Chapter 22: Penance

After a while, when it seemed like nothing else was going to happen, Brandi entered the World Literature classroom and took a seat. In the back, she felt safe from the prying eyes of her teacher, even though, Mrs. Jenkins had already moved her up front. Hinting at the parent-teacher conference, that Brandi would need to get her eyes tested. But that had been a month ago, and having missed a few days, Brandi thought, it would be okay. So she took a chance, and slipped into her usual seat.

A few girls stared at her and she swore under her breath as Mrs. Jenkins approached the door. She issued orders. Commanding them to pass up their papers as she silently shut the door. Brandi did as she was told, halting only when a figured appeared outside the door. And Teresa barged in.

Everybody turned, as if they were seeing some sort of specter. As Teresa ambled towards them with uneven steps. She seemed to waver, like someone under the influence, and Brandi put a hand to her lips, hoping to hide her anxiety, as the pile of essays careened to the floor. Then the disjointed girl stooped, mumbled some sort of apology and reshuffled the pile. Brandi watched her carefully, as she inserted her own paper. Going over the possibility of how their lives would have been different, if they had never met. On her hands and knees, Teresa seemed to nod, staring directly at her, as if at that exact moment in time, she had been considering the same thing.

While Roger hustled into the room and noting the disparity between them, made a beeline to a much further seat. Trekking as close to the windows, as their teacher would allow.

At the front, Mrs. Jenkins called them to attention. Banging her thin whip, that some of the students suspected also worked as a cane. They turned to her and she read out the instructions, which had been written down on the board. They were being directed to page 731, to a short story called, In the Grove, which had been written by Ryunosuke Akutagawa. Underneath the directions, questions followed.

Brandi opened her book obediently and flipped through the pages. Wishing that she could be outside stretching her legs instead of in there, with them. Roger waved. Pushing a pencil behind his right earlobe, he stretched and observed Teresa, who had taken Brandi’s seat up front. Looking past her, he peered out the door’s narrow, glass partition, trying to make out the figure who was standing just outside.

Brandi’s eyes followed his. She tried to figure out why he had cut class, when someone rapped on the door. Lifting her head, she spotted Mr. Ono, and a spasm rose in her chest. She ignored it, as Mrs. Jenkins opened the door and let the math teacher in. A few voices rose. Some students even turned their heads in her direction and spoke in hushed tones. She tried to ignore them, even though she was almost certain that they were whispering about her. The news had spread. Was still spreading.

Adjusting the cord, which held the pendant, she tried to feel her connection to the bigger thing. The greater thing, that people often referred to as life. But she couldn’t feel it. Or see it. Everything was a disjointed mess, that seemed to be rushing forth, between her fingers.

She stroked her neck and unhooked her hair, from the coiffured bun, that she now realized had once belonged to her mother. And she held her breath, thinking that schools often came with their own inquisitions. She could almost feel it. The nameless students who had once been accused of cheating, some through the use of their cellphones. Others using their bodies to store pieces of information, that refused to stay intact in their brains. She lowered her head, wondering if it would have been better to have begged her mother for an extension; due to the party and her undiagnosed illness.Besides, hadn’t she taken too much cough syrup? And reached home late?  Wasn’t there somewhere else she could go?

From the other side of the room, Roger gave her a reassuring smile, as he tried to turn the pages of his dilapidated textbook. Sitting there, she could vaguely make out the edges of a comic book and a rueful smile, crossed her lips. She scratched her head, wondering about the date of the textbook’s extinction.

Then the voices at the door rose, and she heard the word penance and retribution. Mrs. Jenkins gave her a wry smile, before turning back to Mr. Ono.

Brandi bit her lip, remembering the last person who had gone mano a mano with Mrs. Jenkins. For two weeks straight, the girl had been made to recite dialogue from Hamlet. Brandi could still remember pieces of it. Pieces that floated across at them during recess: To be, or not to be, that is the question. She shook her head, remembering how she had stuck pieces of cotton in her ears between classes and had almost steam-rolled into the Principal, on the way to the bathroom. She grunted, thinking that even Ron and Harry Potter had been saved from the worst of it, even though they had had to encounter crying Myrtle.

