Sailing Stones

By Antonia Zanotto

I

It all started out like this.

There was this twelve year-old boy, living in one of those small towns you never remember the name to, who was a bit of a lonesome son. That could be a slight overstatement however, because basically he just had a lot of time, between four in the afternoon and eleven thirty, where he sat in front of a screen and read whatever he could find in the internet. That’s what kids do nowadays though; the backyard just isn’t as glossy as the screen. You’ve got to take into consideration that things have a way of becoming more real when they are forcefully projected onto you. I mean, who would want to pretend to be a pirate by putting on an eye-patch and waving a stick in the air when they can play a horrifyingly realistic game from the comfort of their swivel chairs? The internet is like a virtual landmine; you’re only a click away from something huge. Not that he would understand the meaning of the words ‘landmine’ or ‘swivel’ or even ‘virtual’ for that matter. This sudden lack of grammar became a common occurrence in most towns ever since their federal government cut down on educational expenses. A terrorist attack had surprised quite a few people in suits to their own demise, in one of the country’s busiest cities, and their president thought the air smelled of war, and so he declared it, and their Language and Grammar teacher Mrs. Hall was rumoured to have been killed by her Persian cats. Andrew, our wonder boy, had always thought she smelled suspiciously of tuna.

English teachers weren’t as easy to hire at the time after a business magazine had recorded that the percentage of young adults who went into pedagogy in the last ten years had but an 18% chance of success later in life. The success in question was never fully elaborated on, but nobody wanted to end up like Mrs. Hall. And the school board had to fill in the afternoon blanks for the school schedule, so they granted the kids a free period where most of them would settle into the IT lab, while others were herded onto the field which had been recently doubled in size, to make space for the eleven sports teams. The P.E. staff grew as fast as their salaries, and there was a rather dramatic week where they successfully petitioned to pull down the old drama studio, and reform it into a state-of-the-art gym. Goodbye Miss Pipette.

Anyway Andrew, our Andrew, found himself having recurring bouts of intense boredom, after having his afternoon mini hotdog and seedless grapes, where he would sit by his brand new computer, and read a random headline in the newspaper or the tabloids like “Senator Mills: The Cash is out of the Bag” or “All Them Muslim Days”. He would look them up, and follow links chosen at random until he discovered something he didn’t know about before. He felt like this would be both an educational and entertaining slot in his day. A lot of this time ended up on Wikipedia, but a lot of it also ended up in web blogs. Andrew wasn’t sure if he liked them or not. It was hard to keep up with people he found, they had more continuously urgent feelings than he could ever have imagined. For every positive post there was a negative comeback which would then sustain a good bulk of spiteful or soppy comments from other readers. He wasn’t used to this variety of argument, especially since all that was said at Sunday mass was that hell smelled of rotten eggs, and that its heating system was inexplicably out of control. Minister Jones would get enthusiastic at the mentioning of hell, which is something Andrew’s father complimented him about — “It’s truly inspiring to see a man have unconditional love for what he does” — and everyone else seemed to agree because they would stand up and clap and sing songs about how it wasn’t too late to be saved.

Minister Jones’ excitement was such that his tongue would unroll from its wise roots and flap about in his mouth, and when his saliva had sprayed itself across the first two rows, he would move on to the subject of gays. This would be explained with such concise pragmatism, that it would leave no doubt: being gay was not the way of the lord, which was weird for Andrew to understand, because the word gay also meant merriness - according to dictionary.com. But that would explain the general moodiness surrounding the town; they weren’t gay enough.

God, the internet is amazing!

After one particular Sunday sermon which would have broken all four walls of conventional theatre, and left Bertolt Brecht beaming with joy at the interaction between actor and audience, Andrew sat at his throne, and ran his eyes along the screen until he came across the word ‘fag’. Not once had Minister Jones dared to stereotype human beings with such a crude word, because amongst many other things, he was a loyal promoter of the Anti Bullying Campaign — the famous ABC — in the town’s school. Andrew thought he admired the Minister, but he wasn’t sure if it was because his father adored him, or if he really believed in it. As he scrolled down the page he read that the word fag was slang for both cigarette and gay, so maybe the big issue with cancer could be traced back to the fags. Andrew decided that this was hilarious because he didn’t smoke, but Sean McKinley — the high school quarterback — seemed to think he did.

Still, the pieces slowly began to fit together and Andrew decided that with so much recently acquired knowledge, he too should be a part of the networking world.

And so it was that Andrew said, ‘let there be blog’, and blog there was, and it was good. He called it “The School Diaries” as a sort of rip-off from a popularly rated kids’ film. He wrote about things that happened to him at school, like how Andrew suspected that maybe Mr. Manny’s wife had died because he almost never had his wedding ring on anymore, his office blinds were always shut, and whenever Andrew went past the showers, he saw Mr. Manny had summoned some of the cheerleading girls to cheer him up with chatter and, on occasion, silent prayer. Andrew thought it was unfair that heroes and policemen got daily praises for their achievements, whilst people who had to endure the solitude of losing their loved ones were left to deal with it alone, so he decided to write a whole blog about him. His generosity was met with karma, because as luck would have it, that very same evening Andrew’s mother made him his favourite dish of spaghetti meatballs, and it wasn’t even a Friday.

