Song of the Silvertongue 1
The man leaned against the Plexiglas, trying to get a better look at the infants within. Blue and pink construction paper storks adorned the large viewing window with baby names written on them in sharpie. "Welcome to the world ________," they read. Redundant, since the names were also on the plastic bassinets, and on the little tags round their wrists. Did the humans worry that the infant might forget, seeing as they had been on the planet such a short period of time?
The paper blocking his view didn't please him. He pulled off some of the storks and dropped them on the ground in order to get a better look inside.
"Aren't they all so adorable?" the old woman next to him said, cooing at a baby. He did not agree. There was a freshness of life, a charm to all of them, true. But even at this age, differences were developing. One child in the front, for example, had protuberant ears that some may find appealing but he, personally, did not. He never chose forms with those stick-out ears. They did not seem streamlined. Another had a squished red face, and an expression that suggested a perpetually irritable temperament. That child's parents were not going to have an easy time of it.
"Come to witness my failure for yourself?" A new woman appeared at his shoulder, her voice soft and deceptively sweet. The scrubs she wore, the face mask around her neck, the white lab coat all gave her the appearance of being a doctor. The ID tag hanging from the pocket even read, "Dr. Engle." But a closer look would reveal that the ID tag didn't even belong to this hospital, but a St. Mary's in Chicago. And anyone who thought to look her up wouldn't find Dr. Engle on the duty roster. But no one would ever think to look her up, of course.
The man took a step back from the doctor, turning his full attention to her. She ignored him in favor of the infants inside the viewing room.
"They make it look easy, this procreation. The stupidest among them can complete the act," she said. "Even you can do it. But mine? Mine comes out with lungs 'not yet fully formed.'"
"The mother?" he asked.
"Bled out, as usual." She waved her hand dismissively. "Dead like the rest. Two more weeks. She couldn't last two more weeks. Pathetic."
Within his limited capacity, he felt sympathy for her. While he wouldn't mourn her bad luck, he could regret the necessity of it. Just as he regretted the necessity of what he would have to do had the child survived.
"I'm sorry," he said.
"You will be. Turnabout's fair play and all that. I hear your newest shows a great deal of promise." Her bland smile masked the threat.
He acted quickly, reflexively, the way all parents react when their child is threatened. Grabbing the doctor, he slammed her against the window, lifting her up, pinning her. Next to him, the old lady, the cooer, screamed and ran away—probably to get help. Help would come too late. In this form, he was stronger. He could snap the doctor's neck with ease. Not that it would solve anything.
"There are rules," he said through his teeth. "You know this."
"And you know how I feel about 'the rules,'" the doctor said, smiling down at him, unfazed by the fact that her toes were dangling more than a foot off of the ground.
"I did nothing."
"What is it they say about intentions?" She mused. "I think it has something to do with me."
He dropped her. There was nothing he could do. He was bound by the rules in a way his sibling was not, and she knew that. Her smile widened and she gave him a little wave as she turned away. "See you next time."
Hello, welcome to Smiley's. Our deals are guaranteed to put a smile on your face!" They're not, actually. Thank god no one has tried to take Mr. Smiley up on that promise, or else this store would be more in the red than it already is. Still, making this ill-advised statement is just one small part of my very enriching and fulfilling career as store greeter at Smiley's Mart.
Did you catch that? Faking genuine enthusiasm, another part of my job as a greeter. I'm good at it. This career, believe it or not, is neither fulfilling nor enriching. But, as a seventeen-year-old (as of two years ago) with few qualifications, my options were Smiley's, the new Wal-Mart across the street, or fast food. I don't much enjoy scraping cooking grease off myself every night, so fast food was out. I picked Smiley's because I liked the color of the vests better, and because my mom knows the real Mr. Smiley. That gave me an 'in' over the other two hundred seniors looking for jobs in this town.
This town being Midessa, Texas. We're kinda near the panhandle, West Texas. What's the difference between West Texas and the rest of the state? The rest of Texas has landforms. Ha-ha.
