The fact that we weren't late is worthy of mention. Not a terribly interesting fact, but it made me happy that it wasn't just my opinion or wishful thinking. Most of my teachers weren't crazy about me anyway, so it was best to stay as far away from their bad sides as I was able.
My ankle was starting to really bug me though, and the stairs that disliked me on a normal basis were having a field day. Currently, I was on my way to my last class before lunch, and if I tripped one more time, I was going to bellow some very nasty words and phrases. There was still another half flight of stairs to go, and then a thirty second walk to the door. More steps from the door to a desk. I bit back yet another curse and told myself that giving up swearing was good. Big brothers should be models of decorum.
I squeezed myself out of the way of other people using the stairs and crouched with the pretense of tying my shoe. Just so I could whine about the pain for a second. Maybe it'd be a good idea to go to the nurse. The worst she'd do would be to wrap it up in an Ace bandage and 'tsk' at me. I checked it for puffiness and the like, and then willed my expression to stay normal.
My ankle was going to be a cantaloupe very soon.
Chuckling nervously under my breath, I stood up and started back down the stairs. My Maths teacher would accept a medical excuse, since I never made them up. I just had to limp pitifully through the halls like a wounded gazelle.
If I had any luck left, I wouldn't look like one.
Someone's rucksackI could tell by the heavy lumps that had to be textbooksslammed into the back of my head and I went down. A couple of times. It wasn't that I was able to get up, it's just that a certain up and down element is inevitably involved when a guy goes tumbling bum over teakettle down a flight of stairs.
"Oh crap it was an accident I swear!" The voice belonged to a girl, and if I hadn't been so preoccupied struggling to sort out my limbs so I could name all of the places that were screaming out in agony, I would have said she had slurred her exclamation into a single word. Slightly second in coming was the realization that each word, when separated, were English and spoken with an American accent. At least, I assumed her accent was American. Maybe I just wanted to dislike her.
The tie had come free of my hair, which meant it was a nearly black curtain covering my face. "Where's my rucksack?" It was a safe question. I didn't know if she was someone I should instantly forgive, since I couldn't see her yet.
Um, your backpack is o-over there." Very cold, slightly chubby fingers moved my hair out of my face with unexpected gentleness. And then I fell in love.
She was gorgeous. Big blue eyes that would have looked like glass marbles on someone else made her look like a doll, complimenting a perfect pug nose and full-lipped mouth that made my knees melt and drip through the fabric of my jeans. She wore a brown and
browner striped tuque that nearly covered all of her hair, but some of it poked out from underneath, just enough to proudly announce that she was a strawberry blonde. More strawberry than blonde. My jaw was on the floor, right next to my big fat ankle.
Perfect Girl was still attempting to keep my hair of my face, and not doing any better than I ever did. Her fingers weren't really chubby at all, she was just wearing gloves with the tips cut off. The gloves were brown, like her hat, but she was wearing a long scarf that matched her eyes. And she was worried, about me.
Because she'd thrown me down the stairs. There's one for the old Dschimi Porter Charm. I blushed almost automatically and kept my foot carefully out of sight. The only thing worse than having a wonderful caring young lady feeling guilty about knocking me down would be if she thought my ankle had gotten messed up in the fall. "I'm okay, really." That was me lying, and not skillfully. "Are you cold?"
Stellar question, Einstein. She gave me a weird look and just nodded. "Are you sure you're all right?"
"No, but rest assured, you didn't have anything to do with the reason I'm not." More of my famous charm. Why didn't the good stuff ever stick around with me when I really wanted it to? "I mean, I was already on my way to
nurseare you okay?" She looked like she was going to be sick. Oh bloody footprints, she'd seen my ankle.
"Never mind me," she waved a gloved hand at me. It was fuzzy. "Why were you going to the nurse?"
Sweet face, commanding tone. If I wasn't in the swirl of a full-blown infatuation the second I learned her name, I couldn't claim to be human. "I twisted my ankle this morning."
Her already large eyes widened, and I wondered if it really sounded that bad to someone who wasn't me. "And you're just now going to get it taken care of?"
