, or social studies or chorus, her favorite classes because her friends were in them. Katie went to regular public school for seventh and eighth grade, her father having received orders to the Pentagon, and they were apparently going to stay for four or possibly six years instead of two. She prayed for six: to live in one place for six years would be heaven. To not have to pack her belongings, leave her friends and adjust to a new place; it would be almost normal. And by then she’d be in college—impossible to think of—and to come home to a place that felt like home would be exquisite.

Katie’s main friends in middle school were Abby Gately, whom she’d known when they were living on base in San Diego and then again in Naples, because Abby’s father had been stationed there too, and an assortment of other girls. They were all nice, average girls who stuck together out of a tacit understanding that they shared a similar social status (average), values (don’t be too mean, don’t act like Heather Andrews, the head of the popular group, and don’t cheat on tests), and socio-economic status (white and middle class, their parents called it, but it was really very upper-middle class and they all knew it). They went to each other’s birthday parties and dutifully hosted sleepovers and called each other for homework help when needed, but none of them seemed to be best-friends-forever, soul-mate kind of friends, and they accepted this. It was particularly true for Katie, because she’d only just gotten there in the last part of seventh grade, and was used to having temporary friends.

The summer before high school, Abby Gately’s father got orders to Guam, and the school board voted in favor of a proposal that would divide the school zone yet again, splitting Katie’s neighborhood in a seemingly zigzag line for reasons having vaguely to do with racial equality and diversity. County test scores suggested the zoning needed to be fiddled with a bit to even things up. The proposal, passing,  mandated that the left side of the zigzag would attend Sandburg High, and the right side would attend West Jefferson. (There was no East Jefferson. No one knew why.) Katie not only lost Abby, but the rest of her friend pool was drastically reduced, so on her first day at West Jefferson High School, she had the clean-slate look of a girl who was available for friendship. She knew this, and knew that it was certain social suicide unless you happened to be beautiful and extroverted, like Cassidy Miller, or downright sexy  and mysteriously introverted, like Shea Moran, or very, very cute like Megan Becker. Or, if you had total confidence in your entitlement to popularity, like Heather Andrews. In Heather’s case, very expensive clothing and accessories helped.

Having none of these, Katie adopted a look of industrious seriousness, always walking around with a book she could instantly look at,  as if she had things on her mind other than high school or friends, unconsciously hoping this look would insulate her from perceived loneliness. Freshman year was spent in one long attempt to look busy. She sat at a lunch table with Beth Peterson and a few other kids from Macarthur Middle School, who clung together that first year, masking their fear of aloneness with casual indifference to each other.

In the second week of sophomore year, at lunch time at the club fair, Katie noticed a table with SPECTRUM CLUB written in big letters on the supply room paper they all called ‘butcher paper’ even though it wasn’t. She had been told, back at Macarthur Middle School, that her synesthesia placed her “on the spectrum of Autism,” though it did not mean that she was autistic. The Spectrum, it turned out (her parents researched it), is a very nebulous thing. And Katie didn’t immediately connect “spectrum club” with the word ‘spectrum’ in that context. Her decision to casually wander by the spectrum club table had more to do with the presence behind the table of a junior named Joss Silverman. Joss lived near Katie; she had often seen him rounding the corner in his BMW, as she had just this morning while waiting for the bus. Katie hated the bus. There was something demoralizing about standing in the heat or the cold with an assortment of freshmen and a few others: the skinny girl who wore all black and picked her nose, the angry-looking boy who wore one strand of his hair braided in the back in an homage to Obi-Wan Kenobi, the Salvadoran boy who carried an old battered brief case and would not speak. Her parents insisted she ride the bus freshman year so that she might make friends, and sent her out the door with a kiss on the cheek and the expectation that she do so. So Katie tried to be nice to the eclectic bunch standing grimly on the corner in the mornings, but it was impossible to make much headway, and she longed to go to school in a car. A heated, baby-blue BMW would be even better, and if it could be driven by a boy who looked like the one who drove that car, even better.

The first time she’d seen Joss driving, the year before, it occurred to Katie that a sophomore could not be driving himself to school in September unless he repeated a grade, and she mentally filed this away under “facts about Joss Silverman.” But it did nothing to diminish her fascination; Joss was beautiful. Startlingly, disarmingly beautiful. Green-flecked eyes with lashes any girl would kill for, a square jaw and perfect, never-needed-braces teeth, and the dark, shiny curls of a pop star. Now that Katie was a sophomore, he was a junior, but he looked about twenty, she thought. Maybe twenty-one.  He wore a tiny amulet of some kind on a leather string around his neck; whatever it was, it looked perfect on him, the way a hummingbird egg looks in a nest, or maybe a pearl in an oyster. Or maybe that would be gross and covered with slime, but still.

Katie had not known many boys growing up, only the sons of her parents’ friends, and Joss was a far cry from those boys. Those boys repulsed her when she was young, with their runny noses and crooked teeth, their wild laughter and their creepy songs about greasy, grimy gopher guts, their need for noise and mild violence when playing. Boys were awful, and their high school counterparts not much better. Katie knew that this was simply the genesis of males, that her own father and grandfather might have started out this way and outgrown it, but she had no frame of reference for a boy with some elegance, some class. A serious boy, whose t-shirt belied muscles underneath and had just a few hairs peeking out the neckline, which made her dizzy. So when she saw the owner of the blue BMW sitting at the “Spectrum Club” table at the activities fair, Katie casually walked by that table with what she hoped was a look of only mild interest, as if she had somewhere else to be and was only waiting. Killing time.

Joss Silverman glanced up at Katie from a worn copy of The Art of Cinematic Storytelling, and said, “Hey. Take a brochure if you want. You need to be seriously deranged to join, but we’ll consider your application,” and then he looked back down at his book. By “brochure” he meant a paper with Spectrum Club printed hastily at the top in Times New Roman–Katie had become something of an expert on fonts, and had disdain for the boring, default font of computers–and the description “We meet when we feel like it. Talk with your guidance counselor to find out if you qualify.” Nothing more.

Another, rougher voice piped in: “What my colleague means is, we’d love to have you, but you have to meet certain…qualifications. Which most people don’t. But feel free to join us if you’re able.” He smiled sheepishly and stuck out his hand.

It was an enormous junior named Wally Cooper, whom Katie knew by sight because his head stuck up about a foot above everyone else’s during passing period and she’d asked Beth Peterson, “Who’s that?” “Oh, that’s Wally Cooper,” Beth had said, as though she’d known him all her life. “Isn’t he huge? He’s like, an oaf.  But totally smart. Smartest guy in the school I bet.”

So Katie had some knowledge of Wally Cooper, and shook his hand with a smile that she hoped conveyed friendship and not pity. He wasn’t exactly fat, though you most certainly couldn’t say he was slim either; just wider and taller than anyone she knew, with a broad nose and an unfortunate case of acne on his cheeks and neck. She had never shaken a boy’s hand before, that she could recall. Wally was clearly being funny but the gesture still struck Katie as…mature. Suave, even. It spoke of a sophistication that this group must have, a cool sapience Katie hadn’t even known she was craving until this minute. She was so tired, suddenly, of girls who only talked about boys or bands or their hair, and boys whose idea of wit was fart jokes. Here was the beautiful Joss Silverman reading a book about film making, and the huge and brilliant Wally Cooper had used the word “colleague” and shaken her hand.

