Julie followed in line with the other restaurant patrons as they made their way toward the door. She follows the two twenty-something girls who are nearly pulling their hair out in panic. She follows the angry couple who, somehow, still manage to bicker as they squeeze, shoulder-to-shoulder through the single opening to the main hall. Behind her are the two horny teenage boys whom, she is rather certain by their snickers and whispers, are ogling her ass. The two children, once rowdy and fighting over the holy grail of crayons are now standing at attention by their mother’s side – the perfect soldiers.
In the hall, the buzzer is even louder, drowning out any attempts at communication among the masses flooding out from nearby doorways. Julie closes her eyes for a moment and tests her surroundings. There’s a lot of information incoming, but she manages, briefly, to catch a glimpse of the crowds with her ears. They look more like clumps of congealed blobs than individual people, though. She tries to focus her mind and sharpen the image the way Scout had taught her. A sharp pain snaps her back to her senses as a panicked elbow finds its way into her side.
“What are you doing?” A voice attached to the elbow hollered into her ear. It was Emerald. Julie didn’t even need to look at her or use any sort of special senses to catch the desperation and worry in her voice.
“I’m… um…” Julie stumbled on her words.
“You can’t shut down on me now red!” Emerald continued to holler. “We’ve got to get to the Operations Room.” She tugged at her arm and began sprinting down the long corridor, pushing her way through the crowds surrounding her.
Twenty minutes had passed as Julie paced back and forth in front of the therapist’s office. Where is she? she thought. She’s been moving back and forth for so long she was certain she could see some sort of groove slowly etching its way into the concrete beneath her feet. Succumbing to the fact that her mother wasn’t going to arrive any time soon, she plunked herself beneath the large oak tree beside the building’s courtyard. Sweet shade. The sun beat down around her. She could feel her shoulders turning red and the heat they began to emit. The dry brown grass crunched beneath her feet as she approached and pricked the undersides of her hands as she slowly let herself fall onto it.
She scooched up close to the tree’s trunk onto the tiny patch of green encircling it, slipped off her shoes and rested her toes atop the plush, green blades. For a moment, beneath the shade, they felt cool to the touch. She leaned her back against the bulk of the trunk, feeling its solid strength behind her shoulders. Maybe you can hold me up for a while, she thought. She remembered how a science teacher had once told her that the oak tree was considered, by many, to be a great holder of wisdom. He said it was “The doorway to knowledge.” A tree which grew slowly, but sturdily. One which grew thick, deep roots, strong enough to withstand the wildest of storms. For a moment she imagined herself as that tree – solid, strong, capable of weathering the worst.
Just as quickly as the image came it faded away, replaced with a buzzing sensation in the pit of her stomach and the sound of scattered thoughts in her head. The thoughts came more like snippets of information – random words she could grasp for brief seconds. The voices were not her own, but they each came with a different emotion. There was fear, jealousy, excitement, anger, despair – all floating around somewhere inside the buzzing inside her gut. Suddenly she felt nauseous. She stood to brace herself for what was inevitably come. Leaning against the old oak, she spread her legs to ensure the vomit wouldn’t splatter onto her shoes. A dizziness washed over her as her lunch inched its way up her throat and out onto the soft, emerald grass.
A group of kids walked by, presumably part of the day program, all staring at her in disbelief. She watched them from the corner of her eye, still awash with vertigo and feeling as though she may be about to lose her breakfast as well. They exited the courtyard toward the parking lot, snickering to themselves as they glanced over their shoulders in her direction.
Fuck you, she thought, steadying herself as the feelings subsided and the voices disappeared. Relocating herself to nearby bench, she sat with her eyes closed in the heat of the afternoon sun and waited in silence, dreaming of being a tree – a steady, sturdy, sane, everyday tree.
“Honey! Honey! I’m so sorry!” her mother’s voice interrupted her daydreams as it hollered to her from the curb.
Julie stood and slowly walked toward her mother’s forty-year-old, wood-paneling-clad Buick Century, scoffing at its appearance along the way. As if it isn’t enough to be the crazy kid. I have to be the one whose parents drive a loser-mobile. She flung her bag through the open passenger window. “It’s fine,” she said, letting herself in.
“You okay, sweetie?” Her mother’s face puckered with concern the same way it did whenever the cat coughed up hairballs.
It’d be nice if, once, you’d look at me like you truly, deeply cared. Not like I’m some poor hairball-filled cat! She wanted to yell. But she didn’t. “I’m fine,” she resigned. “Just don’t feel all that well. I’ll be okay though, it’s passing.”