A couple of days later Andrew remembered about the blog and as he logged in, he found that his post had been received with seemingly urgent words like “blasphemy”, and “defamation”, and “sarcasm” spread across it. Granted, a twelve-year-old wouldn’t have had the most eloquent vocabulary in the internet universe, but there were some unmentionable words that made Andrew’s stomach mush into a pulp at the bottom of his back; a feeling which meant immediate regret, like the day he thought it would be an adventure to test his brother’s Swiss knife on the cranberry juice carton which, for some reason, was sat at the living room table, and for all his luck, cascaded onto the Turkish rug before Andrew could realize that one could not stop liquid with one’s hands. But as nobody could terrify a child more than his mother, Andrew began to feel insulted rather than scared at the failure of his blogging boot camp. Annoyed, he spent an hour on dictionary.com but still couldn’t crack the code. He decided he was done with the blogging world. And so it was that Andrew said: “delete thy blog”, and deleted it was, and it felt good. What happened to the rug, Andrew was never told, but his brother had a month’s worth of lice contracted from sunny afternoons, helping his mother with her Petunias in the garden.

The next day, the high school youth was assembled for an improvised meeting with Principal Adams, whilst a small group of the town’s local police gathered around the main hall, pinned up the extra few badges they owned onto their shirts, and began the cross examination of suspects in the new ‘Desdemona Prankster’ case. It came to the attention of the Centre for Children’s Protection and Restoration — the CCPR — that an anonymous blog had come into creation with hateful slander about the town’s local school staff. Minister Jones granted the case’s name as ‘the Desdemona Prankster Case’, claiming it showed that the rascal was a coward for having such treacherous attitude in his serious accusations based on his or her personal opinion. They also believed that naming a case after a Shakespearean character would offer onlookers the intellectual profundity of a rare mystery case, but above all, they thought the name Desdemona would remind people of negative words such as disdain, disrespect and derelict. It was all about the Freudian slip.

The suited principal was stood by an architecturally-challenged fountain, which bathed itself in waters that trailed around the statue of the emblematic quail, which was also the most hunted animal of the region. He held tightly onto a megaphone and guided the sleepy students along the paved patio with his big man hands, as a general orchestra of groans followed through. The middle school children stood behind the grey railings that lead to their separate building and watched quietly and intently. “What’s all this about, Andy?” Priscilla Hampton spoke, her wavy light brown hair tickling Andrew’s neck, as he was only as tall as her shoulders. “A meeting of some kind”, he answered, and it was only after replying that he realized Priscilla Hampton was speaking to him. His hands immediately begin to produce moist, and he thought of something funny to follow his informative statement with. “I think Mr. Adams just wants an excuse to use that megaphone.” He was relieved at the sight of Priscilla smiling, to the point where he accidently exhaled more obviously than he would have hoped for. Priscilla giggled, nudged him gently with her elbow, and walked away towards her friends. ‘Andy’, he thought. No girl had ever called him this. Andy, Andy, Andy. His father called him ‘Andrewmaboy’, and his mother called him darling or sweetheart, or other words that made him feel alright. He had always gone around as ‘Andrew’ in school, except maybe for his friend Hamish who called him Brew, an abbreviation of Bro and Drew, as well as a private joke which had rendered them both months of knowing looks and forbidden sniggers. There was also the lunch lady who called him ‘son’, the nurse who called him ‘oh dear’, and of course, Sean McKinley who occasionally called him ‘fag’. “Heya Andy, how’s it going Andy?” he whispered to himself in happy contemplation. He wandered about in front of the policemen who were standing by the auditorium doors, with their arms crossed and gum swirling around their teeth, and their trousers tightly stretched around the seams, giving many an undesirable display of the force’s military equipment. They were instructing teenagers to “go ahead and walk along” into the auditorium, indicating with one hand the location of the auditorium, “to our left, underneath the red sign son”, and the other hand on their batons, because men of the law can never be too cautious.

Andrew of course, had no business in high school, and so continued his Tuesday like any other, in the preparatory animal trenches which was middle school. He avoided a group of pubescent girls in colour-coded jumpers, having learned a harsh lesson from Mrs. Hall, the teacher Andrew was most fond of, about people who dress alike.  He had just spotted his friend Hamish in the far right end of the commuted corridor when he suddenly collided with a brick wall, also known as Patrick Lawson. The one spotty boy who had the fortune to inherit the “faster” gene: growing up faster, getting laid faster, and tripping up faster.  Lawson was not a fan of the ABC, and was bound by fate to terrorize one or two people through the greater part of their youthful years. This was the type of person who would become legitimately qualified to later work at a big corporation as a middle man, where he wouldn’t have to admit to his insecurities by not taking the top job, but having enough people work under him so that he could figure out a rotational system of pain infliction, like was done to him when he watched his mother invite the tech guy over to re-tile her bathroom, while he pressed his head against the staircase railing and squeezed crimson tears of rage onto his neon green retainer.

Andrew gasped at the sight of neon coming from his mouth and before he could think of sprinting away, Patrick unleashed unto poor Andrew - who only moments ago was funny ‘Andy’ - the burp from hell, giving him plenty of insight into what a big guy like him could have for lunch. He followed through with his broken laugh and Andrew — having lost the will to live — rested his tired eyes on Patrick’s mouth, a maze of metal rings, and green blocks intertwined in chicken bits, and creamy particles connecting his saliva to Andrew’s forehead. A small gag reflex ensued and Andrew realized the consequences would be much worse if he too was to show Patrick what he had had for lunch. Instead, he accepted his fate like a knight, and walked on, wiping the residue of trauma from his face.