As it turned out, having a rare form of synesthesia was, indeed, “on the spectrum,” and when the club met during “activities period,” the un-inspired name given to the final hour of the day on Wednesdays, Katie went to the “guidance cluster” to see if the club of Joss Silverman and Wally Cooper was a real club. It had occurred to her that this was odd: a club dedicated to kids who…who what? Were autistic? Joss Silverman was sort of aloof, and had apparently possessed a driver’s license since tenth grade, but if he was autistic or had traits that were “on the spectrum” Katie couldn’t tell what they were. Of course, no one could tell hers, either, if they counted at all. And there was nothing autistic-seeming about Wally Cooper. It was a real club, albeit one of the more vague, purposeless ones. They weren’t putting together a yearbook or raising either money or awareness, because there was no need for money and all the members were well aware of why they were there, and didn’t particularly want others to be.  And it wasn’t a club whose main purpose was to check a box that said “well-rounded” on college applications, like debate or Model UN. This was a club you might want to leave off your college applications, which lent it some appeal for a girl who always followed the rules.

Besides the beautiful Joss, whose Tourette Syndrome may or may not have contributed to certain personality traits common in a boy his age (aloof unless particularly interested in something, prone to both sudden detachment and ‘over-focusing,’ fidgety), and the disarmingly nice Wally Cooper, there were two other old members, and two new, if Katie included herself. The old members were Dagny Brooks-Pierce, the sophomore star of both the music and theater departments, and Natasha Mori, whom Katie had never seen, or at least never noticed. Dagny had a mane of dark blond hair so thick, it really did remind Katie of a mane, and an alarmingly womanly figure for a fifteen-year-old. She seemed to be all hair and lips and boobs. That first day, Katie remembered, Dagny had been wearing a low-cut tank top and a tweed blazer, and…were those jodhpurs? It was an outfit that would have looked ridiculous on Katie but was perfection on Dagny Pierce-Brooks. Katie averted her gaze and looked helplessly at Natasha Mori, who regarded her back with cool hazel-orange eyes. Her eyes were Asian in shape, but almost literally orange, a color Katie had never seen in a human eye, and her long black hair and high cheekbones did not make Katie feel any better. There was beauty everywhere, and she nearly walked out, it was all so disconcerting. But then Joss Silverman walked in behind her, saying, “Well, look who came. Rainbow girl. The human color-wheel.” He’d been the one to read her “application,” such as it was, and the thought of Joss Silverman sitting alone somewhere–his room, maybe? A boy’s room with dark browns and pale grays, like in Pottery Barn Teen?–reading about her, made her neck flush. She stayed.

“Guys, this is Katie Something-or-other. She’s got this thing where she sees colors in letters, or numbers, or something. It’s legit. Katie, we welcome you,” Joss said with a little flourish, and then, as if he’d used all his word for the moment, he sat and bent over a notebook.

“Oh, my God. She’s adorable,” Dagny Brooks-Pierce said, flapping her hand almost spastically, motioning for Katie to sit by her on the file cabinet despite several empty chairs. Katie thought: adorable? There was a note of condescension in it. But then the immediate thought: oh, well, that’s pretty good. There was nothing else you could hope to be when up against this girl, whom Katie’s mother would call buxom, and about whom Katie’s father would only say, Yikes, or maybe she looks like trouble in a parental sort of way, and when up against this Natasha person, who looked like a princess from a far away land. ‘Adorable’ was going to have to be fine.

The other new member turned out to be Cullen Jones, who walked in with several binders, sat down heavily in a desk, and began to do what appeared to be homework from another planet. Katie noticed that his papers were covered in numbers, but with symbols and squiggles she had never seen before.

“Hey, Cullen. Going to join us this year, huh?” Wally Cooper said, and Cullen grunted in the affirmative. Everyone seemed to know him, and they smiled at him like indulgent parents.

“Cullen’s our resident math genius,” Wally said, obviously for Katie’s benefit. “I’d show you, but he doesn’t do parlor tricks.”

Cullen was a student of un-specific graduation year, because he’d arrived at West Jefferson High in fifth grade to take math courses, then continued on to college math courses in what should have been seventh grade, leaving a two year gap before he came back again as a freshman who essentially was in graduate school math. His lack of social skills and astounding mediocrity at any academic subject other than math and science prevented him from simply going to college at age fifteen, but the teachers and administrators at West Jefferson gave Cullen a wide berth. So advanced were his mathematical skills, (he’d been asked to co-author books on both string theory and quantum modular forms, and had been in Time Magazine’s ‘child prodigy’ issue), it seemed almost indecent to give him the label of “sophomore” or anything else. He was always just Cullen Jones. He, too, was beautiful, for lack of a better word. All the best physical traits of his handsome, blond father and his regal Kenyan mother had endowed Cullen with theoretical good-looks that were ethnically un-specific and very camera friendly, at least in Time. But Cullen seemed to be in a different world, and he was. He might be next to you, but far away and unresponsive. There was something about him that didn’t quite register; a failure to connect that even good looks couldn’t assuage, so the good looks were noticed and then forgotten.

So that was it. Three boys and three girls the year that Katie McDonald was a sophomore and Joss, Wally, and Natasha were juniors, and the next year, though no one knew why, they did not advertise their club in September. By then, it had become something almost sacred, though none of them would have called it that. They were just a group of friends who started as a club and became something else entirely. By then, they couldn’t really open it up to others. By then, they were, (literally, Dagny would have said as a joke, because people were always saying ‘literally’ when it wasn’t literal at all), carved in stone.

 

The Spectrum Club of West Jefferson High

One

The air conditioning vent was behind and above Dr. Berger’s head, so Katie could look at it instead of at the bearded school counselor who was looking at her too intently. Another bonus: there was a small piece of paper wedged between the metal bars of the vent, which flapped wildly when the air conditioner came on, making a comical whizzing sound, and then went limp when the air conditioner turned off. Dr. Berger didn’t seem to notice this, so Katie didn’t mention it, but she watched the little piece of paper when it did its spastic, solo dance. It was surprisingly entertaining. Outwardly, she pretended to listen, to care about what Dr. Berger was saying, her expression thoughtful one moment, earnest the next. She had perfected what she called her “session faces.” She ought to win an acting award, she thought, although nobody won acting awards for faking out their psychologist. A psychologist. She couldn’t bring herself to think of him as hers in any way.

He was asking her again about the colors, and if her difference was getting any easier to “assimilate,” and whether the teachers were accommodating her sufficiently. That was what he called it: her “difference,” something she possessed, like a ball or a cup you could hold in your hands. It must have been intentional; “different-ness” sounded more like a bag of bricks you’d drag around.

Katie knew that Dr. Berger’s use of big words and clinical language was intentional. He didn’t say, “Are you getting more used to your weird problem?” Or, “Are your teachers letting you have extra time and bring your colored pencils?” Instead he talked about assimilation, synthesizing information, and teachers accommodating her. It was both an affectation and an implicit challenge: understand me, he was saying, and of course she did, so perhaps he was complimenting her, too. But he was weird, with his little eyes, like a mouse, she thought, or, no, a gerbil. Dark brown eyes that looked brilliant and calculating one moment, lifeless and dim the next. The gerbil effect was  magnified by the bushy beard with the streak of white running through it. Katie imagined it was white paint, or milk, dried on the coarse, wiry hairs of his beard. Dr. Berger was a short, thick man who seemed to be lacking a neck, and when he sat down, his collar pushed into his cheeks. His jowls, Katie thought. He was not unkind to her, exactly, but he asked question after question, and then gave no reaction to her answer, except “Hmm-hmm.” He didn’t even write anything down, like a psychologist in a movie, he just sat with his small, thick hands folded as if in prayer, but with his fingers facing into his palms. It made Katie think of the little rhyme here is the church, here is the steeple, open it up, see all the people… She vaguely recalled liking that when she was very little. Or maybe she imagined she had. That moment, when you could drop your elbows and turn your fingers up to wiggle them, always a small surprise. Open it up, and they all run away. Only Dr. Berger never opened his hands, he just sat there until the period was up, which, in Katy’s case, was study hall.