Her mother straightened her back. The cold treatment – she was used to this response. “That’s terrible sweetie. Were you waiting long? That sun couldn’t have helped much, huh? I’m so sorry that I took so long. There was another alarm at the shop. Something is seriously wrong with that system, I’m telling you. Then there were problems with my cell phone. I just couldn’t get a signal anywhere. A few traffic lights were out on my way here. I’m telling you sweetie,” her mother hardly stopped to breathe.
Julie just wanted to tuck and roll her way out of the car and, to be honest, stopped listening about halfway through the second sentence of her mother’s tirade. I wish I was a tree. I could never be like a tree. I’m nothing like a tree. I guess I wish I was bird – then I could fly away. Or maybe I’d be a bat. I could still fly, but then I’d be just as weird and fucked up and unliked as I am now.
“So?” her mom asked, glancing at her a few times in quick succession as she tried to maintain a steady eye on traffic.
“Uh, sorry. What?” Julie snapped back to the moment.
“How long were you waiting?” he mother asked again, slowly and deliberately drawing out her words in a slight effort to sound comical.
“Oh, um not that long. Maybe ten minutes. Maybe twenty,” she replied.
“I’d say you should have called me but my phone clearly wasn’t picking up any signals anyways. You should have seen the time I had trying to get ahold of the alarm company. No phone with the alarm just blaring on and on. I didn’t wanna’ use the land line because the alarm was just so loud. When I finally gave in and used the land line, after traipsing around the parking lot trying to climb telephone poles for a signal might I add, the police showed up. Can you believe it? I mean, I’m certainly glad they showed up quickly, but now I’ve got a $500 fine on my hands,” as if by miracle, her mother stopped talking for a moment. A few more darting glances flew in her direction. “Sweetheart, are you sure it’s passing? I mean, if you’re going to be sick just let me know and I’ll pull over.”
“No Mom. I’m fine,” Julie snapped back.
“Sorry,” her mom seemed taken aback.
“It’s okay. I just… You just… Can we just listen to the radio?”
Her mother nodded silently and Julie cranked up the latest Baby Ginger hit. She couldn’t help it. Try as she might to stay angry at life, to hate herself so being for God damned weird and to be pissed off at her mother for talking so much, her toes began to tap along to the beat. She mumbled the words through barely-parted lips, quietly humming the tune at the same time.
Out the corner of her eye, she witnessed a smile sneak its way across her mother’s face. Her mom began to hum a little, too. Before they knew it they were both belting the chorus out the windows of the old station wagon.
It was nice. For a moment it was like nothing had ever changed. It was like she was a little girl again. It was like she was normal again – not the home-schooled disappointment who gets so overwhelmed by the world that she never wants to leave her room. Not the screwed up kid who had hallucinatory emotions and occasionally heard voices. No. It was like she was normal. Happy. It was like she and her mom were still best friends, instead of distant adversaries.
Read the Whole Series So Far…
Emerald pulled her down the corridor, squeezing their bodies through tiny gaps in the massive, panicked conglomeration that was their friends and neighbours. She tried to slow her mind as she let Emerald guide her through the crowd. She tried to hone in on something, anything that would tell her what was going on or why. She tried, but all she could grasp was the fear and panic. The voices, internal and otherwise, calling out for answers of their own, trying to find their loved ones, desperately trying to reach their designated pods before it was too late.
She knew, from the moment it all began, that it was not a drill. Something in the panic of the crowd said that she wasn’t the only one who felt it. She knew it wasn’t a drill because she had chaired every single evacuation drill since the day they climbed through the hatch. As safety captain, that was one her major responsibilities.
Knowing she hadn’t planned this should have sent its own shockwave of fear through her mind, just as it appeared to be doing for the others. But something else was off. Aside from the panic slowly settling into the crowd around her, she hadn’t sensed any urgency. There were no signs that something was to come. She’d had no hint that anything untoward was to come. So, what was going on?
“Hey Jules, slide that peanut butter over here!” her brother called from the other side of the table.
“Do you have to yell?” their mother chimed in as she flew through the doorway with a steaming plate of pancakes. “She is seriously right across the table from you.”
“Yeah,” their dad piped up from behind his newspaper with a sarcastic and goofy tone settling across his vocal chords. “Don’t cha know we don’t live in the Taj Mahal? We don’t have a table the size of tennis court, Foxford!” HIs eyes pointed off in different directions as he lightly mocked their mother.
“You know what, Gary?” she responded, plunking the pancakes down on the table as a hint of a smirk spread across her face.
“What Liz?” he said in his best baby voice with a puppy-dog expression only a heartless wretch could despise.
Liz burst out laughing. “Fine,” she said. “You got me this time.”