 


 

II

Hamish tilted his face into a sympathetic smile and Andrew was still trying to calm his stomach down, as they shook hands at the end of the noisy, yellow corridor. Hamish was Andrew’s best friend, or perhaps the best term would be his only good friend. If there is one thing that you need for survival during your school years it is sticking to somebody, preferably a group — but never in a classic three, so as to avoid jealousy — and entrust in them all the faith you have in the world and allow them to entrust the same in you. Andrew didn’t know how much he could entrust in Hamish, but he thought he was a good boy. And they both needed somebody to talk to, so they thought they might as well talk to each other.

Hamish Ameling was the son of a Dutch diplomat and a younger Bulgarian woman, who possessed all the strange beauty one reads about in tales from Eastern Europe. Even though his family had moved to their town when he was only six years old, Hamish was doomed to being labeled as a foreigner, and those who were foreign gave townspeople the impression of a daunting task: whether to pronounce their names correctly, ask about where they come from, or suggest a colour coded scheme of school wear, it was commonly agreed upon that someone would eventually show them around and befriend them, so the awareness and responsibility was immediately lifted from people’s shoulders. Andrew was very interested in Hamish’s family because they seemed to have a very dissimilar story to the ones he was used to hearing about. There were the Hills who lived next door who seemed scarily alike to Andrew’s family, giving him the occasional chilling thought of having a huge mirror along the right side of his house, so that whenever he looked outside from his bedroom window, it looked like he was watching his own brother prance around the bathroom in his briefs, or his mother smoking a cigarette out in the garden, or his father reading his magazines in the living room. The only difference was the darker colour of the Hills’ house, but that just gave the impression that Andrew was a ghostly narrator, trapped with the role of observing the routine-like twists and turns of a very unpleasant dream.

Andrew had been to Hamish’s house quite a few times, and was used to the impeccably-polished wooden floorboards, and the golden green curtains that cascaded naturally from the high ceiling of the large, open windows down the beige walls in one of the many living rooms; he was used to the Portuguese cook, Manuel, who would sometimes also take the role of butler, doorman and — much to his distaste — Hamish’s hamster’s provider. Andrew didn’t mind the smell of pine and patchouli, he thought it was a more elegant scent than the smell of fresh linen that pervaded his own house. And yet, at an age where he was still only flirting with the idea of separating from his childhood and from things that brought him security, he could not make himself at home. There was a terror of brushing past decorative china, or accidentally leaving finger prints in the silver tea trays, or even gazing at Mr. Ameling’s collection of historical Asian lithographs, in the fear that perhaps looking at it the wrong way would cause it to suddenly burst into flames. Mr. Ameling was kind but quiet and contemplative, whilst Mrs. Ameling had a gentleness to her that was unlike any other Andrew had seen in a woman, and he found naïve excuses to go say hello to her, in the hope that she would hold his face in both her hands again, and smile at him with a fondness that would have a stranger believe he was her son. Andrew suspected there was a much bigger story behind Mr. and Mrs. Ameling’s marriage, and he wished to ask Hamish many questions but felt they would never quite go beyond their brew banter, the 101 facts magazine of the month, Holly Langdon’s breast growth, or the latest videogame Hamish was trying to complete.

They really were an extraordinary family, or perhaps they didn’t seem so extraordinary in the setting they came from. Maybe everybody else was extraordinary, except the people in this little town. Andrew even came to consider the possibility that maybe Hamish’ parents found him to be strange and special, like he too should have come from somewhere exotic and unknown. But those were fleeting thoughts that dissolved into the patchouli-kissed air, as soon as the little Ameling began speaking again. Hamish once told Andrew what his father had taught him that gentlemen always shook hands, whether it was with the barber, or his best friend, or with his wife. Andrew told him his father would greet his mother with a peck on the cheek and a cheeky grope beneath her skirt, and Hamish claimed it was imperative of his friend to tutor his father on the significance of being a gentleman, or Andrew himself would be lost. Whilst this usually amused Andrew because Hamish was oblivious to how misplaced he was, today Andrew was not up for it. He wasn’t sure if his blog failure shook him up, or if his charming chat with Priscilla Hampton had, but he was feeling slightly rebellious. Minister Jones telling everyone not to be happy, Hamish — an eleven year old — telling Andrew how his father should behave, those horrible words on the internet. All these orders began to annoy Andrew, because it seemed as though people from different ranks and heights of life — for Minister Jones was a tree of a man and Hamish, not so much — told him contradicting facts which were all literally the absolute truth and would literally differentiate the winners in life from people like Mrs. Hall. Worst of all was Andrew liked Mrs. Hall, and he felt like he could be honest about not understanding certain words without the worry of being laughed at. She would never have laughed at his blog, and for a moment he thought neither would Priscilla Hampton.

When the going got tough, either a book was thrown at him with the story of some poor ‘lord’ man who got nailed onto wood and suffered for everybody, giving Andrew no excuse not to finish his geography homework, or he was reminded of how lucky he was not to be born on the other side of the world at this day and age, and all this pressure felt like wasted energy in his opinion. What did it matter how his parents said hi? If anything, Andrew figured he would prefer to be at home with someone who would wear colourful skirts, and make him spaghetti meatballs, than spending his day trying to sell classic sports cars in what could only be described as a post-apocalyptic Texas. To make his argument ever more valid, Andrew later typed in “ugliest town in the world” onto Google and a town in Belgium was cited, but after close rendition he thought Charleroi was more appealing than where he lived now. As it was, he thought his parents deserved more credit for their affections and couldn’t quite engage in Brew banter with Hamish for the rest of the day.

