Chapter 23 - Gnosis (cont.)
They sat together on the blacktop, Marley on a stenciled number which placed her in a wind-protected area as her friends huddled close out of both friendship and warmth. She breathed their presences, an aroma deeper than mere perfume and whatever soap they’d used in the morning. Jessica reminded her of calm with all the covers pulled up, protected and comforted from danger. It was something like lavender heated in water with a hint of chocolate. Marisa was a blend of light florals and fruits, some raspberry and a hint of citrus, sharp and dominating but subdued at the same time. She wasn’t sure how she felt. Maybe she was a mix of the two? Jessica once teased her that she was like a combustive fire which worked to heal instead of burn, incense smoldering away old wounds. She loved that thought even though she rarely felt an intensity like flame.
A bit of fire at that moment would’ve been nice but coach was soon before them and taking roll as a few stretching exercises worked to heat them up. Coach, in her nylon athletic jacket and wide-billed cap covering her short blond hair, ushered them inside and soon set up a game of volleyball. To Jessica’s delight, the eye ball (which turned out to just be a normal ball with a defect in it) was there. The three of them made up a team against another set of three girls.
None of them were very good and each face-planted more often than anything else with a screech across the polished floor. Marley delighted when Jessica actually attempted the wild maneuver she’d sketched, then grimaced as Jessica had to pick herself up from plopping on her back. Since there were only three courts, they had to take turns with other teams. Marley found leaning back on the gym bleachers, with the smell of oil, rubber, and wood wafting around them, to be surprisingly comfortable.
She rested her eyes, shook her top for sweat, and listened to Marisa. Her words drifted along, soundtracked with the cacophony of sneaker squeaks and grunts as balls whiffed and smacked against skin and nylon netting. It was almost dream-like for Marley, euphoric. Once, she’d even taken a mini-nap while listening to all these sounds playing around her, with the comforting enthusiasm of her friends’ voices like storytellers making sense of all the sounds.
She accepted them and let them flow through her. Then Jessica softly touched her hand. The touch was warm, special, and enveloping. And it evoked a sensation in Marley which seemed buried before, one she didn’t expect. A memory of feeling this comfort but in a far different place. The memory could’ve faded or she could’ve ignored it, but it wasn’t as sharp against her thoughts as the neglected pebble, so it stayed there.
After a few more bouts of Jessica pummeling the stuffing out of the volleyball’s eye, PE was over and they were off to history together. It was Marisa’s favorite class, stuffed in a cluttered old room with a quirky teacher who seemed ready to tell the forlorn tale of any of a thousand objects covering the walls.
For Marley, she was happy Marisa was so into it even if her own curiosity about the past wasn’t so intense. This day, she was wary of the teacher passing around what he called, with his gently-spoken but thickly-worded Scottish accent, ‘a trap box’. Used for protecting things, it was bound so as little spikes (since worn down with age) could ensnare the touch of curious thieves who soon found themselves in a deadly situation. It was black and glossy to hide the areas which led to unseen horrors. Marisa was wary as well but handled it with fascination and quick notes.
Chemistry followed history, and this was the class which usually delighted Marley. And it wasn’t just for the mad science experiments their teacher did. It was for all the things he allowed them to do as well. Marley watched carefully as she caused a very fizzy and colorful reaction on a piece of wood, which looked like thousands of ants had suddenly exploded from it. She handled it carefully with gloves and giggled to herself as her friends sent her smirking looks. She’d explained more than once that she didn’t necessarily like explosions, but they were still really cool.
That class passed into lunch, where the trio had a perfect place to eat. It was cut off from the chill but outside under a large tree. It was away from the beaten path of turning and flowing hallways and junctions. It wasn’t too high nor was it on the ground where ants could get to their food. It was the perfect place and no one else knew about it.
They settled together against a wall as far-off sounds signaled people coming and going with a wafting billow of steam from one side and the recooked odor of a million tater tots boiled in the oils of those which had passed before.
Marley had a chicken salad pita which she sometimes made for herself even though she never managed to get it right. Jessica shared her perfect salad and Marisa had plenty of little sandwiches to pass around. Munching softly with her friends resting against her shoulders, Marley felt as far from notions and nightmares as she could possibly imagine. But, even then, there was something.
It was like a quote out of a book with the title long forgotten. Everything was too perfect for her. Yes, she’d sweated for PE. They hadn’t won any of the sets. Mrs. Sims was still a jerk. Some of the stuff she ate made her wish she’d packed more water in her thermos than she had. But she also wondered, if she really wanted it, then Mrs. Sims might’ve changed. If they would’ve celebrated a flawless victory, if her cup would’ve refilled automatically. They were silly, impossible notions…why should she be bothered that it was such a wonderful, nearly-perfect day?...but the feeling was still there, especially remembering how impossibly-lucky she was to have her friends with her in every single class she took.
The counter-example arrived soon after as their next class was an exercise in rote repetition but from an instructor far more forgiving of Marley’s confusion than Mrs. Sims. And her friends were there as a unit to lift each other up and perform a quick play in English class, which followed with their bard-like teacher gazing on.
