Uchenna's Apples, page 1
© Diane Duane, 2013
Badfort Press ebook edition, 2013
1: Over The Wall
The clock on Uchenna’s classroom wall said 2:37 PM, and it felt as if it had been saying that for at least two hours. Uchenna glanced wearily away from it and down at the spiral notebook and textbook open on her desk. The notebook page was covered with fairly neat notes and some sketches that were trying to be ponies, except that their legs looked wrong somehow. The left-hand textbook page had a brown stain on it which wasn’t Uchenna’s fault–she never spilled stuff on her books, even the schoolbooks. What is that? she wondered, while Mrs. Hanlon’s voice droned on and on. Coke, maybe? Jeez, I wish I had a Coke right now, I’m falling asleep here….
“And next month begins the season that leads up to which of the great quarter-day holidays?” Mrs. Hanlon said. Then came one of those long horrible pauses that meant the teacher was trying to figure out which of the class to torment next. The question was always: did you put your hand up and try to keep her from calling on you by acting too much like you absolutely knew the answer? Or did you just hold still and avoid looking directly at her, the way you avoided looking at a growling dog behind somebody’s gate when you walked past it? Both tactics had their advantages, but–
“Uchenna,” Mrs. Hanlon said.
Uchenna sighed, because she knew why she’d been called on. I’m supposed to make some of the rest of them feel dumb, she thought. Because she wants them to think that if I can know this, then any of them can. Like we don’t all have the same homework–
“Samhain, miss,” Uchenna said, and pronounced it correctly: sow-en.
“That’s right,” Mrs. Hanlon said. “The ancient Celtic season that corresponds to Autumn in the present calendar. And what modern holiday coincides with the beginning of Samhain?”
Another long pause. Uchenna stole a look at the clock. It now said 2:38 PM. Oh, pleeeeease, she thought, please hurry up and be two forty! Because then the bell would ring and they could all go home. Thursday would at last be over. Only one day more of school for the week, and then there would be a whole weekend of days of no school. I hate it when it’s just been summer and then all of a sudden you’re stuck in school forever or until Christmas, whichever comes first.
Uchenna didn’t quite drop her head onto her arms, now folded on her desk. He actually has to think about it. Holy God just listen to him actually thinking about it…
“Uh…” Uchenna stole a glance at Seamus, as some of her other classmates were doing: they didn’t believe it either. Seamus was sitting there with the expression of a deer caught in the headlights, absolutely frozen and without a clue of any kind. His blush of utter embarrassment was ascending straight up his broad freckled face into his ginger-red hairline, and past it. Slowly hands were starting to go up around the room–not all that eagerly: no one liked to make Seamus look dumb. Oh, come on, come on, Uchenna thought, how hard can it be, Seamus, think–
“Hallowe’en!” Seamus said suddenly, almost in a squeak.
The class didn’t quite break out in applause, though a rustle of relief did go around. “That’s right,” Mrs. Hanlon said, throwing a glance at the clock. “So our Irish prehistory unit starting next week is going to begin with a look at how the old holidays still affect the new ones: or don’t affect them. Your homework assignment for this weekend will be to go to the library and start researching the old pagan calendar system and the way that it was affected by the arrival of Christianity…”
Mrs. Hanlon turned to the blackboard and started writing down the address of the Web page where the details about the homework assignment would be found. Uchenna picked up her pencil and jotted the address down above the picture she’d been drawing, taking a moment to scowl at the ponies’ knees. Was I drawing those backwards? Is that the problem? Or maybe I’m putting in an extra joint. She resolved to look up some pictures of horses on the Internet tonight and make sure how horses’ knees went.
The bell rang. At last! Uchenna thought, reaching around for her bookbag to start throwing her books into it. “Everybody make sure you get this down,” Mrs. Hanlon was shouting over the immediate din of voices and scraping of chairs and desks: “Monday there’s going to be a quiz on the weekend reading–”
A general groan of annoyance went up, mixed with the instant sound of people pushing each other out into the hall, along with about twenty cellphones going off within seconds of the bell stopping. Uchenna picked up her bag and made for the door, pausing by Seamus’s desk. He was still putting his books away, and didn’t look like he was in a big hurry to go out where most of the others were already. He glanced up at her.
“My mind just went blank,” he said to Uchenna. “Maybe it’s Alzheimer’s.”
She gave him a look. “You plank, you’ve gotta be like eighty to have Alzheimer’s.”
“I dunno,” Seamus said. “I could be something new. Real early onset.”
“You could be an early-onset hypochondriac,” Uchenna said, rolling her eyes. “I think you just get tense.”
Seamus sighed. “Wouldn’t argue that,” he said. “Thanks, Chen.”
