Sunday, September 25, 2011

Unseen (part 19)


On Wednesday and Thursday I spent the daylight hours at Mrs. Townley's, learning theory, and most of the night walking through Corey with her and observing as she put that theory into practice. In the process, I discovered that all students in Corey were on a complex schedule, since not everyone learned everything at once, or even in the same way. Some students, who readily took up new ideas and learned at a faster pace, received new ideas from Mrs. Townley on an almost nightly basis; others, who had resistant mental structures or who took time to process a new thought, only received additional instruction when they'd had sufficient time to digest the latest idea. (I was deeply curious to know where I had fit into this schedule, but I didn't dare ask, and Mrs. Townley didn't volunteer the information.) I was getting home at 3 or 4 a.m., usually going in covertly by my bedroom window, and getting by on a scant few hours of sleep.

No one seemed to see how hard I was pushing myself or that I was consistently shading my mind, with the possible exception of Dad. Despite the long hours I was putting in, I slept only fitfully and was often peevish and cranky at breakfast, and Dad noticed.

"Where's my happy little girl got to?" he asked on Friday morning.

I glared at him over my one-eyed sandwich. "Daaad. I'm not 'little' any more."

"You're not happy, either," he observed. "Who are you and what have you done with my daughter?"

"It's too early and you're not funny," I snapped. "Just leave me alone."

Some small part of my mind was cruelly satisfied to see how easily I could wipe the usual cheery smile off Dad's face. It took a few minutes for the meanness of what I'd done to hit me -- but not hard enough to make me apologize. My eyes dropped to my plate and to the now tasteless sandwich, whose eye-like yolk seemed to be staring at me in shock.

Mum immediately told me off for rudeness, but Dad stayed silent all through breakfast, which was worse. After finishing his meal, he hugged Mum and went off to work, still without saying a thing. Silence from him as I washed up the breakfast dishes, silence as I gathered my commonplace-book. But on my way to Mrs. Townley's, I got a quiet message from him: You have the ability to hurt others. Be careful how you choose to exercise it. In my mind's eye I could see him in the workshop, creating a stepladder, and I saw the strength behind the chisel he was using, how easily the tool could be wielded to mar and destroy the work.

At Mrs. Townley's, I didn't have to put on much of an act; I really was exhausted, and my low-level sense of misery over snapping at Dad just added that much more depth to the performance. Two hours into the morning tutoring, Mrs. Townley paused.

"Child, you look as though you haven't slept in three days," she said.

"I'm feeling tired," I admitted. "Dad says I'm not myself lately."

Peck cocked an eye at me, and Mrs. Townley rested her chin on her hand. "I have been working you pretty hard the last little while," she said thoughtfully.

Now was my chance. "Mrs. Townley," I asked, as though the idea had just occurred to me, "do you think maybe I could have today off? Just for today," I added, "and I'd join you later tonight for practice. Would that be all right?"

Mrs. Townley considered. Mentally, I held my breath. My plans for the evening hinged on her willingness to let me out of service for the day.

"Oh, very well," Mrs. Townley finally said. "Go on home and get some rest. I'll see you this evening. If your mother asks what you're doing, have her speak to me about it."

"Yes, ma'am." I didn't wait to give her a chance to reconsider. In less time than it takes to tell about it I had packed up and was headed home.

Mum had opened the windows to the morning air, and the rhythmic chk-chk-chk-chk of her treadle machine blended with birdsong and the distant bleating of the Phillipses' goats. I'd already decided to sneak in; that way I wouldn't have to deal with another potential tongue-lashing about rudeness. As long as I could hear the machine running, I'd know where Mum was. I crept around to the back of the house and looked up into the higher branches, toward my open bedroom window. I'd taken to leaving it open so I could sneak out to keep my evening appointments with Mrs. Townley.