Saying 'I didn't want to be late' seemed too lame to stand up in court, so to speak, so I kept my mouth shut and nodded sheepishly. I needed a name, and wanted a phone number. Unfortunately, I only got those things from girls when I was smooth or dashing. I'd just fallen down a flight of stairs and was doing my best to hide my swelled-up ankle. Chances were, I didn't look my best just then.
"Come on, I'll help you get there. It's the least I can do after I nearly killed you."
I started to protest that it hadn't really been that major, but then I remembered the greater value of silence. She helped me stand, admittedly with a lot of assistance from the wall, and then looped an arm around my waist. A small mental jolt accompanied the physical realization that she smelled of lavender, just like Mrs. Bernoulli.
"Thhhank you." Real smooth. I was never going to see this girl again.
"Don't worry about it." She shifted her hold on me and I nearly coughed up my pride, poise, and everything that was keeping me falling apart on the hallway linoleum. "My name is Alice Morgan, by the way." After I introduced myself she laughed, but not, it seemed, at my name. "This isn't the most orthodox way to meet someone, is it?"
"I hope not." Even though it did remind me of my best friend's mom, it was a really nice smell. A comforting one. "Memorable, though."
"It definitely has that particular virtue."
When we reached the infirmary, she sat with me while we waited for a frightened Sec II student with a huge bump on his head to finish up. I touched my own head in sympathy. The fall hadn't left any marks on my other than some scrapes and a cut or two that I wasn't planning to tell anyone about.
Alice poked me in the knee and I looked up at her. If I hadn't been all too aware of how creepy staring was, I would have been doing that before. "So how did you bust up your ankle if it wasn't due to my spazzy way of walking?"
I grinned sheepishly and barely stopped myself from pulling up my pant leg to check on the damage. Showing off injuries was a dumb thing I could only do with guy friends, not a beautiful girl I'd just met. Especially since I suspected she'd already seen it and repressed an urge to puke. "I jumped over the fence in front of my house and landed wrong."
She grimaced in sympathy, which didn't diminish her beauty at all. I was a total lost cause. If any other girl I could think of had made that kind of face, I would have laughed. "Do you do things like that a lot?"
"Not really." After all, I wasn't accident-prone, just clumsy. My gaze drifted back down to my knees. "I can usually shrug it off 'til it heals, but I guess it was worse than I wanted to admit."
"But why would you ignore it at all?"
I didn't get a chance to answer her; the nurse popped her head out and beckoned me inside. Then she turned to Alice and told her to get back to class. That was when I realized Alice and I had been talking in English the whole time. It was my main language at home, what I almost always spoke with my dad, so I hadn't really noticed it, but everyone at school spoke French. It was just naturally how things worked, and I spent so much of my life switching between the two that I barely ever paid attention to it.
Except when it was out of place. Like English in school. No. Not usual, even when I met new people or transfers. I wanted to ask about it, but the nurse was not a patient old bird. I waved weakly at Alice. "Hey, would you
Would you meet me at lunch? There's an old tree by the baseball field, I could meet you there." It would have been weird to start speaking French when we hadn't been, so I just kept to English. It felt strange to be so aware of it. Itchy, and sort of prickly.
She smiled and my head imploded. "The big dead one that the groundskeepers won't cut down?"
So, she wasn't new to the school
"Why not?" And then she was gone, like the smell of cake vanishing when you shut the oven door.
It wasn't a 'yes', but I'd stolen a kiss after much less. Just thinking about that possibility made it a lot harder to limp after the scolding nurse.
When she managed to wrestle my shoe off and roll up the cuff of my pants, she did a double-take. Not only had my ankle ballooned at least twice its healthy size, it was the color of a terrific shiner. No wonder Alice had looked so grossed out. My dad was going to have kittens. Or just a heart attack.
I was forced to take a pair of crutches, and the nurse watched me all the way down the hall, so I couldn't throw them away. I hated crutches, they were stupid. But I had a feeling if I got caught without them, I'd be in major trouble. Best to just deal with it. They couldn't cramp my style that much more than a limp would.