She, on the other hand, hated Hamlet. Couldn’t stand Ophelia with her drivel. How hamlet had sent her mad with his talk of “get thee to a nunnery.” She cranked her neck, thinking that she wouldn’t go down without a fight. That whether or not her mother approved, she would do whatever she thought was right. Besides, she wasn’t one of those gifted children who could rely on scholarships. Instead, for her there had always been academic probation. She took a deep breath, thinking how easy it was to fall back into old habits as Teresa raised her hands in the air and gave her old friend an applause.

The faces of the teachers grew more constrained and Brandi sucked in a breath. If she was going to fail, she thought, she would do it grandly, so she turned and bowed. The way she had seen musicians do it when she had gone to recitals with Avery and they had scoped out the musical conductors. Back then, they would chatter incessantly, calling each other in the day or the night. Not caring about the time difference. But now they hardly spoke. And thinking about it, she almost understood the difficulty that her parents had faced, trying to carry on a long distant relationship. Not that she or Avery had even discussed dating. Besides, Aunty Pam would definitely have had a coronary. Before which, she would have killed them, for good measure and just to be on the safe side.

A piece of paper landed on her desk and someone shouted, “Back to work.” Brandi tore open the note, which read: I know what you’re trying to do. She glanced around the room, trying to figure out who had sent it, as the door closed and Mr. Ono departed. Rolling it into a ball, she stuffed it into one of her pants pockets, deciding instead, to scan the author’s biography for some idea on how he had lived.

The pages turned. Backwards and forwards. The blurb mentioned that his death had been a suicide. But she chose to ignore it. Skipping the lurid details, she jumped to the year of his birth, which coincided with the year of the dragon. And she felt an affinity, even though she wasn’t prolific or a Japanese writer. She focused on the story about the woodcutter and his wife. A story that seemed to have many takes, depending on the participant.

And holding the lower part of her mouth between her hands, she thought of the Norwegian painter, Edward Munch and the painting Teresa had shown her, which had been entitled The Scream. Back then, during the days of their own goals, she had felt the title fitting. Now though, she wondered if ‘Man Losing All Sense of Hope’ was more affable. Or even ‘Hysteria’. She read through the passage, feeling a vague sense of unease, as if somehow she knew that she would not be able to accomplish her task. No, not the way she had first envisioned it.

Then, she blew air into her t-shirt, feeling the heat exacerbate. Surely, her mother would be upset, not to mention Nicholas, who was suddenly getting even more parental. She shook her head, wondering about her father. What sort of a reaction could she expect from him? Guilt? Fear? Confusion?

She rubbed her fingers together, thinking that if they were pieces of wood, soon they would become a kindling. She looked from Roger to Teresa. Who could  she trust? Roger seemed useful. Intelligent. But did he have the strength to go through with this? Whatever this was? And yet, he had sworn to protect her. She wondered how that worked, as Teresa scribbled down a few things from the blackboard.

“Darkest of day and brightest of night,” she hummed. “Help me to see with sight beyond sight.” The windows opened and she felt a strong surge of breeze as Teresa looked across at her and frowned. The pages from Roger’s book scattered, dancing around the room, as his expression hardened and he turned to appraise her.

“Stop it!” Mrs. Jenkins yelled, banging down with her cane again.

The room spun for a second or two, and Brandi almost didn’t know where she was, until an arm touched her shoulder.

“Close those windows,” Mrs. Jenkins ordered. Roger and two other boys leapt to their feet, quickly placating her as Brandi’s eyes narrowed; she focused in on her teacher.

What was happening to her? she wondered, rubbing her sweaty palms into her jeans. She closed her eyes tightly, feeling both cold and afraid. Then she looked over at Teresa, remembering that time they had viewed The Craft. Could her friend, really control the elements? She thought of Teresa’s charm bracelet and her knowledge of aikido.

Brandi closed her eyes, fighting back tears, as the teacher placed a detention slip on her desk. She looked up. “I haven’t done anything wrong.”

