Tuesday, 12 March 2019

Chapter 33: Longest Day Eve

Neith almost broke into a run.  She was going to After School Club, to siphon off their liveliness and vigour one last time.  She was keyed up.  Today and tomorrow held promise and laughter – and apparently the throwing of sticks; they’d all been counting down to Longest Day.  Thereafter?  Unknown.  Rimy darkness accompanied any vision of it.

She must be earlier than prudence called for because she saw more children than usual still weaving home from the camp’s heart.  Although fleeting, she saw enough from their expressions to see she wasn’t the only one excited.

Over the concrete; across the hopscotch; past the window row; IN.

The room lacked bodies.  There were two, excluding Neith.  Where were the others?

“There she is!”  Miles looked up from a book he was reading with Nola.  She leaned against her papa with her legs drawn up.

“Hi Nee,” Nola said, softly.

“Where’s the Club?”  She looked around the room and flicked her wrists in questioning.

“The day before Longest Day people rush home – they usually share a special meal, hang stockings, and get to bed early,” Miles answered.

Hang stockings?  Why hadn’t Elle mentioned this?  Wait.  This could be an attempt at surprise.  Neith’s heart warmed, at the thought.  “I should go then?”  She pointed behind her, to the door.

“Stay a little?”  Miles asked.  The abdominal storm surged.  “Ruthie said she might miss you on the way home – that she wasn’t sure which way you’d come.  She asked us to stay and pass on the message about Club being cancelled, so you didn’t come to find an empty classroom.”  Neith pursed her lips and hummed with scepticism.  Ruth knew exactly which way Neith came to the schoolhouse.  But Miles couldn’t text or voice-message her, so she was successfully delayed.  The question was: were Miles and Nola in on the diversion, or was it only Elle and Ruthie’s doing?

“Stay!”  Nola sang, patting the couch beside her.  Whether or not Nola had been conscripted to be part of some operation to waylay her, Neith lacked the will to refuse Nola’s company.  She still savoured every word Nola had for her, instead of near her.   If time with Miles came with the bargain, well…  Neith took a seat on the other side of Nola, the pair of adults serving as bookends to the small red-haired seraph.  Neith couldn’t wrestle with that; seat-tapping by living children being a known weakness of all City Folk.

“Nola and I were just discussing the use of Z’s to show someone is snoring.  You know, the way they do in abecedaries and storybooks,” Miles filled Neith in.

“Eugh!  I loathe them.”  Nola spat.  “Have you ever heard anyone make a zzzzzzzzzzz sound when they fall asleep?!  It’s crazy!”  Miles and Neith shared a look of amusement and shared fondness for the girl between them. 

“I once found her making edits to a book.  She was saying, “This is NOT onomatopoeia!’”  Miles spoke through a small mouth as he quoted his daughter.

The vivaciousness continued to issue forth from the junior editor; “It’s true.  Every time I see it, I think, ‘This is why I don’t read picture books anymore!’”

“Much.”  Miles nudged her.

“Well, only the good ones.”

“I think they’re all good ones.”  Neith contributed.

“The ones with Zzzzzz’s?  Really?”  Nola looked up at Neith.  Neith shrugged.  “I forgive you,” Nola said, patting Neith on the leg.  “Have you read the Swiss Family Robinson yet?”  She asked.

“Not yet.” Neith knew the question was for her.

“Papa’s reading it to me, for the…fourth time?”  Nola looked to him for confirmation.

“The fourth.”

“It doesn’t have pictures, and I can read it all by myself, but I love when he does the voices.”  Nola patted Miles’ leg now.  Neith arched a brow.  Voices?  “Papa, will you get it?  Pleeeease?”

Miles flushed.  “I don’t know, Nola.  You don’t want me to read it now, do you?”

“Oh no.  I won’t make you do that…todaaaay.  But I want to show it to Nee.” 

Miles looked between the two of them, lifting his arm up onto the back of the couch as though he needed to position himself better to examine his daughter’s motives.  In that moment, Neith had just put her arm on the back of the couch, thinking Miles’ was leaving – she had been settling into a new position herself.  Their hands touched.  Neith kept her eyes on Nola, but they involuntarily flung wide. 