Luckily for me, I'd gotten one of the nurses who told me to "Suck it up." The nice ones tended to overreact and want to call parents. Mine was not in a place that this would be welcome news.
The rubber tips of the crutches did a lot better on the dirt and grass outside than the linoleum in the school. For one thing, there were no slick patches. I relaxed somewhat, then looked around for the dead tree I'd asked Alice to meet me at.
It was never a popular spot, usually because Lucas and I tended to stake it out early, and a surprising amount of people disliked getting twigs and bits of bark down their shirts. Lucas wasn't there today, though. I hoped he'd found a place to camp out and phone Karenor even better, that he'd gone off to go have lunch with her.
If he'd done that, though, he would have left me a text or something about his brilliant and, for him, recklessly out of the ordinary idea. I hobbled over to the base of the tree and leaned against it. It wasn't remotely comfortable, but I wasn't in danger of tipping over or putting weight on the wrong foot. Thus situated, I dug my phone out of my pocket.
No messages, text or voice. That meant Dad was still waiting on my promise, and Lucas had probably just been held up in class. I sent Lucas a quick text explaining that I wanted the tree to myself today and why, and then I called my dad.
He answered in a hushed voice that spelled all sorts of 'oops'. He must have been in some kind of meeting. "I'm sorry, Dschimi, I'll have to call you back."
"No, Dad, don't worry." I looked up and saw Alice walking over, her hands in the pockets of her jacket. "Just so happens I've gotta go too. Talk to you tonight." I had to force myself to wait for him to say goodbye before I hung up, but I had my phone back in my pocket just in time.
Alice smiled at me, possibly bigger and more breath-stealing than when I'd seen her earlier. I bit my tongue so I wouldn't say something idiotic. "I'm not interrupting a conference call, am I?"
I shook my head, knowing that I was grinning like a moron at her. "Just
My dad. He's on a trip."
"Ooh, somewhere exotic?" She knelt in the grass and spread her scarf over her knees, which, no surprise, were just as perfect as everything else about her.
Blushing as I thought of just how un-exotic my dad and I both were, I shook my head. "Not really. He went to Vancouver."
"You're right, there's nothing even tenuously exotic about Vancouver." She made another face that would have been hilarious on someone else. "My grandparents are from there."
The crutches made it considerably easier to sit on the ground, but it was still hard to do while babying my ankle. "That reminds me, I wanted to ask you"
"Why I'm not speaking French like all the other Québécois in this place?" She rolled her eyes and wove her fingers through invisible currents of air. "Simple answer, I'm not too great with the language."
It took an elephantine effort to refrain from staring at her as if she'd just confessed to murder. "Doesn't that make classes hard?" Or impossible?
"No." She pulled off her tuque and waved it at me, smiling again, more playfully. I swallowed a goofy laugh. "Understanding things isn't hard. It's remembering the right words for what I want to say that makes me feel like a walking translation mistake."
Without the tuque holding her hair down, it stood up like an excited field of orangey wheat. I'd never met a girl with hair shorter than mine, even though mine brushed my shoulders every time it got loose. As usual when my hair sprung to mind, I reached up to pull it away from my neck. The hair tie had been an unfortunate casualty of my tumble down the stairs, and I hadn't found anything to substitute for it.
Alice leaned forward and giggled at me. "Are you trying to hint that my hair is flyaway?"
"Uh, no, I just
Mine usually isn't." That was one of the great things about having straight hair, it didn't frizz and tangles were not a disheartening issue for me. "Most of the time I tie it back."
She nodded slowly, as if the gesture was an afterthought. Then she surprised me by tugging on my tie. "How come you've got this?"
"Same reason you've got a plaid skirt. It's part of the uniform." Good thing we were at school. If I'd met her somewhere else, that could have been an awkward question to have to answer. The truth was, I wore the tie and my school shirts whenever I felt like it, even during holiday.
"Not the tie, silly, this pin."