My plan was very simple: basic misdirection. If Mrs. Townley thought I was at home, and everyone else thought I was at Mrs. Townley's, I could be pretty much anywhere I wanted to be. The secret nature of Mrs. Townley's service to Corey meant she wouldn't want to risk loosening the charm that helped keep the secret in place, so she wouldn't venture to ask anyone where I was if I happened to run a little late. All I had to do was lay low in my room for a few hours, getting some much-needed rest and reading another half-dozen creepily delicious Poe stories. Then, some time in the early afternoon, I'd quietly leave Corey and head straight for the village library.

I just had to get up to my room without being seen. But I'd gotten pretty good at going in and out by my bedroom window without making much noise. It wouldn't be too--

"What're you doing?"

I just about jumped out of my skin at the voice. From the shadow of the trees John Woodbury emerged, carrying a wire basket.

"John!" I hissed. "What... why are you even here?"

He held up the basket. "Doing some service for the Phillipses. I was just coming to see if your mother was in need of eggs." His face was turning slightly red again. "I... thought you'd be at Mrs. Townley's this time of day."

I thought as fast as I could. "I was," I said. "Earlier. But we've been cleaning house and, you know, uh, she was really tired out... and she decided she could use a nap. I told her I'd come back later this afternoon."

If John was skeptical of this explanation, he didn't say so. Instead he followed my gaze upward to my window. "You know, it is your house," he said. "Why not just use the front door like a normal person?"

At that moment I was deeply grateful for the ability to hide my thoughts from others. "I... John, I'm trying to put something together for my mum's birthday," I whispered. "I really want it to be a surprise. Please don't tell her I'm here. It would ruin the whole thing."

John looked mildly horrified. "You can't ask me to do that," he protested. "I can shade a little bit, but I can't hide stuff from your mum. I don't think anybody can."

Odd to think that only a few days earlier I would have agreed with him.

"Well, then, just don't stop by with the eggs. Then you won't have to explain anything." I gave him my best puppy-dog look. "Please, John?"

He blushed a deeper red, looking almost like a beet under his white-blond Woodbury hair. "Fine, all right," he muttered.

I gave him a quick, impulsive hug, flew straight up to my window and silently let myself in. I thought to give John a little wave of thanks, but when I leaned back out he had already made himself scarce.

Leaving the window open, I sprawled out prone on my bed and started in on the Poe, but found it surprisingly hard to follow. Odd things kept creeping into the stories, like the presence of Janie Herrick as the Red Death or Montresor bricking Dad into a wall, suggesting that I might not be as fully alert as I supposed. Eventually I pushed the book away, too drowsy to continue, and pillowed my head on my arms for a quick nap. But Poe's phrases and poems followed me into my dreams -- "You are not wrong, who deem that my days have been a dream..." "To dream has been the business of my life..." "And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon's that is dreaming..." -- along with the faraway sound of weeping. Once I even thought I heard someone crying in the spare room nearest mine, but when I woke up the sound was gone.

Most of the afternoon was gone as well. My clock showed it was twenty minutes of five. I was going to have to hotfoot it if I wanted to reach the village by five o'clock -- the only thing for it was to take Mum's bike again. Wishing for the departed fashion sense of my broken mirror, I hurriedly made myself as presentable as I could, then grabbed Keefe's book and let myself out by the window, floating gently to the ground.

It took a few minutes to find Mum's bike, but soon I was whizzing along -- technically a little too fast, and a little too high off the ground -- down the long road that led out of Corey and toward the village. And if someone happened to see me leaving, and wondered where I was going, I certainly was too focused on my own plans to notice.

Once out of Corey, I had to keep the tires on the ground and stick to normal bike speeds, but even before I got in sight of the library I could feel that Keefe was there, waiting for me. He was pretending to read, but the shape of that quick, beautifully structured mind was all pointed in my direction. When I stopped the Schwinn in front of the library steps, he immediately looked up.