The day came to a close with none of her concerns forgotten, just sifted to the back of her consciousness where they could settle in a more comfortable place, like the rows of English books calmly stacked upon one another in a multitude too numerous for Marley to count.
The walk back home included a few flutterings of birds pursued by scampering cats. It was eagerly agreed upon that they were all meeting up at Marley’s house for the evening, with no complaints from any of their family. Except for Olivia, who blanched and hid when Marisa arrived.
Marley sighed and hunted down her little sister in her closet. Looking up, Olivia asked, “Is she still mad at me?” From around the doorway, Marisa chimed in, “Not really.” Cautiously peering through, Olivia inquired again, and Marisa shrugged and told her, “I’m dry. But I hear you’re grounded.”
Olivia gave a little nod as Marley brushed her little sister’s hair back. Olivia looked up at her big sister as she planted a kiss on her forehead, to her bewilderment. It didn’t matter to Marley that her little sister was adopted, to her she was blood. She barely even remembered a time before Olivia was around. Although she did recall how harsh and troubled Olivia had been in the beginning. She’d always swaddle herself tightly in her bedsheets till she couldn’t move and then she’d scream a stifled scream. Marley didn’t know what her sister had been through before but it didn’t change how much she loved her.
With a smirk, Marley picked Olivia off her feet with her long blond hair fluttering about and Olivia clinging to her big sister’s grasp. She was getting heavier but was still light enough for Marley to hold before setting her down again. She’d once tried to set her on her shoulders and carry her around but Olivia had been too frightened (with good reason, as they soon both toppled to the floor).
A quiet moment passed as Jessica peered in at the nervous stare Olivia still projected at Marisa, despite her ride around in her sister’s arms. Marisa folded her hands and declared, “If that’s not enough then there is only one way to settle this….a match of hide and seek. If I win, then you must be my maid in your ‘chateau’ thing for the evening with all forgiven. If you win, then I’ll buy a game for you and I’ll make sure you can play it despite being grounded...but also forgiven.”
Olivia’s eyes lit up with hopeful sparkles and she eagerly agreed as they set out the rules. To make things a little more exciting, Marisa recruited Marley and Jessica to hide as well. Marley gave her a little look. It had been a long time since she’d played hide and seek with anyone her age (but it had definitely been with Marisa and Jessica).
Whoever got caught became a searcher. If they wanted to, they could move from a hiding spot once. And they put Crumpet outside for the duration of the game because he was the best finder of all.
As Marisa started counting, they each bolted off in a different direction. Jessica headed down a long hallway and up while Olivia scampered to the back of the house and Marley made her way to the front room. She knew just where to hide, the big chair over in the corner. Plus, it was comfortable to rest against for long games.
Because she knew of so many places to hide in the house, such games were sometimes long. Some years ago, when it was just her and Olivia playing, she hid so well that Olivia got scared and started crying, afraid that her big sister had left her alone in the house with their parents away. Marley found her under some stuffed animals with her eyes covered, needing a bath and a change of clothes. That evening, she clung to Marley, sniffling every so often and resting against her. That night, they shared Marley’s bed.
Smiling gently at the memory, Marley leaned back against the chair but listened for telltale footsteps. No one seemed to be coming her way, although she’d spaced out for a while. She noticed her boots in a visible corner. Winter wouldn’t be far off. Ice skating with her friends, the hush of snowfall, and how everything transformed in a single afternoon. That last notion lingered as Jessica’s voice cut through the silence, “Hello, Marley. Found you.”
At that moment, in that fragile moment of transition, clarity came to Marley’s thoughts. She’d lived a moment like this before. Not in this house. Not as a child. Much sooner than that. A moment of fear and the first person she met. She remembered.
Like then, her feet showing under the chair had given her away and Jessica’s voice was just as kind then as it was now. She still felt afraid but for different reasons as all the dark things returned to her. Meeting Isaac and his transformation. Sim and his torments. Simona. She could feel little echoes in her life here.
Staring ahead as the feelings all started to process inside her, as the truth loomed stark and inescapable, Jessica raised an eyebrow and crouched beside Marley to gently touch her as she asked, “You okay?”
Marley's head began a careful nod before her jaw clenched and she puked on the floor in front of them. She apologized profusely for ruining the game and again as her friends helped her clean up and then her parents did as well. But her mind was on other things. As she looked around the room, she could tell her parents were pale shadows. Her mother felt like a combination of the most genial faces of mothers she could imagine without being any in particular. Her father was just as blank, never frowning or glaring, ever concerned and always patient. Everything she could want in a family.
The house was nice. It was warm. The couch sunk perfectly to cradle her body. But she knew none of it was real. None of the scents were actually there. The biggest question she had was the others. Despite her realization, Jessica, Marisa, and Olivia remained as solid as before, like they were the only actors on a stage. Like that moment in Mrs. Sims' class.