People only live here if they're connected to the oil business, or if they were born here and can't imagine living somewhere else. That's why I coined my first lifetime resolution: never get involved with a boy from Midessa (again). A relationship with one of these guys, whose grandest aspiration is to manage a pump jack, is the surest and best way to get your feet stuck in this tar pit of a town. Which naturally leads to my second resolution: to go to school somewhere Not Texas. Preferably near an ocean. With proper seasons.
I have to admit, I'm doing a lot better on the first resolution than the second. A minimum wage job means slow going on saving for college, especially when you have Ivy League aspirations. But there are worse jobs than standing in a doorway, spouting mangled aphorisms (like, "A smile a day keeps the doctor away, especially with Smiley's great deals on pharmaceuticals!") at unreceptive customers.
That's what I was doing when I spotted the two shoplifters. They giggled behind their hands and headed towards the sliding doors. This wasn't unusual. Most stores had to contend with their fair share of shop-lifting, and it was, in fact, exactly why I was stationed where I was. I started out as a stock girl, but Mr. Smiley soon caught on to the fact that I had, as he termed it, "an uncommonly good human instinct." He placed me as a greeter so that if and when I spotted the dishonest, I was in a position to do something about it. This way, I earned my keep not only by helping customers, but by helping with "merchandise retention."
The girls were thirteen, fourteen maybe. The overuse of eyeliner classic junior high. I got the biggest twinge from the shorter girl, the one wearing real diamond studs in her ears and carrying a Coach purse. That didn't surprise me; rich or poor, doesn't matter, stealing isn't always about actual money. Sometimes people just had the attitude that the world owed them something. The short girl looked smug, secure in her ability to do what she wanted. The taller girl looked more nervous, guilty.
I glanced over at Clyde, the security guard. I was supposed to let him know when I spotted shoplifters, but sometimes I preferred to take things into my own hands. Especially if they were young. The optimist in me always wanted to think people could change. I stepped in front of the girls. Since I was a mere employee, and therefore invisible, they promptly stepped around me. Gritting my teeth, I stepped in front of them again, making eye contact with the tall girl. "Hi!" I said, "Can I talk to you for a second?"
She froze as still as a statue, the whites of her eyes showing. Oh yeah, I was so right about this one.
"What's up?" Shorty, sensing her friend was about to break, grabbed her friend's arm, squeezing it. Tall Girl let out a squeak.
"Today is a special, um, learn about Mr. Smiley's day," I said. "I thought you might be interested in some facts about the store. You know, Mr. Smiley inherited this store from his father. His daughter, a girl much like you," except that she was actually forty-four, "is going to inherit. That is, if they can hold on through this year."
Short Girl was already bored, staring into space, but Tall Girl took the bait. "Why wouldn't they hold on this year?"
"Well, it's just shrinking margins, increases in costs. Smiley's is going under. Even little things, like mascara, lipstick, scarves—" Tall Girl blushed bright red. Bing, bing, bing! They must have each shoved a scarf in their purses, "—add up. Right now, the big chain stores can swallow these costs, but a business on the brink, like this one, it can't. And pretty soon, family owned businesses like Smiley's are going to go extinct."
"So?" Short Girl said. "My daddy says that's capitalism. C'mon McKenzie, let's go!" She yanked the guilty girl towards the door. Darn. That strategy bombed big time.
Turning toward the big sliding doors, I raised my hand to signal to Clyde. I'd given them a chance, now it was his turn. As I did, a sparkling gleam of light caught my eye. A sleek, vintage cherry-red Mustang pulled up in front of the store. Gorgeous, shiny, the sheer beauty of the car dazzled me. Until the car door opened: then the bottom dropped out of my world and my stomach went right with it. A wave of nausea hit me, so strong I barely made it the three steps to the nearest trash can before unleashing the contents of my stomach.
"Kyrie, oh my god!" Clyde rushed over, "You okay?"
