Celebrated (part fifteen)
“You wrote a nice piece about my mother.”
That had been her comment going up, just before the tricky edge past an RV coming down, that had silenced them.
“I’ll have to look at that, back at the house. I forget what I said. By the way, inside joke, I was going to ask.”
Parking, though. Tom taking his pictures.
She said now, “It won’t, if things I say about my mother are…negative, sometimes, make you sorry to hear them? Wish you hadn’t…”
“No, please. I’m not asking you to tell anything that’s not my business.”
“Oh, well. Stacey and Sabrina. Those were names I gave my dolls, because… This was the 1950s. Because, to my little ear, pretty, lucky girls had names like that. Now you think it’s sad. And it is funny, really. There’s more.”
She remembered Madeline in magenta, bell sleeves, paillettes ringing the hems. It wasn’t what her mother could wear, as opposed to what a schoolgirl in 1959 could wear—
In the summer, because they’d decided on it, June the twenty-first (solstice), Petra would turn thirteen. She wasn’t able to have birthday parties…there was no one to invite. Madeline had decided now she was this age, they would shop together instead of her opening wrapping-papered boxes, and that would be the treat.
“Suppose I’m maybe really fourteen.”
While they baked, Madeline stirring, Petra handing ingredients, she tried this.
“Then I would change to a different school.”
“In good time! So, kiddo…you can’t wait for high school.”
She could see her mother pleased to think so. What was high school? Was it the growing up…or could Madeline dream she might join Future Secretaries, the debate team, the French club? Light into academic diligence and graduate with honors?
“Why,” she asked, “is my name Petra?”
“You were called Petra. The family who were caring for you called you that.”
Caution. Not for secrets or feelings, only that her mother did research, professionally, among other things, and a competent researcher does not project. “But…I think I see where we’re going. You know, when you do start high school, you can call yourself whatever you like.”
“But, think about that! You’re a kid who sits at the cafeteria table by yourself and other girls throw food at you. You’re going to enroll in high school, and tell everyone you’re Ameliana now, or Emeraude. No, really, don’t start.”
Tom’s face had showed an impulse to sympathize.
“I don’t know why. Why some kids get bullied. What I ever did to be one of them. I don’t even know what it means to ‘make friends easily’. Maybe you know.”
He hauled the wheel. “Sorry. Did you see that lightning? I almost missed the turnoff. Now I don’t know if the fossils are worth it…how much time do you figure we have?”
A paper cup skittered in a gust, a couple in shorts and sunglasses, walking in a hand-balancing way over a network of exposed roots, moved up the trail. There was here only this stand of pine, the restrooms, and the trailhead. Four people climbed into an SUV, swung off, a man shifted feet on the sidewalk, looking at his phone.
“Let’s chance it.”
“Hey! Sorry. Did you folks go up the trail? Is it very far?” Asking this, Tom held out a hand, catching raindrops.
The man chuckled. “Waiting for my wife. Um, no, we just stopped here. Can’t tell you.”
“Is that your car? You’re from Kentucky?” Petra said it, feeling since Tom had spoken, his companion should not sidle past, mute.
“Well, you know, this year we thought we’d just take off driving, see what we found along the way.”
“Actually, same thing. Only Petra’s a native.”
“Here’s Jill. I’m Phil.”
“Williams.” Jill said, smiling, happy to replay an old quip.
And then, with a “Have fun!”, and a “You look out for yourselves, though,” they stuck to their plans, the Williamses taking off, Petra and Tom squinting into wind, at a thunderclap, chancing it as far as the dip below the tree roots.
“You really want to? I wonder if it’s safe enough.”
“No. I mean I don’t care. So if we stop at a restaurant, whatever town we come to, and we spot the Williamses…”
“What? You think they’ll say, it’s those people, damn it?”
She laughed. But a second ago, there hadn’t been a what, particularly. Now, a realization.
“They won’t know about us. If we share a table. We’re not a couple. What are we doing together?”
They buckled in, and Tom said, “Your mother thought you could just change your name, put on an act in a way…?”
This was a definite dodge. She was happy, it was easy to like Tom…she trusted him, felt safe riding through the middle of nowhere with him. But his being here was becoming conspicuously odd.
(2019, Stephanie Foster)