The minute hand on the institutional clock jerked upwards with a loud, mechanical sound, followed by “the bell.” It was not a bell at all, but a sustained intercom beep, indicating that third period was over. Funny that someone, at some point, had decided to call it “the bell,” as if it were a pleasant sound, or as if it’s predecessor were a chime of steel on copper. But West Jefferson was a relatively new school, and there had never been an actual bell. Katie was already standing up when she saw Wally at the door, knocking with two knuckles and leaning in, which struck Katie as a terribly grown up gesture. Wally always came, ready to walk with her to lunch because they were going the same way anyway. She thought she saw, just for a moment, a shadow of disappointment cross Dr. Berger’s face as he said what he always, unfailingly said: “We’ll continue this next week.” Was it possible that he liked these sessions? Katie had no idea, and thinking about it was vaguely uncomfortable, so she slung her backpack over her shoulder and shot Wally a look, something between exasperated and grateful, and stepped out into the crowded hall.

Of the six members of the spectrum club of West Jefferson High School, Katie McDonald was, in her own opinion, the only one who was average. She was not beautiful, like Dagny and Natasha, and even Joss and Cullen. She was not ugly, like Wally, who could get away with his looks because he was brilliant and nice, and enormous. His un-handsomeness somehow suited him. She was not rich or named after somebody famous, and even her “difference,” which, last year, earned her an invitation to the spectrum club in the first place, did not set her apart. She could not instantly multiply several five digit numbers in her head, she was not a musical genius, a fabulous writer, an aspiring movie director, a famous mathematician, or an science prodigy. Katie McDonald’s “difference” did not give her slightly slurred speech or social problems, and it did not enable her to do anything at all. It simply got in her way.

Katie saw colors. All the time. In places where, she learned, others did not. Not in the air, or in objects that had their own color, but in words. Letters had their own color in Katie’s mind, and objects had a rightful color even when a particular object was not the correct color. A blue table remained a blue table, though table was a brown word in her mind, and a green ball was a green ball even if balls were red. It had proven particularly problematic in early elementary school, when students spent much of the day coloring and arranging things that were, in Katie’s mind, already colored. Katie had learned to read in preschool, with the help of her own picture books and a box of colored plastic magnet letters. Possibly these things forever printed her brain with what color things ought to be: it was true that BALL in One Hundred First Words! was red, and that CUP was blue, colors that Katie would forever associate with ball and cup. But she still had some of those plastic letters in a little box of toys from her early childhood; the H was yellow, which was correct for H, but the A was green, which was clearly incorrect.  In Katie’s mind, the letter A would always be red, B would forever be green, and C a pale goldenrod. Her plastic letters were not to blame for what would, years later, be diagnosed as severe synesthesia. Eventually, the guidance counselors would know that synesthesia affects one in every two-hundred-thirty-seven people, causing them to unintentionally assign colors and personalities to letters and inanimate objects. But in elementary school, they knew nothing.

In Kindergarten, on a naval base in Norfolk, Katie un-learned to read, so confusing was this world of wrong-colored letters. Mrs. Camden didn’t notice, since most of the other children could not read either, and only thought Katie showed a quiet, passive-aggressive streak when it came to coloring. But Mrs. Camden had twenty-seven five-year-olds in her care and only a part-time aide, so Katie’s difficulty with colors went largely unnoticed. In first grade, she had regained some of her reading ability, but she was in the low reading group and was so bored with Biscuit books that she stared out the window much of the time. Miss Gillespie, her earnest, newly accredited teacher, thought something was a bit “off,” and talked to Katie a few decibels louder than the other students but made no other real effort to help her. Second through fifth grade, in San Diego, were much the same. By then Katie could read well above grade level, though her scores on standardized tests were below average, and she was prone to near paralyzing panic in situations involving math homework, particularly fractions, or coloring maps.

It was Katie’s eighth grade English teacher, at a DOD school in Naples, Italy, who first noticed Katie’s “way of thinking,” as she called it. The class was called ILA there, not English, and there had been an assignment on Johnny Tremain. Katie’s notes were left on top of her desk when the students had to suddenly go outside for a fire drill. Taking her purse out of the file cabinet and walking to the door behind her students, annoyed that her lesson had once again been interrupted just when the students seemed at least mildly interested,  Mrs. Houser happened to notice Katie’s notes; entire sentences shaded in different colors for no apparent reason. It looked intentional, not like doodling, and in fine black pen she had written odd phrases to the side: “Whigs NOT BAD–ignore mean letters. Torries liked England. Ignore R and I.”

It was Mrs. Houser who would eventually encourage Katie’s parents to “have her tested,” an experience they all resisted. Katie imagined sitting upright in a chair with electrical wires coming out of a band around her head, her hands tied down, while a scientist like Dr. Doofenshmirtz cackled nearby and planned the demise of the planet. Her parents worried about the results: what would it mean? Wasn’t Katie doing just fine, getting As and a few Bs? A few Bs was better than being someone who needed to be tested. Katie’s parents were people who succeeded, and they were positive she would be, too. Testing was not necessary. She was sort of melancholy; slumped shoulders and mild panic in her blue eyes, but wasn’t everyone like this in middle school?

But they acquiesced, at Mrs. Houser’s near insistence, and Katie’s diagnosis of “significantly above average IQ, presence of both graphemic and ordinal-linguistic personificatory synesthesia” was something of a relief, at least to Katie herself. It confirmed what she already knew: that letters do not have personalities and colors to other people. Letters and numbers are, apparently, generic things that simply come together to form words or equations, and most people think of them as no color at all, or black. And this: other people do not find contradiction when two letters or numbers who do not get along must sit side by side, or when they are told to “color Indiana blue” when Indiana is pale gold. Not that it would be pale gold if you got on a plane and actually went there, but on a map. To Katie, the shape of Indiana is gold, not blue.

Briefly, she was something of a celebrity.

There was a faculty meeting at McArthur Middle School with an entire agenda item called Synesthesia: understanding the needs of our students, and “our students” meant Katie McDonald. She was to be given extra time on tests, something that nearly 80 percent of the student body’s IEPs entitled them to for one reason or another anyway. Most teachers simply let every single student have as much time as they wanted, even letting them take the test home to finish if necessary. But Katie was also to be allowed to use her colored pencils at any time, and to have teachers re-word test questions if anything about the phrasing was difficult for Katie to understand. She was entitled to a private tutor in any class at the location of her choice, the use of a computer at any time (no reason was given but it seemed the right thing to do), and weekly sessions with a school guidance counselor. Katie politely declined every accommodation except the use of colored pencils.