"You came!" he said, and the smile in his eyes brightened his whole face. At that moment, I thought I would have gladly lied to Mum or Mrs. Townley or anyone on earth just for a chance to see Keefe Godwin smile at me like that. "I didn't think you would."

I swung off the bike. "Of course I came." Who in her right mind wouldn't? "I couldn't resist the lure of candlepin bowling and ice cream."

"Well then, sounds like my wily plans are coming along nicely." He stood up. "Do you want to leave your bike here, or would you rather stick it in the back of the truck for safekeeping?"

"Let's put it in the truck," I said, thinking of the last time I'd left it at the library. "I don't really trust leaving it here."

"True. It might get ideas and start wandering around by itself again." He bounded down the steps and picked up Mum's bike as though it weighed a few ounces. "Oh, hey, you brought the Poe back. Thanks. What did you think?"

I can't remember exactly which direction we drove in, or how long it took us to get there, or much of anything else except that I was with Keefe, talking about "The Cask of Amontillado" (he had a much greater understanding of the story than I did, helping me appreciate it even more than I had when I read it alone) and being awestruck all over again by his astonishing mind. I was doing my best not to pry into his head, since I knew how rude I was being, but it was almost irresistible. Since I'd started studying concept introduction theory with Mrs. Townley, I realized how amazing the vaulted structures of Keefe's mind really were. Not one member of the Conscient whose mind I'd glimpsed in the past few days possessed anything like what I found in Keefe's head. It was beautiful. Like the inside of a grand cathedral, my familiarity with it bred not contempt, but a greater sense of wonder.

"He was smart to work Montresor's coat of arms and motto into the story," he was saying. "Nemo me impune lacessit? Tells you a lot about his temperament, and suggests the lengths he's willing to go to for the sake of revenge." He considered (and the way his thoughts moved! It was like watching a dancer, an acrobat, an angel move all at once) and added, "But the most amazing thing about the story is how Poe takes an unrepentant, cold-blooded murderer like Montresor and turns him into a sympathetic character. He actually makes his readers root for the man who bricks up an enemy alive inside a wall. How many writers could do that?"

I thought of Montresor slowly, implacably burying his erstwhile friend alive, and shivered. "Montresor is creepy, though. I mean, Poe makes you assume that all those snubs and insults that Montresor talks about at the beginning of the story are real. But Fortunato probably didn't do anything that was worthy of death. He might not even have done anything bad. It's all about one man's point of view -- it's totally subjective."

We pulled up in front of New England Lanes, a slightly scruffy-looking building sandwiched between a strip mall and a tire store, and Keefe said, "Wait a minute." He hopped out of the truck and went around the back. At first I thought he was checking on the Schwinn, hidden under a tarp, but then I caught a glimpse of his thoughts, so I wasn't completely surprised when he came around and opened the passenger-side door for me.

"Yeah, I know, you can open the door yourself," he said, somewhat apologetically.

"I know," I said, smiling a little. "I know that's not why you do it. Thank you."

He seemed surprised, but pleased by this. I wondered who had raked him over the coals in the past for showing common courtesy, but decided it was probably best not to find out.

As we walked in, Keefe breathed in through his nose. "Ah, eau de bowling alley," he said appreciatively. "Smells like 1963 in here."

I sniffed experimentally. "I never realized 1963 smelled like stale cigarettes and pizza."

"See, you learn something new every day." He smiled. "Let's get you some shoes. What's your size?"


He looked at me quizzically. "You've really never gone bowling before?"

I cast around wildly for a good excuse, and found none. "Um... I guess I don't get out much," I finally said.

"Well, you need to rent special shoes when you bowl so you won't slip and fall in the lane. You return them and get your regular shoes back when you finish playing."

I knew better than to ask what it meant to "rent" shoes; I'd read about the practice of renting in a few library books. I still didn't get the point of paying someone to use an object for a short time, when it was so much simpler just to borrow it and return it in good condition. But, I reminded myself, this isn't Corey. Outsiders do things differently.

