“Mindy, you’ve got to pay attention to what the trendy people are wearing,” Kristen said, pinching a fold of Mindy’s sweatshirt and pulling on it. “You don’t just put on whatever’s comfortable. That’s the thing.”
Mindy didn’t even look at her, Kristen Grossman with her raven black hair, her dark and striking eyes, her perfect little face. She kept her gaze fixed on the passing scenery and tried to tune out the voice, that grating, nasally voice.
“It’s not okay to wear hooded sweatshirts every single day,” Kristen continued. “Even if they’re different colors. And those corduroy pants? Seriously, did you steal those from your mother’s closet?”
Mindy almost hit her. In her mind’s eye, she saw it, spinning in her seat, bringing her hand up and around in a dramatic arc and smacking her right on the mouth, sending her flying into the aisle. She didn’t do it, of course. Instead, she did what she always did, collapsed into a little heap beneath the window. In the row behind her, the twins, Brooke and Bailey, snickered.
“As your friend, I’m only trying to help,” Kristen said, giving her a little pat on the arm and snorting. “You don’t listen to me. That’s why stuff like Chris Daunt happens.”
The trees outside were a green curtain, and Mindy wished she could pull that curtain in and around herself and shut out everything. But she had no easy escape. Minute after excruciating minute, Kristen Grossman, to the twins’ laugh track, picked apart everything that made Mindy unpopular and unattractive. By the time the school bus squealed to a stop at the end of her driveway, Mindy felt like a small broken shell.
She retrieved her backpack from the floorboard and slung it over her shoulder. As she squeezed into the aisle, Kristen reached up and gave her a playful, or not-so-playful, slap on the back of the head in passing.
“Get it together, girl,” Kristen said. “It’s time to stop being such a loser all the time.”
Brooke and Bailey erupted in howls of laughter. Mindy sighed and slogged her way up the aisle, down the steps, and into the crisp winter air. She could still hear the laughter, even as the door shut behind her and the air brake hissed, even as she crossed the lawn, even as the bus pulled away. And the laughter echoed in her mind as she unlocked the front door and stepped inside.
She lived in a dingy little house on a hillside way out on the edge of town. Pappy kept most of the lights off, so the house was dim day and night. As she entered, she heard him turning pages and humming from his bedroom. She flung her backpack onto the living room couch, kicked the door shut behind her, and unzipped her coat.
“Mindy, is that you?” Pappy asked in his deep and weary voice.
“Yes, of course,” Mindy said, dumping her coat on top of her backpack.
She stepped over to Pappy’s bedroom door and peeked inside. He was in bed as usual, propped up on a pile of pillows, a giant picture book on his lap and a cup of hot tea steaming on the nightstand. His sparse gray hair stuck out in all directions, and he had beard stubble on his chin and cheeks. But he looked content. He always looked content. She didn’t understand that.
“How was school today?” he asked, glancing up from his book.
Mindy shrugged. “It was…” Terrible. Soul-crushing. The worst. “It was fine.”
Pappy gave her a quizzical look, and she hurried away before he could ask more questions. Down the long hallway and into her bedroom, each footstep heavy and mechanical. Mindy Lanham entered her bedroom and cast herself upon her bed, and the whole world seemed to crumble in on top of her. She had a gray room, bare walls decorated with a few dusty posters and some of her own bland artwork, a pile of clothes in the corner, scattered books. Once upon a time, Kristen Grossman had proclaimed it “the least interesting room of all time” and had refused to enter it ever since.
But the blandness of her bedroom was not what was chiefly on her mind today. Chris Daunt was on her mind. She had liked him for months and kept it a secret. Chris Daunt with his messy hair and easy smile. But Kristen and the twins, those scourers of emotion, had divined her secret from a single glance.
“Oh, my God, you’re staring at Chris Daunt,” Kristen had said, to the giggles of the twins. Brooke and Bailey, two squat and tan trolls with their bleached nightmare hair, always cackling. Mindy had grown to hate the sound of laughter.