Later, when they had lived in Italy and California and finally moved back to Virginia, someone occasionally arrived from the University of Virginia, or John’s Hopkins, or, once, Madison Wisconsin, and asked to have Katie be part of a study. This  meant meeting with them during school hours, under supervision of the school counselor, to be asked questions. Katie readily complied if it meant getting out of a math test, and declined if it meant missing art, her favorite subject, or social studies or chorus, her favorite classes because her friends were in them. Katie went to regular public school for seventh and eighth grade, her father having received orders to the Pentagon, and they were apparently going to stay for four or possibly six years instead of two. She prayed for six: to live in one place for six years would be heaven. To not have to pack her belongings, leave her friends and adjust to a new place; it would be almost normal.

Katie’s main friends in middle school were Abby Gately, whom she’d actually known a little bit when they were living on base in Naples and Abby’s father had been stationed there too, and an assortment of other girls. They were all nice, average girls who stuck together out of a tacit understanding that they shared a similar social status (average), values (don’t be too mean, don’t act like Heather Andrews, the head of the popular group, and don’t cheat on tests), and socio-economic status (white and middle class, their parents called it, but it was really very upper-middle class and they all knew it). They went to each other’s birthday parties and dutifully hosted sleepovers and called each other for homework help when needed, but none of them seemed to be best-friends-forever, soul-mate kind of friends, and they accepted this. It was particularly true for Katie, because she’d only just gotten there in the last part of seventh grade, and was used to having temporary friends.

The summer before high school, Abby Gately’s father got orders to Guam, and the school board voted in favor of a proposal that would divide the school zone yet again, splitting Katie’s neighborhood in a seemingly zigzag line for reasons having vaguely to do with racial equality and diversity. County test scores suggested the zoning needed to be fiddled with a bit to even things up. The proposal, passing,  mandated that the left side of the zigzag would attend Sandburg High, and the right side would attend West Jefferson. (There was no East Jefferson. No one knew why.) Katie’s not only lost Abby, her best friend and the closest thing to a sister she had, but her friend pool was drastically reduced, so on her first day at West Jefferson High School, she had the clean-slate look of a girl who was available for friendship. This was certain social suicide unless you happened to be beautiful and extroverted, like Cassidy Miller, or downright sexy  and mysteriously introverted, like Shea Moran, or very, very cute like Megan Becker. Or, if you had total confidence in your entitlement to popularity, like Heather Andrews. In Heather’s case, very expensive clothing and accessories helped. Having none of these, Katie adopted a look of industrious seriousness, always walking around with a book she could instantly look at,  as if she had other things on her mind than high school or friends, unconsciously hoping this look would insulate her from perceived loneliness. Freshman year was spent in one long attempt to look busy. She sat at a lunch table with Beth Peterson and a few other kids from McArthur Middle School, who clung together that first year, masking their fear of aloneness with casual indifference to each other.

But sophomore year, in the second week of school at the club fair, Katie noticed a table with SPECTRUM CLUB written in big letters on the supply room paper they all called ‘butcher paper’ even though it wasn’t. She had been told, back at McArthur Middle School, that her synesthesia placed her “on the spectrum of Autism,” though it did not make her autistic, but Katie didn’t immediately connect “spectrum club” with the word ‘spectrum’ in that context. Her decision to casually wander by the spectrum club table had more to do with the presence behind the table of a junior named Joss Silverman. Joss lived near Katie; she had often seen him rounding the corner in his BMW, as she had just this morning while waiting for the bus. Katie hated the bus. There was something demoralizing about standing there in the heat or the cold with an assortment of freshmen and a few others: the skinny girl who wore all black and picked her nose, the angry-looking boy who wore his hair braided in the back in an homage to Obi-Wan Kenobi, the Salvadoran boy who carried an old battered brief case and would not speak. Katie tried to be nice to them all, but it was impossible to make much headway, and she longed to go to school in a car. A heated, baby-blue BMW would be even better, and it could be driven by a boy who looked like the one who drove that car, even better.

The first time she’d seen Joss driving, it occurred to Katie that a sophomore could not be driving himself to school unless he repeated a grade, and she mentally filed this away under “facts about Joss Silverman.” But it did nothing to diminish her fascination; Joss was beautiful. Startlingly, disarmingly beautiful. Green-flecked eyes with lashes any girl would kill for, a square jaw and perfect, never-needed-braces teeth, and the dark, shiny curls of a pop star. He was a junior now, but looked about twenty. He wore a tiny amulet of some kind on a leather string around his neck; whatever it was, it looked perfect on him, the way a hummingbird egg looks in a nest, or maybe a pearl in an oyster. Or maybe that would be gross and covered with slime, but still. Katie had not known many boys growing up, only the sons of her parents’ friends, and Joss was a far cry from those boys. They repulsed her, with their runny noses and crooked teeth, their wild laughter and their creepy songs about greasy, grimy gopher guts, sliced monkey meat and chopped parakeet. Boys were awful, and their high school counterparts not much better. Katie knew that this was simply the genesis of males, that her own father might have started out this way and outgrown it, but she had no frame of reference for a boy with some elegance, some class. So when she saw the owner of the blue BMW sitting at the “Spectrum Club” tale at the activities fair, Katie casually walked by that table with, she hoped, a look of only mild interest, as if she had somewhere else to be and was only waiting, killing time.

Joss Silverman glanced up at Katie from a worn copy of The Art of Cinematic Storytelling, and said, “Hey. Take a brochure if you want. You need to be seriously deranged to join, but we’ll consider your application,” and then he looked back down at his book. By “brochure” he meant a paper with “Spectrum Club” printed hastily at the top in Times New Roman–Katie had become something of an expert on fonts, and had disdain for the boring, default font of computers–and the description “We meet when we feel like it. Talk with your guidance counselor to find out if you qualify.” Nothing more.

Another, rougher voice piped in: “What my colleague means is, we’d love to have you, but you have to meet certain…qualifications. Which most people don’t. But feel free to join us if you’re able.” He smiled sheepishly and stuck out his hand.

It was an enormous junior named Wally Cooper, whom Katie knew by sight because his head stuck up about a foot above everyone else’s during passing period and she’d asked Beth Peterson, “Who’s that?” “Oh, that’s Wally Cooper,” Beth had said, as though she’d known him all her life. “Isn’t he huge? He’s like, an oaf.  But totally smart.”

So Katie had some knowledge of Wally Cooper, and shook his hand with a smile that she hoped conveyed friendship and not pity. He wasn’t exactly fat, though you most certainly couldn’t say he was slim either; just wider and taller than anyone she knew, with a broad nose and an unfortunate case of acne on his cheeks and neck. She had never shaken a boy’s hand before, that she could recall. Wally was clearly being funny but the gesture still struck Katie as…mature. Suave, even. It spoke of a sophistication that this group must have, a cool sapience Katie hadn’t even known she was craving until this minute. She was so tired, suddenly, of girls who only talked about boys or their hair, and boys whose idea of wit was fart jokes. Here was the beautiful Joss Silverman reading a book about movie making or something, and the huge and brilliant Wally Cooper had used the word “colleague” and shaken her hand.

As it turned out, having a rare form of synesthesia was, indeed, “on the spectrum,” and when the club met during “activities period,” the un-inspired name given to the final hour of the day on Wednesdays, Katie went to the “guidance cluster” to see if the club of Joss Silverman and Wally Cooper was a real club. It had occurred to her that this was odd: a club dedicated to kids who…who what? Were autistic? Joss Silverman was sort of aloof, and apparently had a driver’s license since tenth grade, but if he had traits that were “on the spectrum” Katie couldn’t tell what they were. Of course, no one could tell hers, either, if it counted at all. And there was nothing autistic-seeming about Wally Cooper. It was a real club, albeit one of the more vague, purposeless ones. They weren’t putting together a yearbook or raising either money or awareness, because there was no need for money and all the members were well aware of why they were there, and didn’t particularly want others to be.