I looked down at my tie, wondering what she could possibly be talking about. There were three pins on my tie, one was a Blue Jays pin that was probably older than me, and the other two were much less cool. One was the school's crest, but the one that Alice seemed to be interested in was just a button, barely the width of two of my fingers. It said 'Visit Sunny California' in block letters.
"Looks like you've had this for a long time," she said softly as she rubbed the letters with her thumb.
It was true, and it wasn't something that I enjoyed watching people paw at. Plus, she'd made my tie too tight, and it was pinching the skin on my neck. "I don't know, probably. Let go, please."
She did let go, otherwise I might have not cared that she looked hurt. "Sorry. Is it important?"
"Not particularly." It wasn't, not in and of itself. It was its meaning that was important, to me, anyway. "And before you ask, no, I haven't been there."
Since I was busy fixing my tie, I didn't have to worry about looking too excited. "Take off, you have not
For a second she looked confused, but then she laughed. "I have so. What, you don't believe me?"
"California is pretty far away."
"You bet, Captain Understatement." She stretched her arms behind her and leaned back. "For one thing, no one there ever told me to 'take off'. It's been two years and I'm still trying to get used to the way you people talk around here."
The hair on the back of my neck went up at the way she pushed me into the 'you people' crate. "No kidding. Not many people speaking any kind of French in California." She was still beautiful, but its effect on me was paling. It was a given that I felt sort of awkward around her, but after that little speech, I just felt uncomfortable. Normally I would have run off and pulled a stupid stunt to get some attention from whoever was around and therefore escape. My ankle kind of ruined that option.
"That wasn't an insult, Dschimi."
I couldn't help it, my face went hot when she said my name. That was the first time she had. "Could have fooled me. It sounded like one."
"Then I apologize." There was a levity in her voice that hinted at a joke that was either coming or I'd missed. One look at the twinkle in her eyes and I guessed that the joke was upcoming. "What can I do to make it up to you?"
I blushed more, all of my brain cells unanimously deciding that asking her out so soon after getting tossed on my posterity was a bad move. "Forget about it, I shouldn't be so sensitive."
She held the edge of her scarf over her mouth and giggled. "Or I should be more sensitive. I think you have the right of it. I like sensitive guys."
"You do?" My voice wasn't the suave whipcrack of cool that I wanted it to be, but at least it didn't break. "Wait, you're just teasing."
"I am not! I'm being perfectly honest with you." Her grin would suggest otherwise. "Would it hurt your feelings if I asked why you have one of those cheesy lumberjack coats?"
Even though she was teasing me, it appeared to be the good kind of teasing, so I didn't protest. "You mean my hoser jacket? I thought everyone knew about these."
"Pity a poor misplaced girl. I lived abroad for a long time."
With a conceding incline of my head, I took off the jacket so she could get a closer look. "Okay, you know those guys American commercials are always making jokes about? The hockey addicts who drink beer all the time? We call 'em hosers. They have hats kind of like yours."
Grinning so wide that I could see her teethguess what, they were perfectAlice put on my hoser jacket, then pulled her tuque back on and held onto the edges. "You mean my beanie?"
I laughed and pulled it down over her eyes. "Yeah. I call it a tuque." I never wore them unless it got really cold, because Lucas always said they made me look like a stoner or a bank robber or both.
She left the tuque covering the top half of her face, but tilted her head upwards. Maybe she could peek under and see, but I doubted it. Her hair probably got in the way. "Hmm. Tuque. I like that better."
"Excellent, so do I."
While Alice escaped from the hat and tried to fix her hair into something a little less wild, I looked around at all the other students. If I hadn't been in such a hurry this morning, then I might have taken the time to pack some sandwiches or some kind of snack. It wasn't remarkable for me to miss lunch, and I'd had a big breakfast, but I was a growing boy, right? Lucas wasn't there for me to snatch food from, either.
My stomach rumbled and I covered it with my hand. "Sorry."
"No worries, Dschimi boy. I take it you don't have anything for lunch?"
I shook my head blushing yet again. If it wasn't for the social connotation, I wouldn't have minded it so much. It kept my ears warm. "Not so much as a Mad Dog energy bar."