Still hunched over the can, I shook my head.
"Go to the bathroom," he said, pointing, "I'll take over for you." Grateful for his intervention, I dizzily made my way to the public restroom.
Five minutes later, and I was starting to feel better. Sitting on the toilet with my head between my knees, I wondered what could have caused the sudden onslaught. Bad mayo on my burger? A twenty-four-hour flu caught from a customer? Slowly, the feeling of not-right began to ebb.
At least, I thought so. I'd just stood up when the door to the bathroom opened and the nausea came back with a vengeance. I sat down hard on the toilet, thinking: I will not puke. I will not puke. There isn't even anything left in there! My heart raced and my blood pounded, like my body had gone into panic mode. Something was Wrong, yes, capital W. I began to realize this experience was less like having the flu, and more like the 'vibe' I got from shoplifters, only amplified by about a hundred.
"This place is somewhat less charming than I had hoped."
"What did you expect, thatched cottages?"
Breathing deeply but slowly, I brought my feet up on to the toilet. My brain mastered control over my stomach once more. My fear subsided, replaced with a burning curiosity. I felt compelled to know the source of my distress. I leaned forward, placing my eye to the crack in the door. So sue me, I like to eavesdrop.
They looked to be in their early twenties. One was tall, at least 5'10", but hard to tell precisely due to her astoundingly high heels. Extremely thin, sharp cheekbones and a razor blade of a nose gave her delicate features a hardened look that made her all the more beautiful. Her silvery blond hair fell straight and almost to her waist. The other girl was: tiny, with a figure—okay, boobs, to be honest—that most girls in this town would kill for. She wore a black halter top with white polka dots, very Bettie Page pin-up. Her black hair was pulled back in a high ponytail, and her bangs curled perfectly across her forehead. A pair of huge, dark sunglasses with white rims completed the "not of this era" look.
They were clearly not from around here. First of all, I knew most people around here by 'type' if nothing else. These two were far too cool. Secondly, their clothes were much better than anything you could buy at our mall. Blondie wore a silk blouse I recognized from last month's issue of Vogue. Bettie Page carried a handbag that cost about six months of my salary.
Before I got to hear anything else, Clyde pushed through the swinging door and interrupted the girl talk. For a second, the three just stared at each other. Then the Bettie Page girl let out a dismissive huff and went back to inspecting her reflection. Not even a word about the sudden appearance of a man in the women's room.
Clyde came over to my stall. "Hey, hey Kyrie, you okay in there?" Leaning against the door, he said in a loud whisper, "You're not pregnant, are you?"
Another little snort. "Classic," the blonde said. "Let's bail this soap." They snapped their compacts closed in perfect synchronization and breezed out of the bathroom.
"Witches," Clyde said, "Nothing wrong with being pregnant, who're they to talk?"
"I'm not pregnant," I said, coming out of the stall. "It's just food poisoning or something."
"Oh, thank god. You feeling well enough to go back to work?"
Following Clyde out of the ladies' room, I began to nod, heading back to my post—then I caught sight of them, the two girls, meeting up with two men. All I could tell from this distance that one man was big and burly and dark, and the other was thin and slight and ginger-haired. Simply the sight of them, however, made my stomach curdle. I keeled over, slapping my hand to my face. Clyde looked at me, concerned. "I'll get the manager," he said, "You need the rest of the day off."
* * *
By the time the manager had been rounded up and signed off on my sick time, I already felt better. At that point, though, it was too late to claim a miraculous recovery without causing even more of a hassle, so I decided to take the time and use it for homework.
I headed to MCC, Midessa Community College. I was about an hour and a half early so I decided to set up shop in the classroom since there was no class before mine. I picked my favorite spot in the corner, by the windows, and pulled my books out. I could have driven home, but MCC had better air conditioning. Besides, doing my homework at home, in the same room I grew up in, only served to reinforce the idea that nothing had changed since graduation. Like I was trapped in a Twilight Zone of eternal high school, destined to be stuck in childhood forever.