It appeared to Andrew that there was an awful lot of truth going around and almost none of it seemed sincere. What he thought was his most genuine account of daily life, the intimate and intimidating feeling of letting others see through his eyes, was received with hate and he could not understand why. His current sympathy for his father made Andrew wonder whether he should ask him about the failure of his blog, but the child in him told him to keep it to himself in the fear that maybe his father had spent one too many years chasing people with sports cars to have the answer Andrew was looking for.

That weekend Andrew decided he wanted to spend some time with his grandparents. That of course was only possible after his mother gave him both permission and a lift to the other side of the arid town, past the Big Big Marketplace and the skate park. “I don’t understand why they call it the skate park,” Andrew said, tugging on the seat belt that was bruising his neck.

“Because it is a park sweetheart”, his mother answered half listening.

“But a park is a protected area with trees and stuff, not pavements and ramps,” he argued.

“Well what should they call it then?” Andrew’s mother asked in a gently teasing voice.

“I haven’t really thought about it, but I guess the ‘Skate Arena’ would be a pretty cool name.” His mother nodded in agreement as he continued. “I just think they should save the word ‘park’ for when they build a real park, like the one in Tokyo.”

Andrew’s mother looked at him, intrigued, wondering how it was he knew about parks in Japan, but as she was about to ask, the lights changed to green and she focused on driving instead, until they reached Beecham Drive.

Andrew got along well with his family, partly because he was too young to think otherwise, and partly because they had recurring similarities between themselves. Basically, if you got along with one of them you would probably get along with all of them, because that was the type of people they were: sales people. All their open conversations revolved around selling an idea, such as the benefits of Andrew wearing his retainer to sleep now when he was young, so he would not have to worry about corrective surgery costs when he was older, or in conversations with the extended family on Christmas about how they were undecided upon whether they should re-do the house or take a romantic vacation, but in actuality managed to do both with the help of a surprisingly good website. All this happy talk seemed so logical and comforting there was never any reason to argue with it. Andrew did not particularly care about re-doing the house, or understand what ‘corrective’ meant, but he admired his parents’ love for progress, and by God did they know how to make a sale.

There was only one family member that didn’t thrive in the idea of marketing discourse: Andrew’s grandfather, or as Andrew liked to call him, Grandpa Magic. He was Andrew’s father’s father, and he had a gift that sat on his tongue. He had lived through what he told Andrew to be the ‘melting pot of history’. He had been on both sides of the knife, whether it was as a pilot in the Second World War, or an illegal trader — a pirate if you will — off the coast of Indonesia, he had truly seen a lot of what was out there. Andrew called him Grandpa Magic because he knew about legends from all twenty six corners of the earth, and because he knew a little bit about magic as well. His parents worked together in a Circus group called ‘The Siamese’ that traveled remote areas of the country, picking up talent where they could. Grandpa Magic was rumoured to have been conceived the night the Horner meteor lit the black skies, and born the day somebody really famous had died. Andrew didn’t know who it was, and he couldn’t find the Horner meteor online, but Grandpa Magic told him that only a small group of travelers on the outskirts of the Colorado sky line got to witness what was the most beautiful show of lights he had ever seen. Andrew reminded him that he couldn’t have seen it since he had not been born yet, and Grandpa Magic told him one did not have to be present to be in the presence of beauty. He reminded Andrew of Hamish in a way, because he was never sure if he could completely believe him, but while Hamish told him stories about how he had to break his own finger on a door latch to get an extension for his coursework — “it was the most painful moment of my life, but I could never go back to detention Andrew, never” — Grandpa Magic told Andrew stories he wanted to believe in, more so than his parents’ stories on something called ‘equity bonds’. The circus tales allowed him to sit down without fidgeting with his laser keychain, and listen intently; they always had, since he was a baby and his Grandpa would jump in front of him, mumble some words in gypsy gibberish and transform his nappy into a white dove.

Andrew loved the stories of the circus of truth, but he could never listen too long because for some reason, he would find himself a bit melancholic and tired afterwards. And the more time he spent with his grandfather, the more annoyed he would get with his parents. Every little thing they said seemed common and boring to Andrew after Grandpa Magic had been around. Most of all, he would feel annoyed at himself for having nothing but a screen in which to discover and invent his own chronicles. When he confessed this to his grandfather, he told Andrew he was still very young, and that stories are created in time, unfortunately most of which comes with the endurance of hardship and the appreciation for the little things. Andrew told him the little things bored him, and that he wished he had been born on an important day, where meteors and aliens and volcanoes all came to life. So Grandpa Magic looked at him for a moment and said, “The twelfth of April is my favourite day of the year.”

Andrew looked surprised and said, “That’s my birthday grandpa.”

Grandpa Magic nodded and murmured, “You’re absolutely right, it is. And the day you were born, I had no idea that my favourite little boy in the world was going to join me in this life.”

Andrew smiled courteously, knowing that his grandfather was saying what he thought Andrew wanted to hear and so he answered with a coy “thank you.” His Grandpa raised an eyebrow as he picked up his pipe and, managing his tobacco, he contemplated: “Yes, I remember clearly; that was the same day a famous Cypriot archeologist discovered a collection of fossils in Sicily of the world’s oldest Cyclops.”

 


 

III

The next Monday at school was like most others, except it was nothing like it at all. Andrew had first period science, and the laboratories were located in the second floor of the High school building. Andrew walked across the patio with Hamish, who was wearing a navy rucksack bearing all the possible ornaments one could have collected in the many years of a souvenir quest, and as they reached the massive double doors of the Red Building, they saw that police were gathered around in the corridors again and, for some reason, adults in caps with strange initials and cameras and microphones were surrounding the principal and taking pictures of the school. Andrew recognized Sally Sharp, the reporter for Channel 4 news, and looked at Hamish as if in a naïve pursuit for answers. “Maybe someone tried to swallow a fork again,” Hamish shrugged.