Besides the beautiful Joss, whose Tourettes Syndrome may or may not have contributed to certain personality traits common in a boy his age, (aloof unless particularly interested in something, prone to both sudden detachment and ‘over-focusing,’ fidgety), and the disarmingly nice Wally Cooper, there were two other old members, and two new, if Katie included herself. The old members were Dagny Brooks-Pierce, the sophomore star of both the music and theater departments, and Natasha Mori, whom Katie had never seen. Dagny had a mane of dark blond hair so thick, it really did remind Katie of a mane, and an alarmingly womanly figure for a fifteen-year-old. She seemed to be all hair and lips and boobs. That first day, she’d been wearing a low-cut tank top and a tweed blazer, and…were those jodhpurs? It was an outfit that would have looked ridiculous on Katie but was perfection on Dagny Pierce-Brooks. Katie averted her gaze and looked helplessly at Natasha Mori, who regarded her back with cool orange eyes. Her eyes were Asian in shape, but almost literally orange, a color Katie had never seen in a human eye, and her long black hair and high cheekbones did not make Katie feel any better. There was beauty everywhere, and she nearly walked out, it was all so disconcerting. But then Joss Silverman walked in behind her, saying, “Well, look who came. Rainbow girl. The human color-wheel.” He’d been the one to read her “application,” such as it was, and the thought of Joss Silverman sitting alone somewhere–his room, maybe?–reading about her, made her neck flush. She stayed.

“Guys, this is Katie Something-or-other. She’s got this thing where she sees colors in letters, or numbers, or something. It’s legit. Katie, we welcome you,” Joss said with a little flourish, and then, as if he’d used all his word for the moment, he sat and bent over a notebook.

“Oh, my God. She’s adorable,” Dagny Pierce-Brooks said, flapping her hand almost spastically, motioning for Katie to sit by her on the file cabinet despite several empty chairs. Katie thought: adorable? There was a note of condescension in it. But then the immediate thought: oh, well, that’s pretty good. There was nothing else you could hope to be when up against this girl, whom Katie’s mother would call buxom, and about whom Katie’s father would only say, Yikes in a parental sort of way, and when up against this Natasha person, who looked like a princess from a far away land. ‘Adorable’ was going to have to be fine.

The other new member turned out to be Cullen Jones, who walked in with several binders, sat down heavily in a desk, and began to do what appeared to be homework from another planet. Katie noticed that his papers were covered in numbers, but with symbols and squiggles she had never seen before.

“Hey, Cullen. Going to join us this year, huh?” Wally Cooper said, and Cullen grunted in the affirmative. Everyone seemed to know him, and they smiled at him, like indulgent parents.

“Cullen’s our resident math genius,” Wally said, obviously for Katie’s benefit. “I’d show you, but he doesn’t do parlor tricks.” Cullen was a student of un-specific graduation year, because he’d arrived at West Jefferson High in fifth grade to take math courses, then continued on to college math courses in what should have been seventh grade. His lack of social skills and astounding mediocrity at any academic subject other than math prevented him from simply going to college at age fifteen, but the teachers and administrators at West Jefferson gave Cullen a wide berth. So advanced were his mathematical skills, (he’d been asked to co-author books on both string theory and quantum modular forms, and had been in Time Magazine’s ‘child prodigy’ issue), it seemed almost indecent to give him the label of “sophomore” or anything else. He was always just Cullen Jones. He, too, was beautiful, for lack of a better word. All the best physical traits of his handsome, Scandinavian father and his graceful, Kenyan mother had endowed Cullen with theoretical good-looks that were very camera friendly, at least in Time. But Cullen seemed to be in a different world, and he was. He might be next to you, but far away and unresponsive, so the good looks were noticed and then forgotten.

So that was it. Three boys and three girls the year that Katie McDonald was a sophomore and Joss, Wally, and Dagny were juniors, and the next year, though no one knew why, they did not advertise their club in September. By then, it had become something almost sacred, though none of them would have called it that. They were just a group of friends who started as a club and became something else entirely. By then, they couldn’t really open it up to others. By then, they were, (literally, Dagny would have said as a joke, because people were always saying ‘literal’ when it wasn’t literal at all, and they enjoyed light, disdainful mocking of their peers), carved in stone.

 

Swim

I started this manuscript when I was twenty-two, living alone in a teeny efficiency apartment and teaching high school. Trying to be a grown up. It was really just a kernel of a young-adult novel until over a decade later, when I really was a grown up, and had known what it is to lose someone and then–because what choice do you have?– move on. This novel is so full of personal references that those of you who know me might find it comical. But Elsie is not me, she is completely fictional, and the ending may surprise you. The prologue and first chapter are below–still hoping to get this one published so that’s all I’ve put here–and though it may seem melancholy at first, I think the story, on the whole, is funny, and real, and redemptive. A grown man I know who shall remain nameless and doesn’t even like fiction read the whole thing and told me the ending made him cry. In a good way. Biggest compliment I ever got.

It was just a neighborhood swimming pool with a chain link fence surrounding it, and a vending machine that was always out of everything but ancient Now ’n’ Laters. There was an aging deep-freezer that the owner filled with ice pops that he bought for twelve cents a piece and sold for fifty, and a plastic recipe card box at the sign-in desk where a sullen teenager was supposed to look up each member’s card by last name and make a check mark. To call it a “country club” or, as it said on the sign, “Wessex County Swimming and Diving Club” was like calling a Chihuahua “Spike” or “Goliath.” Whoever named it must have gone in to real estate, a profession where you are supposed to take a little rectangle house with crumbling bricks and call it a “gorgeous all-brick colonial.” Everyone called it “the club.” The grown-ups must have understood that originally it was a joke. The kids just called it ‘the club’ because the grown-ups did.
When I was six I was dared to jump off of the high dive at the club on a summer day when everyone was out of popsicle money and ideas. It was in the deep end of the pool and had a big sign that read Children Under Fifteen Not Permitted. The sign was occasionally ignored because we all understood the age requirement to be arbitrary. We knew thirteen and fourteen-year- olds who had jumped off, but never in the history of the pool had a six year old done it. I had been dared by Libby Parker, a twelve-year-old who had it in for me; I don’t remember why. That is one of the mysteries of childhood: what your brain chooses to remember, and how your brain chooses to remember. In my memory, Libby Parker was big and mean and hated me, so she dared me to jump off a diving board that was fifty feet up in the air. It was probably only fifteen feet, and Libby Parker probably felt nothing for me but vague superiority, because she was older. People talked about that dare for years, and in the story, I was the victim and the hero. I was only six, and small. No one expected me to actually do it, and nobody liked Libby Parker much.
The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to jump. It had been a boring summer; I was restless and I wanted, suddenly and with all my heart, to do something big. Something important. So I watched the lifeguard, and waited for her to run her fingers through her hair. This was a sure sign that one of the boy lifeguards was about to walk by and she wouldn’t be paying attention to the pool. I climbed the long ladder to the high dive. By the time the lifeguard noticed me, and began pointing and blowing her whistle, I was at the top. I watched her adjust her swimming suit and hair as she started my way, and I remember thinking that even now, when I was about to do something dangerous and against the rules, even now she was taking time to adjust her swimming suit and hair so she would look good. Maybe most six-year-olds would not notice this, but I did, and it made me mad. It gave me disdain for her; she did not care enough about my safety. Which gave me courage. So I jumped, arms crossed and feet down, because that’s how divers did it on Oceans: Creatures of the Deep; either backwards, off the side of their boat, or arms crossed and feet first.
I don’t remember much about the fall, but I remember the sound of the smack of my own body, and the climb upward through the water, silent and graceful and other-worldly, into life. I wanted to do it again. I wanted to feel the power I had over my circumstances. I wanted to feel like I could control something. Even then, at age six. Almost like I was preparing myself for some unknown struggle, like the sand turtles on Animal Kingdom who start running for the ocean as soon as they hatch, practicing the turtle-marathon they will determine whether they live or die. I was practicing, for something more than swimming, or swimming on a team. Something that might save my life.
I like being prepared. But I have learned that you can’t control anything. The best you can do is put your limbs down and your head up, and let the water take you. 