On campus I could at least pretend I wasn't in Midessa. I could screen out my peripheral vision and make believe I was in a nicer school, with either a sleek modern-glass classroom, or the dark polished wood I saw in schools in the movies. I could look out the window, blur my eyes, and pretend I could see the Pacific Ocean. Pepperdine claimed in the brochures that you could see the ocean from almost anywhere on campus. That sounded ideal to me. It wasn't as highly ranked as Stanford and they also had private-school tuition costs, but being near the ocean probably made up for it. Both of those schools were on my short list. What it would really come down to, I knew, was which school on my list would accept my transfer credits and wouldn't require the sale of a kidney or other vital organ to pay for tuition. But on happy days I liked to pretend I was frivolous enough to choose a university based on proximity to the beach.
I put my daydreaming aside and turned my attention to my schoolwork. By the time my night class rolled around, I'd finished a short essay for writing class and a series of questions for organic chemistry. This put me ahead of schedule homework-wise and in a good mood. Soon students began to filter in for European History. I liked this class. Mainly because the professor of this one was actually interested, and treated us like adults. And if I'd felt badly earlier in the day, at least that gave me an interesting story to tell during Gossip Time.
Gossip Time was my informal name for the ten minutes before class started, when my sort-of-girlfriends showed up to class. We were all friends of circumstance. Not all from the same graduating class, but we'd all been on cheer squad. They were sweet, and the closest thing I had to a clique, but these three girls were part of the perpetual high school Twilight Zone I felt trapped in. Strong and coordinated, I'd gone out for cheer on a lark and earned myself a spot on the bottom of the pyramid. That and a "cool" boyfriend was all it took for me, goody-two-shoes that I was, to have a safe pass on the outskirts of the popular kids. I wasn't exactly welcomed, but I hadn't been shunned, either. At a friendly arm's length from the in-crowd, there seemed to be a quiet acknowledgement that once graduation took place, I'd be moving on and they'd stay behind and we'd all say 'hi' and wave if we saw each other during Christmas break. Only that hadn't happened yet.
They were my friends, but not really. They didn't know how to handle me and I felt like I'd grown past them. But the three of them were determined that when class started, it would be just like old times. Which meant class always started with gossip.
"Troy left Brie."
"With the baby?"
"With the baby. But his mother is going to file for full custody."
"Why not him?"
"He doesn't want the baby."
Nine out of ten times, Gossip Time was about babies: who was pregnant on purpose or by accident, who was having a shotgun wedding, who was divorcing after a shotgun wedding. Secretly I was glad that wasn't an issue for me in high school. Making out was fun and it had been enough at the time. A baby was an even bigger trap than a boyfriend, I should know, three out of ten of my girlfriends from school had one at this point.
"So why's his mom want it?"
"She says Brie's an unfit mother. Remember she got that DUI?"
See what I mean? Gossip Time. I waited expectantly for a gap in the conversation. It wasn't often I had something to contribute, so I was excited at the chance to be included. "Did you guys see the new kids in town?" I said.
"No," Madison said, "Not the new kids."
She placed the emphasis on the word 'new,' drawing it out. I paused, thrown off of my story.
"Well, go on," Lacy said to me, "Who'd you see?"
Haltingly, I told them about the four newcomers I'd seen. Madison nodded along, but she and Kris kept giving each other knowing looks. With the two clearly not paying attention, my story petered out as I forgot why, exactly, I'd thought they would care in the first place. I sank down in my chair, discouraged.
"So what do you know that I don't?" I said.
"Nothing," Madison said, smug.
"Guys," I pleaded. "Let's not play this game."
Madison and Kris smiled at each other.
"C'mon. I know you know something. Just tell me."
The professor walked in, pulling out his laptop. In another class, I could have continued pestering them, but in this, the professor made it clear his presence meant it was time for all of us to shut up. I gave Madison one last pleading glance.
"Don't worry," she said, folding her hands primly, "You'll find out soon."