A frizzy-haired girl behind the counter smiled broadly as we approached. "Hey, Keefe!" she sang out cheerily.

"Hey, Sandra!" Keefe hollered back, and they high-fived across the counter.

"Are you coming back to league, you traitor?"

"I wish I had the time," said Keefe. "There's only so much a man can do in a day."

She rolled her eyes at him. "Sure, whatever. And who's your friend?"

Keefe introduced me. "She's never been candlepin bowling before, if you can believe it."

Sandra looked me over and grinned. "First time? Better watch out for our man Keefe here. He thinks he's the second coming of Justin White." She pulled out a pair of shoes for Keefe. "Men's 8, right? What's your size, hon?"

This I was sure I'd get right; Mrs. Putnam had measured my feet for new shoes only a few months earlier. "9 1/2 inches, with an 8-inch circumference," I said confidently.

Both Sandra and Keefe stared at me, nonplused. "I mean, what's your shoe size?" Sandra asked.

"I -- uh..." How many times this evening was I going to put my foot in my mouth? "I'm not sure what the right size is for bowling shoes," I said.

"Well, hand me your street shoes," Sandra said. "I'll figure it out."

I slipped off my shoes and handed them to Sandra, who seemed impressed. "Wow. Your shoes are really nice," she said. "Where do you get them?"

"Friend of the family," I offered, hoping it wouldn't make me stand out even further. But Sandra was too busy comparing heels and toes. "OK, women's 7," she said, handing me a pair of garish two-tone shoes. "Enjoy!"

At first I thought I must be the butt of some kind of joke -- surely no sane person would wear shoes this offensively ugly -- but when I turned to Keefe, he was nonchalantly lacing his up, so I reluctantly put mine on as well. As it turned out, everyone who was bowling wore the same crazy footwear, so at least I wasn't alone.

Candlepin bowling turned out to be pretty fun. The ball weighed only a couple of pounds, a little larger than a softball, but smaller than a melon -- Keefe said it was "like bowling with coconuts" -- and after the first few boxes I was starting to get the hang of it: you could use the downed pins to help knock over anything that was still upright. Keefe was a good teacher, and I could see why they wanted him back in the league; he beat me easily. I was sorely tempted to maneuver the ball a bit using my knack, but I figured I'd already drawn enough attention to myself for one evening. Besides, it's more satisfying to get a good score without cheating.

When I finally got my first strike, I turned back toward Keefe with a triumphant smile -- and just as I did, I picked up a thought from him. It was the memory of a poem, though not one by Poe, and not one I remembered reading:
One shade the more, one ray the less,
Had half impair'd the nameless grace
Which waves in every raven tress,
Or softly lightens o'er her face...

I was struck by the beauty of the words before I wondered why he was thinking of them, and curiously probed a little deeper. And in a flash I saw the connection in his mind. My face went suddenly hot, and I dropped my eyes, but I could still see Keefe's eyes seemingly looking down into my soul, making one of those effortless mental connections between the poem and the girl before him. The poem was how he saw me.

After that I must have been unusually quiet, because at one point Keefe turned to me and asked, a little anxiously, "Are you all right? You're not bored with this, are you?"

"No, no, not at all. It's fun," I assured him.

"Well, maybe we'll finish up this string and get some ice cream. I know a good place."

Keefe beat me again (though a little more narrowly, I noted with satisfaction), and after getting our shoes back we hopped into his pickup and headed a few miles down the road to a tiny ice cream parlor, painted pink and white, with a walk-up window and three or four wrought-iron tables and chairs set outside. Keefe confidently stepped up to the window and ordered one apple crisp scoop and one ginger scoop. Then I had a really good look at their signboard, which was covered with flavors. I'd had ice cream exactly once, years ago when I was traveling with Mum, and now there were so many flavors to choose from that I felt almost dizzy with choice.