Chapter 1: Macaroni Necklaces

By the time I was ten I had made a vow: if I ever have a kid, I will give him or her a normal name. Even a boring name. I will not name my child after me: Elspeth, the most awkward name I have heard to date, other than joke-names. (My aunt went to high school with a girl named Crystal Leer, and it was rumored that her middle name was Chanda.)
I wouldn’t mind keeping my last name: Robertson. It’s a good last name. It’s a Scottish clan name. My dad is completely American, and even his grandparents were born here, but he is so proud of his Scottish heritage that he saddled his baby girl with an ugly Scottish name. The Robertson clan, he has told us and everyone else, is the “oldest remaining branch of the house of Atholl, which occupied the throne of Scotland in the 11th and 12th centuries.” He jokes that he is actually a forgotten king, and I am a princess, and that somewhere in the Scottish highlands, there is a castle, and it is ours; all we have to do is claim it. It evokes vague memories of every princess novel I ever read when I was twelve; every story about an orphan girl who is actually the daughter of royalty, or a royal daughter who longs to be penniless but free.
Elsepth is the Celtic version of Elizabeth, but spelled and pronounced with as little charm as possible. On the first day of school every year, on every team and at every camp or summer class I’ve ever taken, I am the kid who has the weird name.
People assume the spelling is a mistake; that Elspeth is not actually a name. Or that it is an old lady name. An old lady who plays bingo and has gray hair in tight curls.  Or the name of one of the witches in Macbeth, who watches the boiling pot and warns about toil and trouble.
My nickname, Ellie, is all right. People assume it is short for Eleanor, which is certainly not my dream name, but it’s better than Elspeth.  I’d love to have a name like Rachel or Alexis or even Elizabeth, spelled normally. My parents felt that my name had character, a quality of utmost importance to them. I may wind up in therapy for having such a weird name, but I’ll have character. My brother, Danny, did better in the name department. There is a Scottish version of Daniel, too, but for some reason they chose the Anglo-Saxon one. My parents had this idea that a strong woman, a woman of substance and character, needed and deserved a strong name. And by ‘strong’ they meant God-awful, apparently.
Daniel is a normal, solid name. Even cool. And Danny himself was cool, mainly because he did not try to be. My memory of him is blurry. He died when I was seven; almost a decade ago. He was ten; he had been at a birthday party, and was being driven home from a sports center by the uncle of the kid whose birthday it was. This is all I know, because this is all the information a seven-year-old is given: there was a terrible accident. It was not the uncle’s fault. It was a tractor-trailer that got out of control, because the driver had been driving for two days straight and was sleepy. Danny died right away; he did not feel any pain and he was not scared. This is what they told me. I have now been alive over two years longer without him than I was with him, and I have never asked to know more. They did not say how they knew he did not feel any pain. Sometimes I allow my mind to go there; to wonder if he really did feel pain, for a second or two. Or if he knew he was going to die and if he thought “oh, bummer, I had a soccer game tomorrow” or “Ellie will sure be sad.” They did not say what he thought when he saw that truck coming at them because of course nobody would ever know. And they did not say “he never got to say good-bye” because it was so obvious.
When I was five or six and he was eight or nine, I used to try to dislike my brother occasionally. I just felt I should dislike him, at least sometimes, because I perceived that other girls do not like brothers. My friends at the time hated their brothers, or at least disliked them enough to be able to roll their eyes and say, “I hate my brother” with venom I could never muster. Crissy Matthews’ brother called her ‘butt-face’ and broke her model of the Eiffel Tower, and broke the lock on her diary to read it. Tori Peterson’s brother ignored her, played video games all day, and would never even look her in the eye, much less talk to her. It made me feel sorry for her, even though she had a T.V. in her room and a doll called ‘Little Cathy Cut n; Curl.’ I was too old for dolls, but Little Cathy had hair that actually grew; you turned a crank on her back and the hair came out of the top, and you could give her hair cuts until the hair was gone, and then buy re-fills. I wanted that doll so badly that I dreampt up elaborate fantasies wherein I found the doll at a garage sale, brand new, for only a dollar, so my mom caved in and bought her for me.  My mom was known to do rash things at garage sales and I knew it. Not that spending a dollar is rash, but I thought it was when I was five.
I remember being five; what it was like and what I wished for and what I thought. People say you can’t remember much about being this young, but I do. It is my gift. Some people are born to solve math problems; I have a killer memory.
Tori Peterson, a neighbor I sometimes played with who was already precocious  also had her own pair of white, leather ankle boots with fringe around the tops. I would have given up birthday presents and Christmas presents for a year if I could have just had boots like that. I didn’t even bother asking, because my parents were the type of people to buy one pair of sensible brown school shoes, and black Mary-Janes for dressing up. Tori Peterson had everything she wanted, but I felt luckier than her in one way: her brother wouldn’t even look at her. She hid his Gameboy once, just to get him to pay attention to her. He screamed at her with a rage that even I knew was disproportionate to the crime.
I knew I could not muster hate for my brother—hate was a sin that could send you to Hell forever, or at least to Purgatory, where you would float around in nothingness. So I tried occasionally just to dislike Danny. It was impossible. He was likeable. He enlisted me as his helper in building forts out of chairs and pillows; he invented games with the sugar packets on the table when we were waiting for our food at a restaurant. He created comic strips about a potato/knight he called “Sir Spud.”  He told fabulous jokes at dinner, from books he would get at the library or make up. Jokes that even made my parents laugh. He would walk into the kitchen, get an apple, and grab my arms or my mom’s and do a little dance with one of us for a minute, and then bite the apple and walk out. He was always smiling.