“Don’t worry, dear,” Mrs. Jenkins said, removing her arm. “Mr. Perkins is only there to keep you, innocent.” Brandi frowned, bowing her head. It was almost as if, she were back in the cave with Quasimodo. Almost as if, he was telling her, again, that she couldn’t win.

Chapter Six – Discover Your Guardian

A few days later, after Teresa had calmed down, Brandi shared some details with her about the strange encounter with Roger. Thinking that things were now back to normal and she could feel some ease, she tried to highlight how perceptive he had seemed, until Teresa butted in.

“I wouldn’t worry about him,” Teresa said, her voice elevated. Brandi shoved the mouthpiece a few inches away from her face and waited for a pause before continuing.

“I don’t.” She stared at the phone, trying to figure out what her friend was trying to insinuate and took a deep breath. “I’m not interested in him, not in the least.”  She waited for Teresa’s response.

“Of course you’re not,” Teresa chirped, playing devil’s advocate. “Who in their right mind would be interested in Roger Barnes? He’s one of those boys who’s clueless about love. And too besides, you know absolutely nothing about baseball.”

Brandi pursed her lips, hating her friend for being so blunt. Remembering how during soccer practice, they had made fun of girls like Jane Scott, the team’s captain who chose to wear shin pads and tugs both on and off the field. And yet Brandi had liked her. Not that she would have admitted it to her friend. Once she had even asked Jane for pointers and gone to a few extra practice sessions on Saturdays. Hoping to somehow hang onto her spot, even though she mostly warmed the bench.

She cleared her throat as an uncomfortable silence built up on the other end of the phone. Maybe they were both wrong, she thought, seeing the way Jane’s face had lit up when she gave her instructions. Her brown freckles spreading from her nose to the rest of her face, as she became even more animated and gestured with her hands. Brandi nodded slowly, envisioning him the way he had been after their last meeting, surrounded by friends. Maybe baseball held a similar fascination for Roger, she thought suddenly measuring herself and feeling as though she was lacking.

“No, he’s different.” She leaned closer to the counter, suddenly feeling very small, as her words escaped into the air.

“What do you mean?” Teresa asked, sensing a rift between them. Her voice elevating to an even higher pitch as Brandi passed a hand over her stomach and wiped away the cloudy liquid that was running down the side of her bandage. Cradling the phone between her head and neck, she moved towards the paper towels and ripped out a few, then she moved towards the sick and washed her hands, trying to remember what her mother had said about the salve – a purplish ointment – she had given her that morning, which she had said would prevent scarring.

“Our lives should revolve around books and boys and parties,” Teresa said, baring down on her. Brandi shifted her position by the sink, thinking that her friend had somehow misspoken. Forgetting all the talk of books and grades and external expectations, as she pulled out a chair and took a seat.
“Don’t you agree?”

Obediently, Brandi nodded, giving herself over to her friend’s words as if nothing else mattered. Not even her own resignation. In their short time together, Teresa routinely reminded her about the fact that they had been born twenty nine days apart. Teresa of course leading not just by weight and height but also by hours and days. “Yeah, I guess so,” she said, turning to eye the clock. Trying to piece together the length of their conversation, because she would need to apply more salve and then change the dressing.

“Ok,” Teresa huffed. “Try not to sound too enthusiastic. It’s not my fault nobody’s ever met his parents or seen his siblings.” Forgetting for a second that she was on the phone, Brandi nodded and then said, “Sure.” Wondering what had implored her to call or even to start this discussion.

And then she remembered her promise to give her friend a second chance. To start over. Even though, Teresa still hadn’t apologized. She had only acted as though things hadn’t changed between them. And her mother had seemed calmer, reassured when she had witness their playful banter the day before. Perhaps sensing, like her, that everything was returning to normal. So, there would be no talk of her mother’s connection to Nicholas. Or the people in the diner who probably wanted her dead.

She shook her head, remembering her talk with her mother that morning; she had been the one to speculate about the death part, while encouraging Brandi to make a few changes with her life.

