Unlit Star, page 1
Published by Lindy Zart
Copyright 2014 Lindy Zart
All rights reserved.
Cover Design Copyright 2014 by Regina Wamba at Mae I Design and Photography
Formatting by Inkstain Interior Book Designing
Author photography by Kelley C. Hanson Photography
Edited by Wendi Stitzer
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Thanks to Kyle and Judith Frazee for pointing out my star errors—and if my information is incorrect, I solely blame them.
To Regina Wamba—thank you for the perfect cover.
I am much obliged to Wendi Stitzer—your set of eyes helps mine.
Nadege Richards—thank you for making the pages of my work beautiful.
Thank you to Crystal Ferrill Morris for the name suggestion of Delilah.
For the beta readers this run—Tawnya Peltonen, Judith Frazee, Kendra Gaither, Jen Andrews, Tiffany Dodson, April Stinson-Scott, Desiree Wallin, Megan Stietz, and Tiffany Alfson—your words made my words better.
This is for Michael and Diane Mecikalski. I even used a line of yours, Dr. Mike—something about telling kids to get off the lawn. I'll be sure to send you a royalty check.
In fact, it's in the mail right now.
WHEN I WAS YOUNGER, I didn't understand that life was focused on what you had, what you looked like, and what others thought of you. The seventh grade showed me what reality was, and it was ugly. As I watch Rivers Young sit in his chair by the pool, I think maybe reality finally caught up to him as well. There is a slump to his broad shoulders I never thought I'd witness. Even with the distance between us, I can see that he looks broken. At least I learned at a fairly young age how cruel life can be—it took eighteen years for it to slap him upside the head.
What does it all mean?
It's a general question, but if you ask yourself it, you will already have the answer. You just know, because to you, it's whatever is prevalent in your thoughts at the time. To me, the question is about life. What does it all mean? What's the point of it? Why do we endure this journey of perpetual heartache and loss? And pain—there is always so much pain.
It changes us. The duration of our mortality is spent having instances transform us, whether we want them to or not. We're molded into some form of us only to have another moment morph us into another variation of us. It is endless. When someone asks what made someone change, I always think, What didn't?
Sitting across the deck from me is the perfect example of that.
I wipe sweat dampened bangs from my eyes and shove my aviator sunglasses back up my nose. Turning 'Dark Horse' by Katy Perry up on my Samsung, I sing along while watering the plants lining the wood deck around the pool. Swirls of pinks, purples, and whites make me think of cotton candy formed into the shape of flowers. The deck wraps around the shimmering white-blue of the water like a glove, hugging it as though to keep it warm. The yard beyond is lush with emerald strands of meadow and shrubbery. I think the only thing missing from it being a perfect retreat is a large Willow tree with its thin branches hanging down in perpetual sorrow—or not. There's enough of that around this place.
Willow trees have a place in my heart and I am not exactly sure why. I guess because they remind me of my early childhood, but also because they look so woebegone. Their straggly green branches hang down like they are crying with their very being—I suppose that's where they get their name, Weeping Willow. A neighbor of ours has one in his backyard that my brother and I used to swing from the branches of many years ago. I haven't been near that tree in a long time. That was a time far in the past; a time I sometimes wish I could return to.
For most, life isn't just simple when you are young—it's innocent as well.
I make my way around the deck, dancing as I go. There's no worry about Rivers listening or watching me—he's in his own world most of the time. As far as he is concerned, I don't exist. I suppose I could feel bad for him, and a small part of me does. He was in a boating accident a few months ago that mangled his legs to the point where he is only recently using them again, and with difficulty. He'll always have a limp. He'll always be scarred.
The reason I do not feel worse for him than I do, is the fact that, yeah, okay, everything pretty much sucks for him right now, but he is alive. He is alive and every day that I see him sitting in that stupid chair with his dead eyes, I just want to shake him and slap some life back into him. I want to yell, “What do you have to feel sorry about? At least you're still breathing!”
Of course I don't. I'm just the hired help. Plus, I don't think it would register in his thick skull anyway. When his eyes touch on me, it is as though I am not there. There is no recognition, no acknowledgment. There is nothing. I think he is so lost inside himself that nothing and no one can reach him.
The scent of flowers and candy float over to me and I grimace as I recognize the smell, glancing over my shoulder. Riley Moss hovers near Rivers, her blue eyes large and troubled. She tries to reach him. According to his mom, after his accident she was over here daily, crying and fawning over him. Now it's more of a two times a week visit. Soon it will be one, then it will be every few weeks, and finally it won't be at all. I know Riley. When she cuts her ties with someone, she doesn't just cut them—she severs them to the point of being irreparable.
Where Riley is concerned, I think of cruel laughter, taunting words, and the flipping of long brown hair—all the things I remember about her from school. And I think of anger heating my skin, my retorts, and wondering how two beings could get to the place we were. Her tongue was an arrow, I was the target, and my heart was the bullseye. Did she ever miss? Not usually.
Even now, as I look at her, I am shot through with her verbal ammunition. I glance down, expecting to find holes in my chest.