Here is my main memory of Danny; the one I play in my head sometimes like a movie you watch over and over when you are bored: it is Halloween, I am five and I have come home from school crying because I didn’t win a best-costume ribbon in the contest at school. I am a pirate and Danny is an astronaut. I wanted to be “Mickey and Clyde” with him. They are puppets on a popular show for kids. But Danny said, nicely, they were babyish and he wouldn’t be Mickey or Clyde, because he was going to be an astronaut. So I am a pirate and my mother has made me an outfit using old corduroys and different colored socks, bandannas and an eye patch. It is wonderful, until the teacher says Well, what have we here? A little girl Pirate?  I hadn’t thought about being a “‘little girl pirate”, I only wanted to be a pirate. I answer yes… and Mrs. Randolph says You have no hat! All pirates have hats.  Why don’t you go to the craft corner and see if you can make yourself a hat with some construction paper?  I know suddenly that she is trying to keep my busy in the craft corner during “centers time” so she can focus on some other, needier kid. I have grown up all at once: I see that my teacher is trying to get rid of me, because I am an easy child and not a difficult one, and I do not want a hat, and I do not know how to make one, and I know that I will not win the contest.
Later, at home, Danny is wearing a second place ribbon for his astronaut costume, which he’d made himself with a white ski suit and a football helmet and tinfoil because my mom wouldn’t let him wear a fishbowl on his head. He sees that I am upset: Oh, well, he says, the fourth grade had their contest first, and since I won, they couldn’t let you win for the first grade.  They have this rule about not letting kids from the same families both win, because they say it…wouldn’t be fair.  My dumb teacher just forgot to wait for the kindergarten contest, or you would have won and not me.  You would have at least gotten second, because your costume is one of the best in the school. Everyone said so.  Next year I’ll just make sure your class goes before mine…
He is the savior of my pride and my five-year-old ego. Of course there never was a rule about kids from the same families. It was the only kind of lie he ever told. We stayed up eating our loot and watching It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown! My parents have always been nostalgic about the little bald kid in the zig-zag shirt and the rest of the “peanuts gang.” I am not sure why; he is an odd, sad kid, but the Halloween episode is good, and it turned out to be a perfect Halloween.
We moved away fromColorado; away from mountains and pine trees, where you can see the tops of snow covered mountains, where the sky is turquoise, and even the dirt smells good. We moved to a “gorgeous all brick colonial” inVirginia, where my dad could be the lawyer for a very big company that makes missiles.  All big companies have some lawyers to advise them, research issues, and things like that.  He used to be the kind of lawyer who stands in a courtroom and defends people, but he stopped after Danny died. He said he just didn’t have the fire in him anymore. It is a nice house, and the brick was only crumbling a little.
Northern Virginia is not even the pretty part of Virginia. There are no mountains, the heat in the summer makes you feel like you’re going to pass out, and nobody wears cowboy boots unless it is some sort of weird fashion statement. Here, in fact, cowboy boots on a girl look trashy: the remake of Footloose gone wrong. There are plenty of horses in Virginia, but no cowboys. The people who ride horses in Virginia wear English riding boots and blazers, like artwork that involves hunting dogs. Their horses have names that are not names but several words: ‘Fog on the Hillside’ or something. I wonder: do they call the horse by this name when they feed it? Hey there, Fog- On-the Hillside. That’s a good girl…
       There are mountains in Virginia, too, but they are just pretty, rolling hills: nothing tall and jagged and snow-capped.
The only good thing about moving was being nearer to my aunt Catherine. Aunt Catherine lives Maryland, so close to the part of Virginia we live in that you can be there in forty minutes. She is like a character in a book: the funny, loving, wise-cracking aunt that I admire so much I can sort of feel it in my chest. Everyone admires Aunt Catherine. She is a food critic for Washingtonian magazine: she goes to restaurants and gets served the very best things on the menu and then writes about them for the magazine. The chefs and managers and owners of the restaurants are terrified of her, although my parents said she is never cruel in her reviews. But she is honest. And if the food is bad, or even so-so, she will say so in a way that is blunt and eloquent. So eloquent it is painful. Once she described her main course as “a tiny lamb chop, so underdone I felt compelled to revive it, served vertically on a bed of gluey polenta, all tiny enough to feed a small family of fairies, or possibly provide them shelter.”
It made her famous. Small portions went out of style, and were referred to as “fairy food” by some chefs. Serving food vertically went out of style, too. At least that’s what my dad told me. But that was a decade ago. Now small portions are back in, especially if you can serve several of them and call them tappas, and charge more.
Aunt Catherine has fiery red hair, always worn up, and freckles across her nose even though she is fifty. She is prone to wearing those huge scarf things wrapped around her shoulders and arms, old-lady-diva style, but somehow she is sort of sexy. I don’t get it, but I adore her. She is a little bit famous in some circles; being the niece of Catherine Robertson-Doyle is fun at restaurants, even though nobody my own age knows who she is.
Moving nearer to Aunt Catherine was a good thing. She and my uncle Leo show up at my birthday dinners and on holidays and sometimes for no reason at all. Leo is a grizzled old man who is somehow handsome anyway. He wears cashmere sweaters and two-tone shoes, and has written five books on military history. He was friends with Perry Como, an old singer who isn’t even alive any more. But this was the only good thing about moving. We suddenly lived near the two people who make everything fun, relaxed and normal.
The main thing I remember my mom saying over and over about our new house when we first moved to Virginia was The floors! The floors! What beautiful floors! Like she’d been waiting her whole life to have floors like this. Hard wood floors, in a dark honey color. They are actually called “hard wood,” as if some people have soft wood floors. She loved those floors and all I could think was they are just floors, and I hate it here, and I want my brother back and my life back. But to them it was a pretty house, with a nice fireplace and new windows (another thing adults love in a house) and a two car garage. The kitchen sink is big and white; it is called a farmhouse sink, and my mother loves it like nobody ought to love a sink.
The house also has “Williamsburg blue” shutters on the windows; they are somewhere between blue and gray, exactly like the sky in Northern Virginia. Flat, with no depth. But to my parents, it was a perfect house, a house where we could have a wonderful life and heal. At least, that’s what they told me in the days surrounding our move “out east.” When we got here, some people called it “the South,” because it is Virginia, and some people called it “Washington” because we are near D.C. People who live around Richmond, the really Southern part where everyone has an accent and a truck, call it “Northern Virginia,” because to them it is the North: it might was well be Boston. I never got used to living in a place with so many different identities. It might as well be nowhere.
I have gotten used to the house and the boring shutters. When I was ten, we painted my room  the exact shade of blue that I love; the color was called “periwinkle dreams.” It’s funny, like Fog-On-The-Hillside, but a great color. The yard is beautiful, with a little garden in the back that my dad works on in every season but winter, and a rose garden in the front that my mom loves. The neighbors are even nice: an old couple, the deRosas, who take a walk every single night holding hands, and a military family with twin boys who are about twelve by now—the kind of boys who fight like crazy, pounding each other with their fists and shoving each other every second but then straightening up and calling their parents “Sir” and “Ma’am.” They play basketball in their driveway every minute and you get the feeling that even though they fight, they will be good friends their whole lives.
Then there are the Millers, a couple in their early thirties with a little girl named Audrey. I’ve been baby-sitting for Audrey since she was a baby and I was twelve; her mom, Jennifer, started letting me “watch the baby” while she was home, watching me so carefully it made me get nervous headaches. She paid me, but acted like she was doing me a favor, letting me watch her baby so she could “get something done.” Jennifer is nice, but a control freak who worried every single second about what Audrey was doing: was that toy safe? Was Audrey hungry and was it an okay time to feed her? Was that little outfit she was wearing made of organic cotton? Was she sleepy or cranky or off  schedule? She always seemed to think I would feed Audrey glue, or let her fall asleep face down on a pillow or something.
Audrey is five now and I love her, despite her mom. She is smarter than I think other five-year-olds must be, with light brown hair cut short, and big blue eyes. She likes to make “pixie houses” out of leaves and grass and loves to play games, and knows not to tell her mom if I happen to let her eat something with corn syrup in it when I am baby-sitting. She draws me little pictures for Christmas and my birthday.
We did get better, my parents and I. We healed, all of us, or healed enough to laugh and to act normal and be normal on the surface. But having someone in your family die leaves you with a big fat scar, just as if you had an operation. Or an amputation. Only the scar is invisible. It doesn’t hurt anymore after a while, but it is there.
Every now and then, something will happen that reminds me of macaroni necklaces. What I mean is this: when Danny was little, he went to day camp in the summer; some sort of nature camp. They went on hikes and did crafts and basically waited until it was time for their parents to pick them up. Most of the moms put their kids in there because both parents had to work. Our mom put Danny in there because she thought he would like it. She was always doing things like that.
There was one year where I was old enough for the camp and Danny wasn’t too old yet, and we did it together. We were in different groups, because we were different ages, but sometimes the groups would overlap at an activity and one time Danny and I had craft time together, and the craft was making necklaces out of yarn and raw macaroni, painted and strung onto the yarn.
It was boring. It was pointless, because only the very youngest kids were going to actually wear their macaroni necklace for more than about an hour. I was in the youngest group and even I didn’t really like it. But Danny came up to me because the bigger kids were supposed to help, and he told me this way of doing the necklace where you think of something exciting for red, something annoying for blue, something funny for yellow and something mysterious for green, or something like that. He made it really fun. For his first example for an annoying thing, he whispered “Blue: making necklaces out of macaroni at a nature camp. There is no macaroni in nature. Green: the mysterious smell coming from that guy’s shoes…” He was always thinking of smart, older-kid things like that. It made me giggle and it made me proud to be in on his joke. I actually kept my necklace from that year, and I still have it.
Danny outgrew the camp, and a couple of years later he died. Then we moved. And a year or two later, my mom signed me up for a camp in the summer; a different camp in a different state, years later. The first day, there is some kind of craft time and the counselor takes out a piece of yarn and the macaroni and starts to tell us how to paint it and let it dry and string it on the yarn, and what fun it will be. Just when I think everything is starting to get better. Suddenly I want to just curl up in a ball right there under that picnic table and go to sleep.