They stood behind the reporter for a while, Hamish making sure he got a good angle for the camera, Andrew trying to listen to the reported updates amidst the noisy corridor. “New information…D-Prankster case. A week since…mysterious blog…Police have decided to eliminate…particular individuals…suspected of moral savage…lawsuit should follow…death penalty in the state of…” Andrew could only hear enough to understand that there was a sentence concerning a blog in which the words elimination, savage and death penalty were all a part of. And although Andrew thought it was something far away from his troubles, he couldn’t help but feel cold droplets forming on his pale forehead. Someone is in a lot of dung, he thought. His sympathy went for whoever this person was, knowing very well the feeling of utter dread at the anticipation of punishment. “We better get to class Heebs, we don’t want the police turning their eyes on us,” Andrew said, pulling Hamish by the tip of his rucksack, tugging on his ‘I ♥ Guantanamo Bay’ broche.

“Dude, nobody would ever turn their eyes on guys like us; Sean McKinley maybe, Patrick Lawson…probably not, but definitely not us. I’m telling you Brew; someone ate a fork again and broke the town record or something.” Andrew smiled as they walked down the red corridor towards the stairs, Hamish struggling to breathe and form elaborate sentences at the same time.

As the second bell rang, and the boys sat in their usual third-to-last table on the left, Mr. Finn arrived late, carrying some papers and fumbling around a bit nervously. He placed them on his desk, loosened the first button on his shirt, squinted through his thick-rimmed glasses so as to verify he was in the right classroom, cleared his throat and began: “Right class, before we start I have a couple of announcements I need to get through. Firstly, I’m sure a few of you have seen the commotion that is going on downstairs. Some parents have called in asking if it was safe and whether there was a terrorist attack going on. To questions of this sort we have answered, and I shall say again just in case anyone missed it: there is no terrorist attack. Yes, it is safe to come to school. No, you cannot use this as an excuse not to do your homework. This is a high school related incident which hopefully doesn’t pose a threat to anybody but the perpetrator himself. Secondly, we m- yes, what is it Andrew? A perpetrator? A perpetrator is the one responsible for committing a crime. In this case the perpetrator is the person or persons who wrote the blog. Eliminate? No Andrew that’s ridiculous, why would he be eliminated? Where did you hear that? Even if the death penalty was still actively legal here in our state, I don’t think Sally Sharp would be allowed to say the words ‘eliminate’ or ‘moral savage’ on television. You probably got your words confused. Alright, any other questions, guys? Go ahead Andrew. I don’t know what will happen when the perpetrator gets caught, he will probably be fined or maybe even serve some time in prison. But I think that would be a little drastic. Anyway, on other news, there is a new student joining us today, I know there is a lot going on here at school lately, but if you could all give her a warm welcome, that would be great guys, this..” But Andrew stopped listening once he saw a small, gangly figure walk towards the door. A girl with long dark hair covering a frustrating amount of her light, fair skin stood, in an awkward stance, picking the residue of polyester off her jumper, her socks unevenly stretched below her grey skirt, revealing her pale skinny legs, leaving only what a poet could write to the imagination.

An unknown feeling left Andrew at a loss of understanding. This wasn’t like his common misunderstanding with words and jealousies and needs. This was something almost like intuition, like the first time his brother and him finished the tree house, but also it was different in that he didn’t really know what to do with it. Hamish was whispering something to him, and Andrew did his best to follow, but it was no use. He was staring at her now, and he must have looked menacing because she looked at him and chose a seat on the other side of the room. He was curious but not particularly desperate to find out about who she was, because he often became curious of things and people he didn’t know, but he usually had Hamish by his side to fill him in on all the gossip. Indeed, by lunch time Hamish could have practically been a part of her family, telling Andrew the most insignificant details about her zip code. “You see; the numbers in her address add up to a prime number, and guess what Andrew, so do mine! I’m telling you Brew, she’s cool, and that’s saying a lot for a girl.” Andrew nodded subtly as if they were speaking in confidence.

“She doesn’t wear a coloured jumper like the others, which means she probably doesn’t watch that stupid Frosty Locke show. Definite bonus points.”

“Definite” Hamish repeated loudly, for the excitement that came with the child-like acceptance of something new, left one with a limited vocabulary, and a stomach full of helium balloons.

Andrew had one more class with the new girl that day, and Hamish wasn’t in it. They had to do group work on a task about animal extinction. Andrew was placed in a group with her and two other children. The teacher asked their group — her specifically —which case study they wanted, and she said she wouldn’t mind doing the case study on Panda extinction in China, because she was an avid watcher of the ‘Our Planet’ collection of documentaries, and the one on Pandas had stricken a particular sympathy in her. It was then that it hit him.  That is when Andrew realized that what he didn’t know earlier that day, what he wished he had inherited from his grandfather, what he only thought he had experienced last week with Priscilla Hampton, what he couldn’t talk to Hamish about, what he had only briefly seen in Mrs. Ameling’s eyes, he saw fully and completely in hers. He had rarely been sure of things in his life, and that which would have taught him certainty, and given him the real livingness behind the words in a blog, stood in front of him this very second. He became filled with an energy he had never experienced before, what he wanted was to sprint around the classroom fifty six times, and take her hands and spin her around, and tell her he had watched every single episode of ‘Our Planet’ and he knew what she felt and that it was okay to have hair covering her face because he wore big shirts that covered his scrawny body and she was not alone, and neither was he. But instead, when Mrs. Kipp asked the other students in the group if they agreed with the option, Andrew sat wide-eyed and motionless, screening in his head a private movie of his favourite type of reality.