“Forget the necklace,” she insisted, offering one of her empty jewelry cases. “Put it somewhere safe, where no one will touch it.”

“But this is what I want,” Brandi had informed her, wiping away fierce tears that refused to be abated, as she gritted her teeth, trying her best to endure the fresh application of salve that had accompanied the changing of her bandage. Her hand stopping her mother mid-turn.

Then their eyes had met and her mother appeared to see reason when Brandi told her about resuming talks with Teresa. Now though, when she bowed her head, she felt a slight pain in her side as Teresa’s breathy sigh caught her off-guard. Maybe she was exercising or doing some dance Brandi thought, thinking about the questionnaire they had both filled out during camp, where her friend had also admitted to having an interest in aikido.

“Not hearing about his parents is strange,” Teresa said, as if forgetting that there were people in their school who were part of the foster care system. Along with others who lived with relatives. Brandi opened her mouth to speak, wondering if  her friend had forgotten about the sister she had failed to mention, but then stopped when she heard something that resembled a curse. “No, parents. No, siblings, no life.”

Brandi gasped, feeling uncertain. She knew little about Roger. But thinking of him as alone made her uncomfortable. Especially since she had only just learned about Teresa’s sister, so that feeling of being snubbed, of not being worthy or trusted with important information still lingered. After all, she had spoken about her grandmother, mentioned how shitty she had felt about leaving her behind, and how she had first been against the idea of the retirement home, until her grandmother had started walking out of the house and wandered the streets. She had even gotten lost in the drinks section of the grocery store when Brandi had turned to get water.

And then there was Nicholas. The man who had saved her and was probably smitten by her mother. Not that she could easily broach the topic, without being reminded of just how immature she still was. Or how much she needed to grow. She bit her lip, lamenting the fact that since the accident – incident, she didn’t have anyone to talk to. And that had unnerved her, because now she was the one keeping secrets, because she wasn’t sure if Teresa could handle the fact of untrue things coming true. So until she was certain, she had to keep her mouth shut about her powers. And the pendant. Not that she had figured everything out.

“Isn’t that a bit extreme?” Brandi asked, her mind tuning into Teresa’s last few words. Wasn’t it wrong to wish someone harm, she thought, appraising herself in the metallic sheen of the refrigerator.

“No,” the voice on the other end said, coming in one sharp burst. Brandi cradled the phone to her ear, wondering if her friend was indeed winded, as she heard the slamming of a door. Was she only now getting home? Brandi asked herself  as the thud of bolts greeted her pause. She looked across at the clock. It was only 7:30. She pulled back, away from the fridge, feeling slightly bloated and patted her stomach. With the tear to her side, she hardly felt like eating, picking slowly at a bunch of grapes that her mother kept at the side of the sink for her smoothies. She plucked a few, washed them and then ate.

“Were you going out to get the paper?” Brandi asked, spitting out the seeds, as her friend’s breath slowed, and she heard the flickering of a light.

“That’s none of your business,” Teresa intoned, “you just stay clear of him.” What? the voice in her head asked, before she was greeted with the sound of the dial tone.

Convinced that their final exchange was indeed surreal, Brandi replaced the receiver; wondering if things like witches were real. She remember the previous summer, back at camp when along with a group of Teresa’s friends they had snuck out and gone to one of the counselor’s homes to watch The Craft. Some nineties movie about teenagers, who were trying to learn more about witchcraft and how one of the girls had ended up being duped by her friends. She hadn’t enjoyed it much, although Teresa’s friends had so enthralled that they were repeating some of the dialogue word for word as they threw popcorn at the screen. Then a slight shiver had run down her back, hearing their. That chorus of voices, filled with some evil intent. Now she felt a similar shiver run down her spine and prickle her skin as she thought of Teresa and Roger. Was there a need for such ill-will and bad intent? she wondered, adjusting her hair into a bun, with the scrunchy that had been wound around her wrist. She let out a shallow breath, thinking that such things were not for her to know. Or consider, as she remembered Cheryl, the woman from their Sunday School group who had been a victim of domestic violence that her mother had unwilling put up.