“She likes Chris Daunt,” Brooke had squealed.
“You can totally see it on her face,” Bailey had added.
So Kristen had tried to “help” by telling him, right in the middle of lunch, in a cafeteria full of leering faces.
“Do you like Mindy Lanham?” she’d asked. “Because she likes you.”
And he had grimaced. With three dozen pairs of eyes staring at him, he had grimaced and said nothing! Mindy Lanham with her hooded sweatshirts, her outdated clothes, her orange-brown hair, and her dumb freckly face. Of course he had grimaced. Mindy wished the ground would cave in beneath her and take her, bed and all, into the darkness beneath the earth.
A loud thump-thump-thump on the wall roused her. Pappy liked to rap on the wall with the bronze handle of his walking stick whenever he wanted to talk. It was easier for him these days than trying to yell. She ignored him. She didn’t want to talk about any of this stuff. How could he possibly understand? But he persisted until she was afraid he might knock a hole in the wall. Finally, with a groan, she sat up, wiping away tears.
“Alright, Pappy,” she said. “I heard you.”
He tapped once more for good measure.
Mindy slouched down the hallway to Pappy’s room to find that he had set his book aside and thrown off his bedcovers. She stood in the doorway, trying to appear apathetic, until he beckoned her into the room and pointed to a chair in the corner.
“What? I’m fine,” she said, though she knew the tone of her voice gave her away. Nevertheless, she entered the room and sat down.
Pappy looked at her for a moment, his expression caught between an affectionate smile and a concerned frown.
“Every day is the same,” he said. “You come home looking destroyed, and you lie to me.”
Mindy couldn’t meet his gaze. She stared at her shoes. “Well, what’s the point of talking about it? You can’t do anything to help.”
“Now, how do you know I can’t do anything to help?”
She glanced at him. “Because you can’t make people like me.”
He grunted and sat up, easing his feet onto the floor and wincing all the while. Her Pappy was old, too old, more of a grandfather than a father. He rarely made it out of the house, had all of his groceries delivered, and had a housekeeper that came by every day to help with what should have been simple tasks. It was just another way that Mindy’s life was utterly unlike the lives of her peers.
“Why is it that people don’t like you?” he asked. “Are you mean? Are you violent? Do you make fun of them?”
“Of course not,” she said. “I don’t do anything. They make fun of me!”
Mindy sighed. “For every reason you can think of.”
“I can’t think of any reason to make fun of you,” he said.
Mindy fought back tears. Pappy wanted to help, he wanted to make her feel better, that was clear, but he wasn’t helping. He couldn’t.
“Because I’m too shy and awkward. Because other girls think I wear out-of-date clothes. Because I can’t keep up with any of the fads or popular music. Because I look dumpy and stupid. Because of everything. Everything.”
“You don’t fit in,” he said quietly.
“And it makes you feel inferior to all the other kids?”
“Yes, of course.”
He was quiet for a long time, sitting on the edge of his bed, his hands resting on his thighs, bent-backed and staring at the wall. Mindy waited for him to say more, unwilling to keep the conversation going. When a full minute had passed, she started to get up, hoping she might be able to slip out of the room while he was lost in thought.
“Wait,” he said.
Mindy groaned unhappily and sat back down.
“Maybe there’s a reason why you don’t fit in,” he said.
Mindy shrugged and bit back a sarcastic response. Of course there was a reason she didn’t fit in. She had just given him half a dozen.
Pappy reached for his walking stick, which was propped against the headboard, always within arm’s reach. All his rapping on the wall had left a groove of dents running in an arc above the bed. But he didn’t hit anything with the walking stick this time. Instead, he rose to his feet, though it took a few seconds of straining and baring his teeth to manage it.
“Be careful and don’t fall down,” Mindy said. He had fallen many times, and a few of those falls had led to hospital visits. The last thing she wanted was to spend the rest of her evening in the emergency room. And every time, the doctor gave the same advice: “Take it easy. Don’t press your luck, Mr. Lanham.”