The good thing about being able to day dream, is that you can create your own little version of things, and it feels lovely to know that there is a parallel universe where things go according to plan, and people act in ways you would want them to, leading you to believe that they are in fact, the accurate existing image that you have portrayed in your head. The bad thing about day dreaming is that the ones you dream of cannot partake, and you cannot explain it to them without running the risk of looking silly. The other unfortunate thing about day dreaming is that the more time you spend on this lovely dream, the less opportunity you will have to try and make it real. Andrew spent a good forty minutes looking up to notice something about her he had not seen before, and then back down to his notebook for a couple of squiggles, to make it seem like he was working. His favourite part of the hour was when he caught a glimpse of her eyes as they caressed the air around them. They were like sailing stones, in that they moved only occasionally, and when they did it wasn’t because of human intervention. The source of her sights was unknown, as were the contents of herself. Andrew knew some but he also knew that he knew nothing. She had been born by Death Valley and her name was Stella.

 


 

IV

“So who do you think did it?” Hamish asked, as he studied the donut respectfully, as a lion would study the defenseless antelope, moments before the attack. The boys were in Hamish’s house after school and Andrew was lying on Hamish’s bed, whirling his wrist in the air, after having tried several unfortunate attempts at drawing a Panda on his notebook.

“Did what?” he asked.

“You know, the blog thing.” Hamish said. Andrew looked up to him, immediately realizing that in the bliss of starring not so subtly at Stella’s face, Andrew had completely forgotten about the blog investigation.

“What did it say anyway, the blog. Have you read it?”

Hamish considered his answers here, thinking momentarily of saying he had so as to maintain Andrew’s attention, but realizing he knew very little on the subject, he decided to relate just what he had heard. “No, I think it got deleted, but Timothy Henderson said his big sister Mackenzie spoke to a friend who read it, and this guy wrote a bunch of secrets about the school.” His eyes grew wide, accompanying his mouth which was now enveloped around the big, sugary dough ball.

As intrigued as he was, Andrew was always skeptical when it came to finding out about rumours. He thought of dropping the subject, or asking Hamish about the new ‘Chrome’ game but he suddenly lost control of his tongue. “What secrets?” He asked, trying to keep the other half of himself calm enough to listen without interrupting.

“I don’t know Brew, secrets. Like how principal Adams had an affair with Mrs. Hall, and that’s why she left.”

Andrew nodded understandingly and then paused to reflect. “What’s an affair?”

He asked. “It’s like when the boss fires two people so he can hire one person that does two things. It’s a way to save up money.”

Andrew became annoyed with what he heard. “So they fired Mrs. Hall because she could only teach English?” And Hamish nodded knowingly, licking the sugar from around his lips. “But if an affair is common, then why is it a secret?”

Hamish shrugged saying, “I don’t know, but many people were angry, so maybe it’s illegal. Maybe Mr. Adams broke the law, and someone told on him.” Hamish was beginning to enjoy the possibilities of the facts they knew that they were not supposed to know.

“Do you think Mrs. Hall wrote the blog then?” Andrew asked.

“No Brew, she would be embarrassed to admit she got fired because of an affair. You have to think of the reasons behind the crime, like in the ‘Tom Hardy’ video game. We could play it for practice. There’s also the board game my parents got me, but it’s got no effects or anything.” Andrew agreed to this adventure, partly because he was curious, and partly because he was a little tired of drawing pandas.

“Okay, so first in the list is equipment. We need glasses, a polisher and hats.” Hamish sat on his swivel chair with his white board in hand spelling out e-c-u-i-p-t-m-u-n-t.

“Why do we need glasses and hats Ham?” Andrew looked intently, taking a biscuit from the white porcelain plate Manuel had kindly brought to them and the hamster.

“Because nobody will take us seriously if we don’t look like professionals, and we won’t understand the evidence without glasses…duh”

Andrew stared at Hamish, realizing they were not getting anywhere. “What evidence, Fatsolot? Look, let’s just find the blog, or someone who’s read it, and then we can write up a conclusion, like for an experiment.”

Hamish agreed after giving him a sausage-y finger to rest his eyes on, and then he texted Manuel to come upstairs.

A few moments later, a knock was heard on Hamish’s door, and Manuel’s face appeared, more miserable than ever, as he said, “Sir, your mother told us both that you were not to use your phone unless it was for emergencies.”

Hamish sat up, looking insulted; “this is an emergency Manuel!”

Manuel sighed loudly, trying to reminisce on what life was like before all this. “Would you like another donut? Your mother said you could only have one in the afternoon sir, otherwise you will not eat the ‘special’ dinner.”

Hamish blushed in embarrassment and said, “No Manuel, don’t be hysterical.” Both Andrew and Manuel stared at Hamish, and he realized he had to continue speaking or one of them would ask him what ‘hysterical’ meant. “If I wanted a donut, I’d go get one myself! Me and Andrew are in the middle of an investigation and we need you to get us the website of the prankster blogger.” It was clear to any person capable of deciphering human emotion, that no man had ever looked as unhappy as poor Manuel did now.

“It is ‘Andrew and I,’ sir, your mother asked me to correct you with your grammar. What is it that you want me to do, sir?”