Uchenna nodded, headed past him out into the hall. People were pushing and shoving in all directions, talking a mile a minute, wandering along with their heads bowed as they texted each other, hurrying off to meet friends, or just making for the main front hall and the doors leading out to the front schoolyard. Uchenna had a better view of this than many of them because she was one of the tallest kids in school. This was a relatively new development: she’d had the growth spurt suddenly last spring, and some of the kids who’d been pushing Uchenna around for the previous year had been most shocked and annoyed by the change.
Some of them, though, just went right on acting the way they had before, as if they thought that somehow things might go back to the way they’d been before. This occasionally produced comical results. “Bein’ real smart there today, Four One Nine,” said a voice from behind her.
Uchenna rolled her eyes and didn’t even bother turning around, knowing what she would have seen: those wicked little eyes in that oh-so-smackable face that always left her wondering whether she should give in to the urge just this once. Well, maybe not right here. “Being real chicken there today, Eamonn,” Uchenna said, heading for the doors. “Shouldn’t say stuff like that behind my back if you don’t have the guts to say it to my face. Be a shame to have to give you another little blue present to take home to your mammy.”
From behind her, voices went ooooooo, and a lot of them started snickering at Eamonn. At least Eamonn didn’t say anything further, which was good. Now that Uchenna was the size she was, she still didn’t like to take advantage of it by beating up on idiots just because she could. But Eamonn’s such a temptation…
She sighed and slowed up a little so as not to plow into the usual crowd of kids now struggling to get out the front door. Even though their school, St. John the Evangelist, was a new one, a handsome glass and brick building built from scratch over the last couple of years like everything else in Adamstown, somebody plainly hadn’t given much thought to how eager five hundred or so modern school kids were to get out of that building at the end of the day. Or else the architects thought that everybody was as polite and well-behaved as they were when they were in school, Uchenna thought, grinning. Back in 1980, when teachers could still hit kids, and dinosaurs walked the Earth.
The crush at the door gave way a little as more kids managed to push through and spill down onto the steps. Uchenna got through
Uchenna scanned the schoolyard covertly as she waited there, looking to see what colors the other girls’ hair was getting to be. Bright colors were supposedly against school rules, but that hadn’t stopped a whole lot of girls from getting streaks. That’s it, Uchenna thought, look at Sinead D’Olier and her crowd over there! They’re all purple streaked all of a sudden. I’m gonna get that too. Mam will let me if they have it, I know she will. Meanwhile, where’s Emer?
She was tempted to get the phone out and text her, but there were already about three hundred kids on their phones out here, texting, talking, or calling their folks to pick them up–those who weren’t already lined up in the long string of cars and SUVs that went trailing away from the school’s front gates, halfway to the road that ran parallel to the train tracks and the Adamstown train station. Probably get nothing but ‘network busy’ for the next ten minutes, Uchenna thought, and leaned against the wall by the furthest right-hand door, looking out across what she could see of town. No rush, it’s not like it’s raining today…
That by itself was a pleasant change. The end of the summer had been disappointingly wet. Then, typically, a spell of dry clear weather had set in over mid-September and the beginning of October, when everybody was stuck inside school again and couldn’t really enjoy it. Out past the edges of town, the older, taller beech trees and the low beech and hawthorn hedgerows were all going the normal autumnal gold and brown–not particularly emphatic colors, such as the ferocious New England scarlets that Emer kept saying she missed: it didn’t get cold enough here at night to turn the trees such shades. Just brown, Uchenna thought. Like the town…
She sometimes wondered why, when everything here was new and they could have done anything, the builders had nonetheless gone in so much for all the same kinds of colors–browns and fawns and beiges, with here and there some gold-tinted glass. They could have varied it a little, Uchenna thought. But then maybe they were afraid that too much color would have made the place stick out too much—not fit into the landscape. It was only five years ago that none of this had been here at all: the center of the town, the shops, the apartment buildings, the school, the medical center, the five thousand homes. All of this had been nothing but a gigantic boggy greenfield site next to the main train line into Dublin, a weed-infested cow pasture of heroic proportions. “It used to flood all the time,” her dad had told her before they started talking about moving here. “After a wet summer it looked like a lake. Hope they’ve fixed that…”
But they had fixed it. Back maybe ten years ago, when the economy had started growing so fast, some property developer had realized that there was a market for a whole lot more houses near Dublin. The developer had had what must have sounded, at first, like a crazy idea. Let’s build a whole new town! Not just houses, but everything the people there will need. Stores, shops, schools, everything. Let’s put it right by the train line so people can save energy by commuting into town that way.