Once back when they were closer, she had asked her why there were such things in the world and her mother had told her that people lead the lives they lead, sometimes out of fear. When she had prodded her further, she had said that maybe they couldn’t do any better. Now, she wondered if that was what her friend was doing, by hoping for the worst. And she felt slightly confused, and ashamed, that she had pressed her more and willed her to think about things for the right.

And she willed herself to try. Thinking that her cousin Avery and uncle Ken had faced insurmountable odds almost every other day, as they met with opposition almost at every other turn. Like last semester when Avery had had to miss her piano recital because her father had had to be rushed to the hospital. Not that the nurses had been willing to admit her even though her mother had been away visiting relatives, and the doctors had had to vouch for and assure her safety. Grunting, she dropped the soggy paper towels into the trash, wondering when they would see each other again, as uncle Ken, aunty Pam and the girls were quickly becoming a distant memory.

And she shrugged, thinking that whether or not she talked to Roger, wouldn’t make the world come to an end. Or change things. After all, Uncle Ken was her uncle, illness or not and Teresa would remain her friend no matter who she talked to.

Besides which, as far as she knew, Roger had no interest in either school gossip or dissing Mrs. Jenkins. Brandi smirked, realizing that now was as good a time as any for her to go back to the diner. The place where all of this had started, even though her mother strictly forbade it. Holding the pendant, she told herself to trust her instincts, because so far, it was the only thing that seemed sure. Prickly with sweat, she changed her t-shirt and then darted through the door. Certain that either way, the Roger Barnes mystery, as Teresa liked to call it would remain just that, a mystery, because as far as she knew there was nothing between them.
#     #
One week after her incident in the diner, Brandi returned there to complete some school work. Pushing the books aside and taking a bite of her hamburger, her face lit up, momentarily, when Barnes walked in. He took a seat at the counter, ordered a cheese burger, fries and an orange soda. Looking at him she wondered where all the food went. With a slim frame, he stood at an even six feet. His body mass a whopping 150, she had heard him boast to one of his baseball friends.

No longer feeling too hungry, Brandi adjusted the English textbook on the table. After Soujourner Truth, Mrs. Jenkins had turned to Dickens and then Shakespearean sonnets. She wasn’t exactly sure if World English was the best way to learn English literature. But for now at least, she was trying to keep up. If only her teacher would let them read someone like Sandra Cisneros or Isabel Allende, she thought, the task would not be so difficult.

There was something alluring about Spanish Literature, with its allegories. The fantastic tales seemed to suggest things to the reader that made other texts seem bland. The somber tones of O’Neill for example and Dickens with his tales about orphans and lonely boys. Those stories had nothing to do with her, she thought, taking a sip of her grape juice. She had her mother and they lived in a really great place.

“So superficial,” a voice above her said. She turned and looked up. Roger stared down at her. What had she said? She turned the page away from Dickens.

“Dickens isn’t as far off as you might think,” he said, taking a sip of his soda. “His stories may not seem relevant to you. But there are things there.”

“Like what?” She challenged as he took a seat next to her and placed his food down on the table.

He inclined his head, as if trying to see if she was being serious. “You may have your mother but you’re still alone. The same way that David is alone, before he figures out his past and learns who his real friends, or better yet who his relatives…are.”

Her brow furrowed as she tried to figure out why all of this was important to him. “And what about you?” she asked. “No one knows nothing.”

“Anything,” he said, correcting her. “No one knows anything.”

“Right.” She nodded, wondering why she had made such a silly grammatical mistake. “Do you have a family?”

He smiled as if expecting her question. Did she know what she was getting into? she asked herself as he pulled out a baseball glove from his back pocket. “Yes, I have a family,” he said, opening the worn glove. “Or at least people whom I consider family.” He presented it to her.

In it Brandi saw names, written displayed in a manner that resembled a family tree. At the bottom left, she saw the name Barnes, Roger. And on the opposite side there was a Daniels, B. She frowned. Confused. Were they related? she wondered, pushing the glove across to him. Could that person be her?