Hamish twitched in his chair, not knowing how to follow through, so he thought emphatic repetition would work in this case as well. “What I just told you Manuel, please. And bring us some biscuits as well please, not for me, for Andrew.” Manuel locked his jaw tightly and left the room mumbling foreign words of hatred and desperation. Hamish then told Andrew that he had toilet-related needs, which Andrew already knew to mean that he had to leave the bedroom, as Hamish needed a minimum of two doors’ worth of private space.

Andrew trailed through the upstairs corridor, rubbing of the crumbs from his t-shirt and humming a pop song he thought Stella would like, and planned to ask her about it once he had memorized the words. He heard a faint sound of a violin coming from downstairs and followed it, taking his time to absorb the details of the spiral stair case, the paintings hung on the white circular wall, ascending to a translucent dome at the very top, which illuminated the massive space below. Andrew imagined that this was what the President’s house must look like, with lots of ornaments and paintings and things about people he didn’t know, bearing stories he would possibly never hear. He felt a little jealous of Hamish at times, thinking he was silly not to be more interested in the rare things that surrounded him. He was also jealous because although he and Hamish had been friends for a long time, he didn’t feel comfortable enough to invite Hamish to his home, even though Andrew knew it was a perfectly nice home, with one expensive thing or another to make it distinguished. But these were things that came and went, for Andrew was still young, but he was also interested in other things like the Colorado skyline, or Bulgaria, or sailing stones, and he felt this was enough reason for pride when comparing himself to Hamish’s limited curiosity.

The faint song Andrew had heard upstairs grew louder as he reached the main hall, and he became excited because he knew that it was very likely that Mrs. Ameling was the one listening to it. Indeed, Mrs. Ameling was sat at a sofa in the living room Andrew liked the most because it smelled of mothers, and he stood there for a moment before she looked up, her face lighting up like a little girl. “Andrew, darling, how are you? Come say hi, will you?” Andrew blushed and dragged himself awkwardly towards her. She was wearing a white button down shirt, tied at the bottom, and sitting effortlessly cross-legged, she was wrapped around a dark blue skirt which travelled all the way to her ankles, revealing at the entrance where the sides parted, golden ballerina flats suiting her holiday colour.

“Hello Mrs. Ameling, I am very well thank you.” Andrew practiced his very best English with Hamish’s parents; he wanted to make sure he adapted their sophisticated mannerisms so that one day he could maybe live in a house like theirs. Mrs. Ameling smiled heartedly, and patted the cushion next to her, in an indication for Andrew to sit with her, and he did so, slightly clumsily and very quickly. “What are these?” Andrew asked pointing at the albums filled with photos of people he did not know.

“This is my family; they live in Bulgaria where I was born.”

Andrew suddenly realized this was the perfect opportunity to ask her all the things he wanted to know about Bulgaria, without sounding nosy of course. “I don’t know much about Bulgaria, I’m afraid. Did you like it there?”

Mrs. Ameling smiled at Andrew’s naïve chivalry and nodded in agreement saying, “I did indeed, very much.”

Andrew got excited that he was allowed to talk about it and his brain got ahead of his tongue again. “I can imagine, it’s in Europe and Europe is really cool and different from here. I would love to go travelling, my dad speaks of going on holiday sometimes but he’s really busy with work right now. But I guess that if you lived in a cool place you wouldn’t want to go on holiday would you? I wouldn’t, unless it was a holiday to Bulgaria.”

Mrs. Ameling tried to follow the speed of his childish interrogation and couldn’t help but laugh at his interest. “You’re very right darling, I wouldn’t want to leave a place I love either. And I love Bulgaria very much, there were many beautiful things, but many troubling things as well, and when I met Hamish’s father, it seemed like a lovely opportunity for us to start a new family, with a new photo album, in a new country.”

Andrew paid close attention to every word and thought he felt bold enough to keep the discourse going by showing his own knowledge as well. “My grandpa once said he knows someone from Bulgaria who caught Conumisdum.”

Mrs. Ameling tried her best to hold back the amusement from her face and nodded fiercely at young Andrew’s claim. “Yes, yes, your grandpa is right. Communism is a difficult thing to speak of, Andrew. In a way it gave people the chance to have hope, and a lot of possibilities and excitement for people my age. But my mother and father had to live like prisoners for years because of it; I was luckier to get the little bit that was left of it.”

Andrew gazed at her, barely breathing so as to not interrupt her story. When she went back to looking through her album, he couldn’t help but persisting. “Could you tell me more Mrs. Ameling, please?” The young Bulgarian lady looked up at the very young American boy, and she did not know how to begin explaining a cultural history which his veins had never even come close to feeling. She suggested maybe he go upstairs to play with Hamish instead of spending his time listening to boring history, but as his face dismantled and he obediently got up to leave, she felt the strange sensation of empathy overcome her and she gave into his boyish littleness by granting him a story. Andrew was recovering from his ten second strop and quietly sat across from her on the Persian carpet by her golden feet.

“My father was called Boyko, and he was born in a town called Varna by the Black Sea. You know what a government is, right? The president, or king or prime minister is like the principal of a school; he makes all the decisions. Before, most of Eastern Europe,” she said pointing to her left, “had been through many changes in ‘principals’ and wars, and everybody was very tired of not having a lot of money to feed their families.” At that point, Andrew thought of asking why the principal didn’t try having affairs, maybe that would have helped the money situation, but his trust in Hamish’s knowledge was a very wavering one, so he kept quiet instead. “And back in those days, America wasn’t as big as it is now, there were no television shows, or internet, or things of this sort.”

Boom.