"Did you get your clothes from a secondhand store? Or, wait...did you make them?"
"Your eyes are so weird."
"The only reason you get such good grades is because you have no friends to hang out with. Of course you study all the time—you have nothing better to do."
If I was a smaller person, I would hate her. Part of me does anyway, but the majority of me cannot. I can't hate something I understand. It would be like hating a bully that you know goes home and gets abused by their parent—it's impossible. In Riley's case, though, she's the only bully she goes home to. Her life, her world, her view of herself—she created it all. No one else had to tell her she wasn't good enough the way she was because she had already decided it on her own. She hates herself. I don't know if anyone else has realized that, but I have.
I decide it's time to water the plants near them—not because I am being nosy, although, okay, I sort of am. I casually stroll their way, careful not to look at Riley. I hum 'Timber' by Pitbull and Ke$ha as I pass by, my eyes sliding to her. Damn! Why did I look at her? When I see the pain and fear in her face, my chest tightens. And that pisses me off.
How many times did she make fun of me without caring about how her words affected me? How many times did she say or do something just to see how I would react? I guess if I had never seen the nice side of her, maybe seeing the horrible side of her wouldn't have pierced me so deeply. It's hard to face a monster staring back at you when you remember they once had good in them.
I think the cruelest thing she ever did, all her many spiteful words aside, was when she pushed someone in front of me so that I tripped over them. It was one thing to go after me, but to be mean to an innocent to get to me was going too far. I helped the boy to his feet, gave him his books, and w
The next day, there were flyers all over the school stating what she had done. I might have been the one to make them—I can't be sure. The boy was George Nelson; a sophomore with a minor form of autism. The kicker is, I don't think she realized who it was when she did it, but it didn't matter. No one likes people picking on disabled kids. For one solid week she walked the halls of the school in shame. Too bad it didn't last.
My goal for this summer was to be positively perky to the point of nauseating. I need to. I have to. Her proximity sort of messes with that, as does Rivers', to be honest. Rivers is easier to ignore, because, well, he ignores me too. And he was never outright cruel to me during school—he just acted like I wasn't there, even when I was right beside him. In school, it was Riley against me on a daily basis. I know why. I get it. But it's all so pointless.
“Hey, Del,” she says in a small voice.
“Yo,” I respond, glancing at Rivers.
His eyes are trained on the clear water of the pool. I wonder what he thinks as he watches it. Does he remember falling into the river water—how it wrapped around him and pulled him under? Does he think about his lower limbs being caught in the propeller? Does he wish he would have sunk into the dark abyss of the Mississippi River and forever remained there? You have to be careful on the river—the currents can be treacherous and you can get sucked under the water and never be seen again. It's taken children, dogs, and adults alike. The Mississippi River is greedy in its quest to acquire lives. Why did he think he was above all of that, that he couldn't be injured in those angry, unforgivable waters?
Because he thinks he's unconquerable.
Or he did.
“How long have you worked here?” she continues. I think the only reason she is talking to me is because there is no one else to hold a conversation with. It's clear Rivers isn't up for nonsensical chitchat, or even meaningful.
“A few weeks. You were here last week when I was working.”
“Oh. Yeah. My mind...sorry.”
I set the watering can down and narrow my eyes at her. Is she for real? “Did you just say you're sorry?” I mean, after everything we've been through, this is what she apologizes for?
A flush creeps up her neck, brightening her eyes. Pushing a lock of wavy brown hair behind her ear, she looks away as her small white teeth bite into her lower lip. “I...” Riley shakes her head and crouches next to Rivers. “I have to go out for dinner with Mom and Dad tonight. I just wanted to stop by quick and say hi.”
I pick up the watering can and walk away, but not before I see her rest her forehead against the side of his short black hair and hear her whisper, “Please, Rivers. Please talk to me.”
In an attempt to escape the empathy that slashes through me, I quickly slide open the glass doors that lead into the spacious white kitchen, and find Monica at the counter gazing at papers. I don't want to feel bad for Riley; she doesn't deserve it. And yet...
I set the watering can on the floor beside the door and walk over to Monica. When I first met Rivers' mother, I had a hard time linking her to him. With her pale blonde hair and gray eyes, her coloring is nothing like her son's—and neither is her personality. She is kind and generous. From what I've seen, Rivers—yeah, not so much.
I'm not really sure if she has a job or not. I know she goes to the gym in the mornings and does a lot of community-based meetings and fundraising meals, but whether or not she has an actual income is something I have yet to discover. As her husband is an accountant for some big business across the bridge in Iowa, I don't think she needs one. I mean, they have a pool. A lot of people in Prairie du Chien do not. The closest we ever came to having one was a blue plastic contraption big enough for me to sit in—and that was all I could do in it. I had to splash water on my upper body to pretend I was in water of any substantial depth.
She looks up with a smile. “Want to trade bills?”
“What bills? I have all of one. For my baby.” I pat my smart phone that holds an endless source of music and information. And okay, distractions. My favorite line: Google it. Anything, everything. You have to google it.