“And then let’s sit back and let them give us lots and lots of lovely money for all this fancy new real estate,” Uchenna said under her breath, looking out across the nearly-finished breadth of Adamstown town center as it glinted in the muted, misty three o’clock sunshine. Well, that was a lot of what being in Ireland was about, these days. When the place had started getting wealthy, all kinds of people had started coming here who’d never have bothered before. Some Irish people complained about that. And now that the country was in money trouble because stupid banks had given too much money to rich developers who couldn’t pay it back, the same people were complaining because so many of the people who’d come in the boom times were starting to leave. Uchenna had heard more than enough of the complaints in her time, and she was only twelve. I wonder will they get over all this trouble by the time I’m twenty? she wondered. Or will I have to go somewhere else?…
The scrum down in the schoolyard was starting to thin out somewhat now as kids flowed out of the gates, or got into cars and were driven away. Uchenna grimaced at that, for most of the kids at St. John’s lived in Adamstown, and would therefore not have to walk much more than a mile or two to get home. Do their parents really think they’re gonna get mugged going home? she wondered. Oh, yeah, occasionally someone got stupid about showing off a new cellphone and got it taken off them, or they got knocked off their bike: there were always little gangs and cliques in town that liked making people’s lives miserable. But that kind of thing was rare. Mostly this was a pretty good place to live—
The door to her left swung open. A short girl came through, her long pale blonde hair streaming back over her shoulders in the sucked-in wind that poured past as she came through the door.
Emer Daley’s head snapped around. “Chen! There you are.”
Emer hurried over to her, slinging her bag over her shoulder. She always looked so little to Uchenna these days: maybe it was something to do with her growth spurt. Delicate, Uchenna thought: that’s the word for her. Emer was wide-eyed, fine-featured, fragile-looking, maybe even a little on the skinny side, though God knew there was nothing wrong with her appetite when you got her near a burger place or a chippie: in the presence of anything fried she turned into the human version of a Great White. “Eames, where were you? Thought you were going to meet me here as soon as we got out?”
“I’m here now,” Emer said.
“Took you long enough! What were you doing?”
“Had to stop,” Emer said. “Gossip.”
Uchenna gave Emer an odd look. Emer was shy with most people: it was one of the first things Uchenna had noticed about her when she moved here, possibly even one of the things that had drawn them together. But then Emer was half American, and Americans weren’t supposed to be shy. Either way, gossip wasn’t something Emer normally paid much attention to. “Because usually it’s about me,” she would say. “And I know the truth better than they do anyway…” But Emer’s eyes were glinting with excitement. This, too, was unusual for her: Emer put a lot of emphasis on looking cool and laid back at all times, this also apparently being part of the American thing, or the way she handled it here.
“Well, okay,” Uchenna said, “so gossip from who?”
“Donal and Ruairi,” Emer said.
Uchenna put her eyebrows up at that, for Donal and Ruairi were two fifth-form boys who were best friends and who seemed to share a gift for finding out about any interesting news as soon as it happened. “Oh, ho,” Uchenna said, dropping her voice and glancing around her. “You were eavesdropping.”
“Well, how else would I have heard it, it’s not like they’re going to hunt me down and tell me!”
“Fine. So what is it?”
Emer glanced around. The few other kids who had been standing on the top step had gone off. She bent her head down close by Uchenna’s. “We’ve got tinkers!” she whispered.
“What?” Uchenna looked around. “Where?”
“Not here, you think they’d come here so close to the school and the shops? They’d just get arrested or something.”
Uchenna shrugged. This being Ireland, there were always Travelling people around: families who lived in caravans or mobile homes as their ancestors had for sometimes hundreds of years, and didn’t want to settle down into houses. They did all kinds of casual work—fixing leaky roofs and paving driveways,
“No, it’s okay,” Emer said as they cut across the corner into Uchenna’s street, past the big boulder set in the ground that had the words ADAMSTOWN CIRCLE WEST cut into it. “Stop looking so shocked! Your precious hockey field is safe.”
“Well, it better be, we have a game with Naas on Saturday,” Uchenna said. “So where are the tinkers, then?”
“You are turning into Mystery Girl all of a sudden,” Uchenna said, giving Emer a weird look. “If nobody knows where the tinkers are, then how do we know they’re here in the first place?”
“It’s the horses,” Emer said.
Uchenna stopped where she was on the sidewalk and looked at Emer. “Horses here?” she said. “Oh, wait a minute. Is this some horses from one of the big stud farms out behind the development? What’s that big one’s name?”
“Airlie Stud,” Emer said. “Nope. These are not any of those fancy purebreds. Donal and Ruairi say they’re tinker ponies.”
Uchenna shook her head. “Okay, so where are they?”
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