Julie and Fox exchanged glances and eye rolls. Their parents were enough to embarrass them most of the time, but also a helpful reassurance that, despite anything, love could conquer all. They’d been through rough times financially over the years. Their Dad lost his job when the coal factory closed down a few years prior and their mom had never really had to work. Though their city wasn’t tiny, it wasn’t quite large enough to absorb all the workers who’d been let go from the factory and no one wanted to hire a woman with no experience. So they’d had no choice but to go in business for themselves with the tiny inheritance they collected when Julie and Fox’s grandmother passed away. The opened a surf and tuck shop – taking part in the city’s efforts to exploit the waterfront as a tourism spot now that the factory had threatened to turn it into a ghost town. To top it all off, there was, of course, Julie. Who presented quite a challenge in their lives as of late.
Through all the ups and downs, Julie and Fox never once batted an eye in any sort of fear of losing their home or their way of life. They watched, in awe, as their friends’ families were torn apart by the closing of the factory. Parents fighting about money and what to do next, ultimately giving up on each other in the process. And then there were their parents. Stressed, undoubtedly. Afraid of such changes, for certain. Bewildered by the strange emotions and reactions evident in their teenage daughter. But never failing to find laughter and to bring it into the lives of their children. So as both Julie and Fox rolled their eyes, the embarrassment and mockery was more of a silent acknowledgement of just how lucky they were.
“I’m probably not gonna’ be home for dinner,” Fox bellowed louder than necessary as he applied a thick layer of jam to his toast.
Their mother just shot him a sly smile. “Why not?” she asked.
“A couple of us are sticking around to watch the football game. You know, school spirit, rah rah,” he replied, his eyes not meeting hers, but instead staying focused on his breakfast.
“Hmm,” she clearly wasn’t buying it. “Well, Dad and I have to stop off at the church and put in our votes, anyway. You know, election spirit, rah rah!”
“You’re seriously bothering with that bullshit?” Fox shot back, slamming the butter knife down on the table.
“Woah, bud. We don’t talk to your mother that way,” their father stepped in, gently placing the newspaper in his lap.
“I’m sorry. It’s just… It’s bullshit, is all. You cast your vote and then what? How can you even prove they’re counting the damn things? It’s all rigged. It’s all bullshit.” He crossed his arms in front of him, looking, Julie observed, much like a six-year-old who wasn’t getting his way.
For all the ways she loved and looked up to her brother, she never could understand just where all his angst came from. He rolled around town on his skateboard with his friends, his clothes even somehow screaming out against the norm – frayed edges on his jeans and the hint of pink socks beneath his shoes. He talked about how “the establishment” was out to get them, how everything was set up and that the news stations were all owned by corporations with the sole intention of brainwashing the masses. She could understand why some of his friends felt this way, why they skipped school, smoked pot and, generally, hated anyone over the age of thirty-five. They all came from struggle – some had parents hooked on drugs, some were the children of suicide in the post-plant years, most were from the part of town where the houses looked as though they were about to crumble. But Fox? Fox had these incredible, resilient parents who taught him that anything was possible. He had grades at school (once upon a time) that even left nerds envious of his achievements.
“You’re still on that?” their father asked, a slight chuckle beneath his breath.
Julie excused herself from the table in the midst of it all and wandered into the kitchen in search of orange juice. A tightness was growing in her chest and her head was feeling a little light. She could hear the conversation continue as their voices drifted in through the open doorway.
“Don’t laugh at me, Dad. I’m serious. If you even knew what they were doing and how they were doing it all, you’d lose your freakin’ mind. Have you heard of HAARP? They’re like seriously messing with our ionosphere, Dad. And don’t get me started on all that shit they’re putting in food these days. GMOs, pesticides. And the vaccines, Dad! Plus, all the propaganda they feed you on a daily basis. Buy this, buy that. Hate this country, love that one.” They’d unleashed the lion and on he went, spouting his theories of conspiracy and thought control.
“Okay, okay. Enough,” Liz chimed in, cutting off her husband before he could feed further into the conversation. Watching the two of them go round and round about politics was enough to make anyone dizzy. “Let’s just get on with breakfast and agree to disagr-“
There was a hard crashing sound from the kitchen.
Dazed and with the hint of a headache, Julie opened her eyes. In front of her, the cold travertine floor swam beneath a sea of orange juice, spilling out from the broken corner of the jug that lay to her right.
“Jules. You okay?” Fox was hovering above her face, stroking her hair.
“Sweetie. Sweetheart? Oh my God. Are you alright?” her mom pushed her brother out of the way and plunked herself into the puddle of orange juice.
Julie mumbled something, trying to get words out, but failing.
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