Pappy waved off her concern and hobbled over to the dresser. “There are things I meant to tell you,” he said. “I sort of figured I’d wait until you were older. Seventeen seemed like a good age, but I guess fourteen will have to do.”
“What things?” she asked, though her heart began pounding in her chest. Her mother. It had to be about her mother. What else? The mother she had never known. The mother he rarely spoke about and had no pictures of, whose name he had never uttered. Mindy felt light-headed and pressed her hands to her temples.
“The problem here is not that you don’t fit in,” he said. He grabbed one of the pewter knobs on the top drawer. “The problem is that you feel inferior.” He slid open the drawer. It was overfull, and socks erupted out and fell to the floor.
“What are you doing?” Mindy asked. Her voice sounded tinny and small.
Instead of answering, Pappy began digging socks out of the drawer and tossing them over his shoulder. Wadded up dress socks in black and gray rained down on the bed.
“Pappy, what are you doing?” Mindy asked again, the tiniest bit alarmed.
But he kept right on flinging socks until the drawer was empty, then he jammed his arm into the drawer and fished around. She heard a soft thunk, as of a hard object hitting wood, and he drew his hand out.
“I need to show you something,” he said, turning toward her.
He was clutching a small cloth bag held shut at one end by a leather thong. With fumbling fingers, he loosened the thong and opened the bag. Mindy’s alarm grew. She didn’t see what this had to do with their conversation, and the strange smile on Pappy’s face made him look demented. He dug into the bag and pulled out a small, clear object. Before she could get a good look at it, he tossed it at her. Mindy squeaked, flailed her hands, and somehow managed to catch it.
She opened her hand to find an orb resting on her palm. Whether glass or crystal, she couldn't tell, but the surface wasn't smooth. It had a thousand tiny facets that cast a blanket of stars on the walls and ceiling when the light caught it.
“What is this?” she asked.
Pappy shuffled back to his bed and sat down, placing his cane back in its resting spot.
“Look closer,” he said.
She held the orb closer to her eye and noticed a small bubble in the center, irregularly shaped, like a defect in its making. Floating inside the bubble was what appeared to be a single drop of water.
“What am I supposed to see?” she asked. “What does any of this have to do with anything?”
Then light filled her vision, as if someone had opened a door right into the sun. It drew around her on all sides like a blanket, shutting out everything else. Light whiter than any she had ever seen or imagined, yet it didn’t hurt her eyes.
Mindy opened her mouth to scream, but no sound came out.
An image coalesced out of the light. White became blue, and she saw a calm body of water stretching out before her to the horizon, and above it a scattering of clouds like frozen breath. Wind sighed through trees behind her and danced upon her skin. And a woman rose from the water, pale with long crimson hair, dressed in a hundred layers of fabric as fluid and shimmery as gossamer. Up from the water, and above the water, she rose, bare feet now dangling in the air. Silent, grief etched in her face, she raised one hand, and there, resting on her palm, was an orb, not of glass or crystal but of water.
And Mindy became aware of a man kneeling on the ground at the water’s edge, his head bowed. A man in a long leather coat, black hair falling to his shoulders.
“Look at me,” the woman said, and he lifted his head.
A face she knew well, though much younger and full of life. Pappy, a tangled beard on his cheeks and chin, a stern but sad look in his eyes. The woman beckoned him with her free hand, and he rose and came to her.
“Take it,” she said, and, as he reached for the orb of water, it seemed to harden into the object which Mindy now held.
Young Pappy took the orb from her, holding it lightly between his fingers the way one does a very fragile object.
Pappy raised the orb toward the woman’s face, that stately face, smooth as plaster. The woman bowed her head and closed her eyes, and a single tear fell. When it alighted upon the orb, the vision dissipated like a vapor at noonday. And the light was gone.