"You should try the Black Bear," the guy behind the counter finally suggested. "And maybe a scoop of vanilla to go with it."

"Trust him," Keefe said. "He's probably tried them all."

I smiled. "OK. I'll try that."

Black Bear turned out to be blackberry ice cream with a chocolate ribbon, studded with big chunks of chocolate, and it might very well have been the most delicious thing I'd ever eaten. I ate it very slowly, making it last as long as possible, and listening to Keefe.

"There's a place in Somerville that apparently makes avocado ice cream," he was saying. "Avocado. I'm just trying to get my brain around what that would taste like."

Considering the many ways I'd made a fool of myself already that night, I didn't mention that I'd never even tasted an avocado, let alone ice cream made from one. "Different, I'd guess."

"Well, yeah, but in a good way or a bad way?"

"Maybe we should go to Somerville and try it some time," I said.

"Hmm. Maybe we should."

I savored another spoonful of Black Bear, wondering why it was that we didn't make ice cream in Corey, or play candlepin bowling, or do so many other things that outsiders did.

Well, I knew what Mum would say -- these things weren't necessary.  But neither were the elaborate scenes Dad carved into the backs of his chairs, or the imprint on Mrs. Phillips' cheeses, or any one of dozens of unnecessary but lovely things we did around Corey. In fact, it seemed to me that based only on the events of the evening, most of the things the outsiders did weren't bad at all. What was so wrong about the way they lived, that made them so untrustworthy? They might not rely on each other as much as we did, but they still made beautiful things. Worthwhile things. If what I'd been taught was true and we really couldn't live among them in safety, then why couldn't we bring some of the best of their ways into Corey?

For that matter, why did some outsiders have to be outsiders at all? Wasn't it likely that there were more just like us -- gifted with the knack -- who were trapped outside Corey? And wouldn't they be in just as much danger as we would be, if we were forced to live like outsiders? There had to be a better explanation why Corey had been closed for good. I needed to ask Mrs. Townley.

"So tell me about you," Keefe said. "I'm curious to know more about this woman of mystery."

I must keep Corey safe and secret. "I, um... I'm really not all that interesting," I stammered.

"Oh, come on."

"What? I'm not really that different, am I?" I sincerely hoped not.

"Hmm, let's see... you're homeschooled, your family doesn't have a car, you've never gone bowling until tonight, and you don't want me to know where you live," he teased. "See? Mysterious."

What could I tell him that wouldn't give too much away? "Well, um... I'm an only child. I haven't really decided what I want to do when I grow up. I like to draw. I mostly make sketches, nothing too amazing. And I love to read, especially histories. I like swimming and bike riding and summer dances, and I like to sing -- in groups, not alone. And I've just discovered that I like candlepin bowling and ice cream. And Edgar Allan Poe." And you, I wanted to add, but thought better of it.

Keefe grinned. "That wasn't so hard, was it?"

"Well, what about you?" I asked. "Time for you to tell me about you."

"Let's see." He'd brought the Poe with him from the car, and absently ran his fingertip along the edges of the cover as he talked. "I'm the second oldest of four. I have an older brother named Finn, and two younger sisters, Cait and Tara. I mostly take care of the girls. I want to go to college, and I'm busting my hump in school so I can qualify for a scholarship. I love poetry and essays and pretty much any fiction I can get my hands on. I like to fix things that are broken so they work again. And I like candlepin bowling and ice cream, and Edgar Allan Poe." He smiled. "And I... like to spend time with you."

I could feel myself blushing. The word he'd used in his head wasn't "like."

"You think about what you read," he went on. "You don't assume the narrator is always telling the truth. Which is good, because sometimes you're right not to trust him. Like in 'The Tell-Tale Heart,' for instance..." and he opened the book and read the words I'd written hastily across the flyleaf, and had forgotten to erase.

I froze.

Keefe looked up at me, confused. "Who's Mrs. Townley?" he asked.


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