“Exactly.” Straightening on the bar stool, she nods toward the deck. “I'm grateful she continues to stop by, but...” She pierces me with her intelligent eyes. “I almost want to tell her to quit coming over.”
I grab an apple from the bowl on the counter and take a healthy bite, juice squirting out as I chomp down. I wouldn't normally just help myself to the food around me, but Monica tries to force it on me every chance she gets. It's as if she thinks I am constantly starving and thirsty. I may be slight of form, but it isn't due to lack of proper nutrition.
I chew slowly to bide myself some time before answering her, because I know she expects a response. She always does, even when there is no actual question. “Why would you want to do that?”
She looks at the back of her son and the sorrow on her face takes over until that is all she is—a throbbing mass of bleakness. My heart twinges in response and I swallow with difficulty. I can't handle this kind of serious, sad, emotional stuff. I just want to smile and laugh and forget there are any bad things in this world. I know—not very sensible.
“It isn't helping her any, seeing him like this, being treated this way. She needs to move on. This Rivers isn't the Rivers she knows. He just—he doesn't see anyone. He hardly talks at all. Nothing anyone says or does gets any kind of reaction out of him other than belligerence. It's been almost two months since the accident. He should be recovering faster. It's mental more than physical. The doctors say there is nothing keeping him from healing but himself. I keep waiting for the day when he wakes up out of whatever world he's stuck in, but I'm afraid that day might not come.
“College is starting in the fall. I understand why he's depressed. He's supposed to be going to University of Texas on a football scholarship. Obviously that isn't going to happen. I don't even know if he'll be able to run again. I know it's selfish, but I am okay with that, because at least he's alive. I am so thankful for his life, but I think all he sees is what he's lost, not what he still has. All he sees is a dream taken from him."
She pauses, and in that frozen instant, pain takes over her features, pinching them. It is the look of a mother who would give anything to help their child, but is unable to reach them. "Riley is going to Texas. They had it all planned out. She said she would stay here for him, but I forbade her to. Her life can't stop because of what happened, and she needs to think of herself and not just Rivers. I didn't say it, but I don't think there is anything left for her here anymore. I just wish...I just wish my son would somehow let me know he's okay. He doesn't have to be the person he used to be, he just has to be someone. That's all. That's all I want.”
“Hmm. Maybe some therapy would work?”
She snorts as she leans her palms against the glass of the sliding doors and it looks like she is trying to reach her son through the window panes. “He is in therapy. He doesn't talk.” Turning from the door, she says, “I feel like I'm paying you to listen to me moan and groan more than I'm paying you to do stuff around the house.”
“You're right. You are. I should get a raise.”
Soft laughter falls from her lips. “You're a good kid, Delilah.”
It's my turn to snort.
“Did you get everything done for the day?”
“I have Rivers' room left to clean and then I'm done.”
“Okay. I won't keep you. Riley's leaving anyway, so I'm going to go sit with Rivers for a while. Let me know when you're heading out.”
I nod, making sure I am not facing the backyard as I finish my apple. This whole place is enshrouded in sadness, making it hard to breathe at times. Watching Monica with Rivers is too much—the grief she feels rolls off her in waves of discontent, and I am constantly trying to duck out of its way. I chuck the apple into the garbage as my eyes trail over the stainless steel appliances, creamy white walls, and hardwood floors. Nothing in t
The lines of my actual job duties are blurred. I was hired to do daily cleaning around the house, but I've sort of entered the role of errand-runner, babysitter, and confidant as well. I am saving up for a post-summer trip, so I need the money, and there are far worse ways to spend my summer days than in the Young house, mopey scene and all.
There is a reason I always leave Rivers' room as my last clean of the day. Now, standing in the middle of the room darkened by drawn curtains and tragedy, a chill goes through me. My brain has an enormously hard time replacing the Rivers I went to school with, with the Rivers sitting outside. And this room doesn't help anyone, least of all him. It's like a shrine to his previous existence.
The room is as big as my kitchen at home and has a high ceiling with two picture windows, milk chocolate walls, and gray curtains and bedding. The scent I associate with Rivers—sunshine and something sweet—lingers in the room. A flat screen television takes up a good portion of the wall facing the bed, and awards line the shelves on the other walls. Most of them are athletic, but even Solo Ensemble and Forensics are in the mix. The guy was sickeningly talented throughout his school career.
At one point, there was nothing Rivers couldn't do.
When I think of the boy I went to school with, I see dark eyes lit up with confidence and the easy-going manner of someone who knew anything they wanted, they would get. Did I ever see him frown? Did I ever see any hint of seriousness to his stance? He was floating on the conviction that he would never fail. It must have been something, going through school like that.
School was something I had to excel at so that I could have better things once it was over. It was about getting good grades so I had a set future. I endured it—I didn't enjoy it. I wasn't timid, but I was quiet, keeping to myself unless I felt the need to state my opinion. I was a contradiction in a way—I didn't mind public speaking, but I also didn't go out of my way to interact with my classmates.
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