Red Tulips Grey Ash

Red Tulips Grey Ash

a YA novel excerpt © Susa Silvermarie

Chapter One

A tall skinny kid gets on the school bus all gothed up in a black shirt and black pants. It’s almost cool, except his brown work boots make him look like he doesn’t fit together right. Somebody shoves a foot out into the aisle. The kid stumbles over it and dives right into a girl’s lap.

“Loser,” the one who tripped him sneers.

Laughter explodes from a bunch of different places in the bus at once. I feel for the guy, but truth is, I’m glad it’s him and not me. He walks right past me to the back like he’s deaf, not looking to either side.

When we get to Onatavi High, I stay in my seat and act like I’m getting my stuff together, while the rest of the kids lounge down the aisle. Looks like the kid who got tripped is waiting for everyone else to get off first, too. He finally walks by me.

“Hey,” I say. When he nods, his hair falls into his eyes.

“That guy up front,” I say. “Always an idiot?”

“Pretty much,” he says. His jaw muscle twitches. “Charlie Conroy or one of his sidekicks.”

“Idiots,” I say. “They’re everywhere.”

That might be the only thing that’s the same here as at my old school in Madison. I’m the new kid at Onatavi High, in a town where the population sign announces exactly 469 inhabitants. We drove to Aunt Patsy’s farm every single summer weekend since I was a kid, but I never noticed that sign before. You’d think they’d be too embarrassed to let everybody know.

When we get off, the Charlie guy is standing outside the bus. He narrows his eyes when he sees us talking. As if the other kid isn’t even there, the guy leans over to me.

“Friendly advice, new guy. Hanging with Doomboy? Very bad idea.”

Charlie’s voice blats like a bad trumpet

I ignore him but I feel him staring into my back. The kid who got tripped disappears into the crowd. I stroll into my new high school on autopilot, shut as far down as I can get into I Don’t Notice You All Staring at Me.

In Enviro Sci, the class before lunch, I spot the goth kid again. He slouches in the seat like he wants to be anywhere else. The teacher, Mr. Nelson, nails him with a question.

“Jeff, what do you consider the largest planetary challenge today?”

The kid practically spits his answer.

“You mean other than we got thirty years max to cut carbon emissions all the way to nothing, or wipe life off the planet?”

Mr. Nelson nods with narrowed eyes that say he doesn’t like Jeff’s tone.

Me, I like it fine. I don’t let the smile reach my face, but this kid Jeff’s the first person around here with any juice. When the bell rings, I lean across to him.

“You think we can do it?” I say. “Cut the carbon in time?”

“You kidding?” Jeff says. “The ones who run everything don’t give a flying eff about anybody’s future but their own.” Jeff unfolds himself to stand. “But if they did, and we had half a chance? The way to go is wind.”

I walk out with him. “Heading for the cafeteria?”

“Ha. You mean the lunchroom,” he says. “Just tables set up in the gym. This way.”

Great on two counts. I hadn’t looked forward to being the new guy who didn’t know where to sit, plus, the one who brought lunch from home. The only thing that marks me clueless now is the reusable lunch bag, complete with sprouts, packed by Aunt Patsy.

Jeff plunks down next to three nerdy guys and two girls reading while they eat, must be Onatavi’s geek corner. Jeff and I shoot the breeze on wind generators. He doesn’t seem like a loser to me. I like the way the guy talks about wind power like it means something to him.

Dad would have liked it too. He wrote a regular Eco column for the paper and he loved all the alternative energy stuff. But when he got a big prize for his Eco column and invited me to the Award Dinner, I blew it off.

Whoa. Don’t. Go. There.

I come back to earth. Jeff’s looking at me funny, but he doesn’t say anything.

I manage to keep a low profile for almost my whole first day. But in Social Studies, last period, the teacher makes me stand up and introduce myself. I mumble something about moving from Madison, but no, that isn’t enough.

The teacher has to ask, “What do your parents do, August?” as if living with a parental set is something everybody does.

“I live with my aunt, because”— I can’t stand being asked one more time about it, and getting the pity look – “because my parents aren’t alive,” I finish. My face freezes on the words.

Ms. Social-Studies Bledsoe can’t leave it alone. Tries to cover her own social clumsiness. “Where does your aunt work, August?”

Everybody here probably already knows where each of the 469 inhabitants works.

“Wonewoc.”

Snickers. I sit down fast. Wonewoc is even smaller than Onatavi. The kids probably know the only gig in Wonewoc is the Spiritualist Camp. Maybe they’ll think she’s a cook or something, instead of one of the Spiritual Mediums. Readers, they call them. Back in my past life in Madison, I used to get a kick out of Aunt Patsy’s paranormal job description. Out here, I get the feeling it could be a definite liability to live with a psychic.

***

I smell the applesauce cooking before I even open the door. I throw my backpack on the couch, and Zirk jumps at me with her tail wagging like I’ve been gone for a year.

“How’d it go?” Aunt Patsy says, adjusting her hippie shawl. Her bubbly attitude bugs me.

I see that kid Jeff getting tripped on the bus and Ms. Social Studies grilling me about my parents. “It went okay. But do you think you could stop staring at my aura?” When she aims her unfocused look around my ears, it feels like getting shot with a ray gun.

She jerks her eyes away. “Sorry, Augie.” She bends her head back to the loaf she’s kneading. “You used to enjoy it.”

“Yeah,” I say. “And I used to be a kid.”

I always liked Aunt Patsy. All those summers we drove up to her farmhouse to spend the weekends, Friday meant pack for Mount Sally Homestead. I couldn’t wait. At night while Mom and Dad read their books, Patsy played checkers with me or told me ghost stories. On Sundays we would play Charades, and if I was stuck, Aunt Patsy would whisper a funny idea to me about how to act out the movie or the saying. She would me first when she read my aura, and I always said yes because it kind of tickled. And she used to slip me oreos or chocolate-covered cherries after dinner, treats Mom and Dad never let me eat.

The summer I was ten, all of us built the Bungalow up the hill from the farmhouse. It was after Mom and Dad and I started staying up there when we came to Mount Sally, that’s when I found out the adults disagreed about other stuff too. Dad teasing Aunt Patsy about her job as a Medium was nothing new, but that summer it seemed like Aunt Patsy didn’t laugh along anymore. One night I heard Mom and Dad arguing in the next room. Mom told Dad to lay off her older sis. Dad said Patsy’s way of thinking could be a bad influence me.

I didn’t care what they thought. She was my Aunt Patsy. I look out the farmhouse window. If only it was still so uncomplicated. If only I still believed in all the kid stuff.

Like the magic button I made up when I was five, my WES button, my very own World Emergency Shield. I saw on the news how some kindergarteners got trapped in an elevator. They were on a field trip and there was a bomb explosion in the parking garage at the World Trade Center. I told Mom, “Don’t worry, Mumma. My World Emergency Shield can stop explosions. All I have to do is press the WES button.”

I remember how powerful I felt. Not like now.

Aunt Patsy drapes a cloth over the bread pan.“Is it too much, Augie? Living out here in all this quiet?”

“It’s different than just coming out on weekends from Madison, like Mom and Dad and I always did.” I stack clean plates from the drying rack into the cupboard. “Or – I’m different.” The last plate slams down harder than I mean it to.

I remember how some guy in Social Studies snickered when I said my aunt worked in Wonewoc. I’m never going to blend in. And I feel Aunt Patsy watching me, watching to see if the grief counseling has busted me out of the anger stage yet. Or to see if I’m going to blow.

All I want is for time to roll the past smooth as asphalt, and level this high school gig out to something flattened on the highway far behind me.