I had to laugh when she made the kind of face that I saved for Dad and his tomato juice. "Yuck, you actually eat those?"
"Of course. They're good."
"They're death in a cellophane wrapper."
The 'ew' face stayed intact even when nudged her knew with one of my crutches and laughed. "No, you're thinking of
well, any other energy bar. Mad Dogs aren't that bad. If you like coffee, they're great." Really strong coffee. Eating a Mad Dog Mocha Mania Energy Bar was kind of like using your mouth as a coffee grinder. I loved them.
She shook her head and took off my jacket. "That may be why. I don't like coffee at allit's way too bitter." She held out the jacket with a wink. "Give me hot chocolate any time of the year."
"I'll remember that..." I would, too. "Maybe sometime we could"
The bell that I would swear had once had a career in a firefighting department went off then, effectively cutting me off and making it next to unattainable to say anything more. Alice must have known where I was trying to get though, because she grabbed a pen from her book bag and took my hand. When she was done writing, she hopped up and jogged back to the school's main building.
For a while, I ignored the evil demon bell and just gazed after her with what I knew to be a hopelessly goony look on my blushing face. Then I dragged myself to my feet and went as fast as anyone could on crutches. As soon as I made it to my next class, I rested my hand palm up on my desk.
A phone number and
A fortune cookie message. "Sing and rejoice, fortune is smiling on you."
It certainly looked that way.
Lucas met me in the main car park after school let out, and he nearly bawled me out when he saw the crutches. "When did that happen?"
I didn't really want to admit it, but I went ahead anyway. "I messed it up before school. I've already been told off, so
um, don't tell your mom, okay?"
He rolled his eyes skyward, then right back to me. "All right, but it's not like I can keep it a secret until it's healed."
That was true. The way it had looked earlier, I didn't think it'd be safe to walk on for a while yet. Definitely not in less than a week. "I know
I'm still trying to figure out how I'm going to tell my dad."
"I don't envy you that task."
"Thanks a lot."
Given my condition, Lucas decided that it wouldn't be right to make me walk to the bus station, so he called Matteo for another ride. Despite my asking him not to. "Don't be such a moron," he said, "you don't owe anybody any favors. As far as anyone in my family is concerned, you're the same as me."
Meaning that I was considered another of their sons. I smiled at the ground, not sure how to take it when it sounded like a compliment. "Sandra likes me better than you."
"Of course she does, you keep the house cleaner than I do."
"Very true. It's disgusting what you do with your clothesone would think someone so serious and caring would hang up his own shirts."
"Oh shut up."
"They're such nice shirts too
"What does 'shut up' mean to you?"
When Matteo drove up, he got one look at me and jumped out of the car to rail at me in big brother mode. I was actually surprised, I'd never seen him look worried like that. Not since Lucas had broken an arm playing basketball, and that had been months ago, and not me. I stared up at him, paying close attention and not taking in a word. All I got out of the lecture was that I had better not ever get hurt again.
I felt so loved.
After that, I got the backseat all to myself and Matteo started up a comical tirade about how klutzy I was. He'd known me just as long as Lucas, and he had a better memory than I did. "And then there was that Christmas when you almost drowned!"
"You bet you did! Guess who had to pull you out and save your butt?"
It wasn't the first time that question had come up, though some of the wording was different. Lucas and I both joined in on the answer, we knew it well enough. "Matteo Dylan Bernoulli, that's who!"
Since it was the fifth time he'd said it, and we were in front of my house, Matteo stopped to laugh and shake his head at me. "That's right. Now get outta here and put your foot up on something."
Lucas leaned over the seat and poked me in the ribs, hard. "Get some ice, too."
I rubbed my side, then climbed out of the car. It took me a while to get all of my limbs in order again, especially since I had two extra ones, but I made do. "See you tomorrow."
Dashing into the house would have ended badly, so I hobbled at a comparatively sedate pace until I was in the living room. Two seconds after I'd shut the door and locked it, I let the crutches crash to the floor and one-foot-hopped my way to the couch.