It has been almost ten years now. But I still have moments like that.

Cardenio and the Warbler

This little story started in a park in 2010. I was watching my kids play, I was warm in the sun and a little bored, and I had a notebook with me. The evening before, my husband had made a reference to Shakespeare’s “lost plays,” and I didn’t know what he was talking about. I should mention here that my husband is the creator of Open Source Shakespeare, and in the years he has been maintaining it, we have both learned a lot. I had a Master’s in English and had even lived in England, studying Shakespeare in London, but I’d never heard of the lost plays. He’d told me about how Shakespeare may have written a couple plays that have disappeared, and I was fascinated.

In the park the next day, I was still thinking about it, the way that you watch a really good, complicated movie and then think about it for a few days. A story line came to me about four kids who find something that may be a piece of one of these lost plays.  Before we left the park, I’d scribbled down the characters’ names and rough plot line in my little spiral, and the rest is history. The first chapter, in the voice of the oldest sibling, Kolbe, is here. If you like what you read, buy the book on Amazon.com!

Chapter 1

Kolbe

 The sun comes through my window at about six-thirty most days, and sneaks through the space where the window shade doesn’t lay flat against the window. Even on cloudy days, some light comes in and lands on my face, or makes a stripe across the bed sheets. Sometimes it’s a bright ray, with those little dust dots floating in it. Sometimes, I can tell it’s morning only because there is a change in the color of the light seeping into the room; from near-black to grayish blue. And then: gold. Pale, warm gold, like honey on a plate.  It’s my favorite way to wake up. I’d rather wake up a little early to the light coming in than wake up to an alarm, or somebody coming in to shake me.

I’ll lay there for a while, thinking of almost nothing. I can hear Mom telling the others be quiet, Kolbe needs his sleep, like I’m sick. I’m not sick. I needed my sleep more when I was playing lacrosse or basketball, practicing for three hours every day and tired all the time. I don’t know why I need my sleep now, but when she says that, they all hush up. Even Maggie. At least for a few minutes Maggs will be quiet, until she wants Eli to play dolls with her. Then I’ll hear her whining Eeeeeee-liiiiiieee! Come ON! Or she’ll say his whole name in her grown up voice, trying to sound like Mom or Dad: Elijah Harris, you SAID you’d play dolls with me! Then I usually get up and go down there. They all still act weird around me, too. Like I’m a guest, or like I’m famous or something. They all focus on me too much. If Rachel gets a glass of water or a snack, no one notices, but if I do it, everyone watches and Mom will say something like getting a snack, Sweetie? Oh that’s good…

I still have homework, even though it’s summer. That’s how the teachers decided I’d be allowed to graduate from tenth grade and move on to eleventh, even though I missed almost two months of school; they gave me a bunch of lame homework. It’s all busy work—like work sheets with algebra problems we did in early February, or questions from the history book from the chapter on “Reconstruction.” Mr. Harper gave me the study questions from the end of the book, with an answer key. They’re all going easy on me; It’s so obvious. I guess I should be grateful but it just makes me feel pathetic. It’s my foot that got crushed, not my frontal lobe. Jeez. But I guess it’s better than if the homework were really hard.

Today I went downstairs and for once, nobody said a fake-cheerful good-morning! because today they were arguing about something. It was the good kind of arguing, more like excited discussing. Mom only looked up and smiled at me, interrupting Dad long enough to tell me there’s two fried eggs for you in the pan, still warm, if you want them.

Dad was saying I don’t think I can leave that soon and Mom said just meet us there and Dad said it might make sense to have two cars there, in case one of them needed to drive back, and Mom said it would be nicer if we all went in one car. She said if we’re really going to do this thing, we should do it right and something about how we need to commit to at least six weeks.

I stood there with my eggs, and I was about to interrupt, to say what are we even talking about here? Instead Rachel interrupted. Wait! She said, and they both got quiet because that’s what we always do for Rachel, since she was little and couldn’t talk very well. What, Honey? Mom said, trying to be patient, and Rachel said the piano there isn’t any good, and Mom said we can have it tuned, and that’s when I knew where they meant we might be going for six weeks: my Granddad’s house on Tilghman Island. It’s not an island like in the Bahamas or the Caribbean; palm trees and coconuts and miles of sand. It’s a little piece of the Eastern shore of Maryland, with scrubby little bushes and rocky, narrow beaches. The kind of beach where you can’t walk barefoot or you’ll need a first- aid kit; the kind of beach where blue herons stand for hours in the brushes because nobody is there to scare them away. The whole island is…beige. And gray. Like a black and white picture. It’s the kind of place a person would go to disappear.

Tilghman Island is also only three hours away, but we’ve never gone for the whole summer because of  sports, Rachel’s piano lessons, and Dad’s work. Now my parents seemed to be seriously talking about staying away all summer and all of a sudden I didn’t want to go. I don’t even know why. I knew in a split second that if I’d thought of it, it might have seemed like a good idea, but here they were, all talking about it without me, like it didn’t matter what I thought. But I also knew, in that same split second, that we were going anyway. They would say it matters what I think, but it doesn’t.  I am the patient now; this all somehow for me, and, like a sick patient, they think I don’t know what’s best for me. So I didn’t just lose my foot, I lost my right to an opinion, too. So I just poured some cereal and went up to my room with it and slammed the door.

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