Roger shook his head, rubbing the smooth surface with his hand. “It’s okay, they’re not referring to you. Even though we are related.”

“Are we?” she asked as the waiter appeared with his order and placed another tray in front of him. It was another burger, shake and medium fries.

“Ah danke,” he said, taking a sip of his drink and beaming up at the waiter. Then his features changed and he became a little bit more serious as his eyes narrowed and he surveyed Brandi. “Have you done what I asked?”

“You know German?” She closed the book, not sure how she knew the name of the language. Taking a sip of her cola, she nodded.

“Yes, I know a few things,” he said, waiting for her to answer his question while he gobbled down his second burger.

“You said that I needed to be prepared,” she said, pulling out a yellow and white umbrella. “So this morning, almost certain of rain, I took the bus and carried my umbrella.”

He coughed, dropping the last piece of burger patty back onto the plate. His eyes inspected hers as he took a gulp of his drink. “It’s a little more than just that Brandi. You have to look around you because the man who gave you that scar and sent an arrow through your abdomen wasn’t out playing hide and go seek.” He leaned forward, his voice low. Controlled. “He sat right here, where I am sitting now, and he waited for you because he wants you to reveal who you are so that he can figure out what you are capable of.”

“And what’s that exactly?” she asked, leaning closer to him.

“You can’t just see what is to come. You alone can change the outcome. Open up new possibilities.”

“How do you know all of this?” she asked, leaning closer, her mouth open.
“Like I said, we’re related.” He looked up as if fishing for a word. “Connected.” His mouth formed into a smile. “Every seer needs a guardian…” he paused, as if for effect. His eyes zeroing in on hers, “And I am yours.” Her head tilted to one side and her lips opened and closed.

“A guardian?” she asked as he went back to work and wolfed down his fries. His sandy hair wafting in the wind.

“It’s not just about appearances,” he said, dusting his hands in his pants and zipping up his battered jacket. “There are forces out there that are a lot greater and stronger than us. Forces your father fought and you will also have to fight. I am here to make you ready until the time approaches.”

What time? She wondered, looking out the window towards the darkness that so far he alone could fully know. He had to make her ready, she thought rearranging the condiments on the table. There was no other way. She took a deep breath, hoping that she was making the right choice as she struck out her palm.

He took it, giving her hand a firm shake. A seer had to do whatever was necessary to prevent time from repeating itself. So Brandi would have to become a warrior. Not a fourteen year old school girl. She had to be able to look beyond and prevent the future from being meddled with.  Or the past altered. Roger lifted his head. There was no time to fill her in. Now she would have to learn from the stories of the past, how to look forward to the future because soon there would be little else.

“So you know about my father,” she said, feeling even more confused, when he nodded.

“You aren’t the only one who has powers that have been passed down,” he said, stretching his arms. “Sometime ago our fathers shared a similar bond. My father was your father’s guardian before they were both lost. So yes, I’ve heard of Van Elder. Among us he is somewhat of a legend.”

Brandi blushed, wondering if it would be the same for her. For them.

“But the ability to train your mind to see takes time. Action,” Roger cautioned. “You have to be more aware of your surroundings so that during recall, you can see the things that are most important and then influence what is to come. This is how you will become better.”

“Of course,” Brandi said, suddenly becoming more serious.

“But before you can become a full fledged seer, you will have to undergo the trials of Terrors. Or in layman’s terms your first test.” He took a final sip of his soda and threw the cup across the room into a rectangular dumpster. A few people cheered and Brandi pulled back, eyeing him suspiciously. Roger nodded, as if knowing that he would have to do something else to convince her. He stood up and whispered a few words into her ear. “I will tell you as your task approaches, but read your stories and look for clues. They alone will tell you how you should act.”

Brandi opened and closed her eyes, as if taking everything in, for posterity. Her mind recording even the small movements: of Roger returning the glove to his pants pocket, the assortment of bills he dropped onto the counter and the military salute that he performed before walking through the door.

Brandi shook her head and bit down hard on her bottom lip. Something had to be wrong, she thought, her mind replaying the news of Roger’s announcement, that he was her guardian.