My Gandhi book was still on the floor, so I picked it up and put it on the coffee table. After a moment's thought, I stood the book up, using a coffee-stained mug to keep it from falling. Gandhi smiled at me like an omnipotent older neighbor. "Would it be inadvisable to call now? She said she likes sensitive guys, but she didn't say anything about eager ones." I knew what I thought of eager girls. The ones who tried too hard were slightly annoying, and the confident ones who played mind games really turned me off.
I took out my cell and scrolled through my phonebook. Maybe it was too soon to call her, but a text would probably be okay. It'd been a while since I'd actively played the dating game, but that sounded right to me.
Except that I had no idea what to say. I placed my injured ankle on the back of the sofa and slid around so that I could rest my head on the floor. There. I'd put my foot up like Matteo had said, and now I was in a good position for thinking. I could get ice later.
I closed my eyes and replayed some of the conversation that Alice and I had had at lunch. She must have been a lot of places. Living abroad. It was like something I read about in books, but she'd done it. She was probably tired of people asking her questions about it, though, too bad for me. I'd always wanted to go places like that.
Last summer had done a lot to squash that. Not completely, but I wasn't in a hurry to even talk about things like that anymore. But maybe it'd be different with Alice. I opened up a blank message and started tapping buttons. It wasn't difficult when I imagined talking to her just like I had when she'd been right there with me.
Short, hopefully sweet, and maybe a little too hopeful. I chewed my lip and read through it once or twice, then just sent it. Then I rolled off the couch and half-hopped, half-limped into the kitchen to get an ice pack for my foot.
While I was wrapping it in a towel, I heard the chimes from my phone that signaled a new text message. My instincts told me to leap for it, but my foot said 'ow', so I just dragged myself back into the living room.
You're right, it has been getting colder, and right again! I really miss sunny days and Christmas on the beach. Then, what to me was the best part of the message: Hooray, hot chocolate. You remembered, how sweet. How about next Wednesday?
It didn't take me long to think of, text, and send a reply.
After I had, I leaned back on the couch, just grinning at my phone. I had a date. For hot chocolate, yeah, but still. A date was a date. I looked back down at my propped up book and felt a new surge of professional like for Gandhi. "You give good advice, Gandhi book cover. I'm going to employ you in all my girl issues."
He smiled back at me, of course. What a great book. I'd have to thank Dad for giving it to me. One of my more bizarre birthday gifts, yes, but there was something undeniably cool about those. There was always at least one. This year he'd given me a copy of The Canterbury Tales with highlighted passages. I picked up the Gandhi book and prepared to read it for the fifteenth time. Gandhi had been my eleventh birthday. The same year, Mr. and Mrs. Bernoulli had given me a new baseball bat.
I had my foot up, with ice on it, a pillow under my head, and best of all, a date for next Wednesday. Life was still nowhere near what it was supposed to be, but I was pretty sure that was a normal state of affairs. Dad could tell me if I was right when he got home.
With things going that smoothly, it shouldn't have been surprising that I fell asleep. I didn't know I had until I woke up in the dark singing "How Soon Is Now". The ice pack was still plenty cold, but it had definitely become a water pack, and my neck hurt from the angle of the pillow. I pulled myself into a lounging position that could almost be called sitting and rubbed the back of my neck.
Too bleary-eyed to look at or even for a clock of some kind, I just stayed the way I was for a while. My lower back felt like I'd tried to take a nap in an egg chair, and Gandhi was on the floor again. I decided to leave him there for a while. Just until I was awake and able to tell time.
I yawned and stretched, then pushed myself to my feet. Probably best to just wander to my own bed and sleep there for once. Two sleeps away from it and I missed the familiarity, stability, and lack of lingering backache.
My bed smelled like me. Fortunately, it smelled like me after a nice long shower, and that meant I didn't need to change the sheets. My pillow was a little damp, but that was precisely why I had two of them. One was a backup. I hugged the backup and pressed my back against the wall.
That was a much better setup than the couch. It couldn't have been more than five minutes before I was fast asleep, dreaming in bent squares and climbing air.