That was something Andrew had never even thought of considering. Of course man had not had computers since the beginning of time, and he knew that. What he didn’t know, is what people did instead of watching TV or looking things up on Wikipedia. His preconception was something exaggeratingly primitive, but his logic also allowed him to consider how young, elegant and modern Mrs. Ameling was and that therefore her family didn’t necessarily get around in horses and make wheels out of mud, or eat whatever they hunted during the day with spears and arrows.

“Mrs. Ameling, do you mind me asking what your name is?” Mrs. Ameling laughed and explained to Andrew that he had just said it himself. “Oh, yes. But I mean your real name.” Mrs. Ameling’s smile subsided slightly and she looked at her hands, rubbing her fingers whilst her mind meandered privately. Andrew thought maybe he had said the wrong thing and slid his right leg backward slowly, getting ready to get up if was asked to leave. She looked up at him, and her voice suddenly flailed into a hoarse like whisper. “Very few people ask me that,” she struggled apologetically. Andrew did not know what to do so he just nodded. “Rayna Georgieva is my name.” She watched as the boy mimicked her lip movements and unconsciously whispered it to himself. “When the new ‘Principal’ took over, we were cut from the little connection we had with the Western world. And the smaller our landscapes became, the greater yours grew. My father was a very young man when this new order was in full strength. He could not speak English, almost nobody could.” Her accent thickened gradually as she spoke, giving Andrew the impression that she was slowly transporting herself into the story, bringing the past into life before their very eyes. She did not seem aware of this, and for Andrew that was one of the most beautiful truths he had ever seen.

“Our town, our country, our part of the globe was very close to losing all contact with the other growing half facing it. My father worked at Varna prison as a guard during night shifts. It was very hard for him because when the world was waking up, all he could think of was going back to sleep, and when the world was going to sleep, he was alone like a vampire, roaming the prison corridors, keeping himself busy with little limericks and stories. He felt like he was wasting his life sleeping during the day, missing his little sister growing up, and his parents growing old. So when he had saved himself some money, he decided to buy a little radio to have in his room. He thought that if he had his mother turn it on for him at twelve in the afternoon, then he would have had the perfect amount of sleep and still keep up to date on what was going on in central Bulgaria. What he did not know was that there was a radio station run by a little English company in the very north of Greece for tourists, that could be picked up on a single channel in the Bulgarian radio. And as fate would have it, my father Boyko left the handle on the AM station so that the next day, he was roused by the strangest sound. It was a thumping of drums, and a screechy electric guitar, with men singing in a language he was not familiar with. At first he was scared that maybe his radio was possessed so he turned it off. But like most people who cannot help being curious, he soon turned it back on again and listened in for a full hour, even though he was very tired. For some reason, the song shook him up with an energy he had never felt before.” Andrew knew exactly what she was talking about, for he had felt the very same bolt of electricity earlier in the day.

“The music made him so enthusiastic, he was humming it all day and later on in his shift at work, he began sliding his baton in rhythm, across the cold brick walls, and tapping his polished boots on the cement floor, letting his heavy key chain dangle from his belt into a perfect harmony of sounds.” Andrew did not know what harmony meant but if he accidentally made her stop talking he would be forced to slice his own tongue onto a grill. “The next day he made sure to turn the station on to the very same channel at the very same time, and as soon as the first chord was struck he clapped his hands loudly and called onto his family to come in and listen with him. His parents didn’t understand the charm the music had at first but his sister loved it straight away. There was a passion in it, such optimism behind the voice, and a uniqueness that hadn’t been seen in Bulgaria for years! Boyko began to memorize the words, even though he did not know what they meant, and he rehearsed in front of the only small mirror they had in the house, and later to his parents who clapped and sang along with gibberish words, whilst Boyko’s sister Ana started translating the words into what she thought they could mean. It was a wonderful discovery because before they knew it, they were spending afternoons together, talking about progress and how it was never late for change. And the proof of this was in the melody that accompanied them everyday from twelve to one PM. It was all it took Andrew, you understand? An hour a day is all it took to give them some happiness. My father began singing it at night as if to himself, but actually, he made sure the prisoners could hear him, because he thought that if the music could cheer up his home and his neighbours and his friends, then it would definitely cheer up prisoners who had nothing to look forward to but grey walls and metal bars.”

Andrew pointed out that prisoners were in prison because they had done wrong, and so maybe they needed to understand their consequences through punishment to make sure they would not do it again. And Rayna Georgieva explained to him that not all prisoners were bad people, most of them had made mistakes they were not proud of, or been wrongfully accused because sometimes justice was just as horrible as the worst criminal in the world. ‘Sometimes justice is just as horrible as the worst criminal in the world’, Andrew repeated to himself. For him, this was one of the most shattering statements he had ever come face to face with. Never, had anybody told him that justice could be the bad guy. What did this mean in the greater scheme of things? His parents were justice in his eyes; did this mean they could be wrong? Policemen were good, the principal was good, Minister Jones told his entire family how to live their lives, teachers were wise and their word was law. But here sat Mrs. Ameling, the most charming and gentle woman he had ever met telling him that all the above statements were not necessarily true. This bothered Andrew because whatever he took to be a pillar of guidance now seemed like it was made of jelly. He told Mrs. Ameling he should probably get back home as it would be dinner time soon. She asked him if she had upset him and he shook his head and said she could never do that. He walked towards the living room sliding doors and turned around as if he had just remembered something. “Miss Georgieva?” He said, grabbing her attention one last time. “What music was your father listening to?” Hamish’s mother smiled and opening the photo album onto her lap, her tender American voice said clearly, “They were listening to The Beatles, darling.”

It was going to be a long night for Andrew, sitting in front of his glossy screen.