Mindy found herself sitting in Pappy’s room again, the orb resting on her palm. She gasped, lunged to her feet, and stumbled toward the door. The orb fell, and she kicked it aside.
“Mindy, wait,” Pappy said. “Please.”
Mindy fell against the doorframe, turned, and slid down to the floor. She was dizzy and sick. “That woman…”
“Your mother,” Pappy said.
“No,” Mindy said in a breath. But she knew it, she felt it. The woman with the pale face, crimson hair, yes, she had seen a bit of herself in that face. “How is it possible?”
Pappy batted socks out of his way and resumed his familiar position on the bed, pulling a blanket over his feet. He looked at Mindy, still smiling but wistful now, his eyes glistening. “So many things you do not know, Mindy Lanham. So many things.”
She didn’t know what to say to this, so she said nothing. She tried to find that image again, the woman rising from the water, she wanted to see it as clearly as she had before. Her mother.
“The world was guarded by spirits once,” Pappy said softly, reverently. “Sent to watch over it. Spirits of water and spirits of earth, of sky, of rivers and mountains and of every created thing.” He took a deep breath and closed his eyes. “They are gone now. Hibernating, or dead, all of them.”
Mindy’s gaze turned to the orb resting on the carpet, half in shadow, at the end of the bed.
“Your mother was a spirit of water,” he said. “Beautiful, filled with great power, kindness, and strength. ‘A child,’ she said. ‘A child to remember us. Mostly human but also my daughter.’ She was the last of her kind, except for the little that remains in you. But a memory she placed for you in that orb, and I have only waited for the right time to share it with you.”
Mindy was crying now, but she didn’t fight the tears. And she felt light, as if a great weight had broken off and fallen away. She crawled over to the bed and retrieved the orb, and when she did, she saw it again, that moment at the water’s edge, her mother hovering in the air, her father kneeling in the dirt. The light came and went, but she didn’t run from it this time.
“In a diminishing world, they could no longer hold their place,” Pappy said. “But their memory, her memory, lives on, reflected in your face.” And he was crying as well, crying but smiling. “So you see, Mindy, you are different but very, very special. Inferior? Hardly. Unattractive? Well, it’s offensive to even suggest it, isn’t it? You look like her.”
Mindy held the orb in both hands, palms pressed together in a prayerful gesture.
“That memory is yours now,” he said. “Yours forever.”
* * *
Standing at the front of the bus, staring at the rows of faces looking back, few of them friendly, usually filled Mindy with anxiety and dread. But not today and not anymore. Children’s faces. Little children. She didn’t hate any of them, and, as she made her way down the aisle to her seat, she laughed. Kristen and the twins were waiting for her, the mischief practically seeping out of their skin.
“I thought for sure you’d call in sick today,” Kristen said. “After that whole fiasco with Chris Daunt. Seriously, you should be in bed, hiding under your covers.”
“Yeah, for real, what are you grinning about?” Brooke asked.
Mindy took her seat next to Kristen, set her backpack on her lap, and laughed again. They were like toddlers just learning to speak, unable to comprehend the moral weight of their rude comments. Toddlers. Very young children who understood so little.
She looked at Kristen’s face, no sign of wrinkle or age or understanding, and marveled that she had not realized this before. And Kristen, perceiving that she was being scrutinized, scowled. Brooke and Bailey, peeking over the top of the seat, lost the little glint in their eyes and seemed confused.
“Someday, when you’re no longer a child, you’ll understand what you’re saying,” Mindy said. And when this only furthered the confusion and deepened Kristen’s frown, she added, “Someday you’ll understand who you’re talking to. Someday. For now, it’s alright. I understand, and I don’t hold it against you.”
And, once more, she laughed. She felt weightless. She thought she might just rise up out of her seat and hover in the air. That would shake the foundations of Kristen Grossman’s world for sure.
Mindy was different, yes. Very different from all of them. And special. Absolutely. And she always had that memory near at hand. Nobody could take it from her.