Taking his hand back, he answered: “I’ll get it.  I’m not sure what you’re up to, but I’ll get it.”  Neith still wondered if Miles was in on the plan to waylay Neith.  Standing by his desk now he called over, “Rats.  I think I left it at the house.”

Nola blinked in response.  Miles shook his head smiling and went out the schoolhouse door.  Neith turned the page in the book in Nola’s lap with the arm that was around her; the offending, tingling arm.

“I’ve read the Swiss Family Robinson so many times.  It takes me a loooong time though.  Hey, Ruthie told me you had a super-reader.  Can I see it?  That is something I haven’t seen.”  She almost sounded casual.

 “I do have a speed-reader on my phone.  Well, what was my phone, anyway – and I happen to have it with me.” She had been planning to email on the way home from After School Club.  Neith drew her phone from her breast pocket and powered it on.  Nola’s eyes bloomed.

“How does it work?”

“Let me see,” Neith replied, thumbing through her library titles for the e-book Ruthie had last been in. She knew the way Nola adored Ruthie, and despite the few years age difference between them, Neith suspected they would enjoy similar books.  “Here.”  Neith selected Charlotte’s Web – surely a non-offensive choice.  She didn’t want to upset Miles.  “This is Charlotte’s Web – you know, the story about friendship between a pig and a spider?”

Nola leaned into Neith so that the crown of her red locks came under Neith’s chin.  Neith felt something different to butterflies; a cousin, far-removed, but fluttering, all the same. 

“You mean the story where the spider is really the terrific, radiant and humble one?”

“My, my!  I can tell you’ve read this already.  Maybe you don’t want to read it again?”  Neith faked casting her phone to the side as though done with it.

“No!  I’ve never read it the super-speedy way!”  Neith pulled the phone back into view for both of them.  Neith relaxed some.  Nola had confirmed she’d made a safe text choice.  The Republic and Nydia both approved of Wilbur, it seemed.  It was one of the books Neith had always been permitted.

“My dad always says this story is about Charlotte saving Wilbur’s bacon,” Nola laughed. 

“He would.”  That smelt-wearer.  The winged flurry of Nola’s closeness swept into her chest cavity as the excited squall monopolised on her stomach.  It was as though birds had fled to the treetops in response to the warm gale.  Holding her love for Nola and her admiration for Miles inside simultaneously seemed to defy the quarters she’d reserved for affection.  Neith semi-coughed to refocus.  “So how this works…” Neith modified the settings to a slower reading rate “…is that the words flash up on the screen, in streams.  You need to focus on the highlighted word, as it comes up.  You’ll see it like an image, and you’ll also take in the text around it.  At first, the words will flash relatively slowly.  Then I can increase the speed.  You’ll get faster, until you’re reading up to…200 words per minute?”

“That sounds like a lot.”

“It is.”

“I want to try.”


She handed the phone to Nola, who took it into her own lap.  Almost trembling, she tapped “Begin.”

She giggled as she finished a page.  Neith tapped it to pause. 

“That’s amazing!”  Nola was glowing.

Neith hadn’t heard Miles’ approach.  “What are you doing!?”  She also hadn’t heard him this angry. 

Nola shrivelled and dropped the phone.  It clacked on the wooden floorboards.

“Neith, I need you to leave. Now.”

Nola looked between her father and couch compatriot in obvious distress.  “Papa.  Papa!”  The second time she spoke more insistently.  I asked her to show it to me.  I practically begged her.”

“We can talk later,” Miles said, openly pained by the worried lines on his daughter’s face.

“Miles, I’m sorry.  I didn’t know.  Ruthie reads on it – Elle said it was fine because it wasn’t transmitting – I’m sorry.”

“Just go.”

Neith ducked her head, rescued the phone from the floor, and skirted out around Miles.  He appeared wider and taller in his stifled rage.

Neith ran now.  She ran for Elle’s – where the rules were known and she’d never felt a confusion of emotions like this.

The phone was a husk.  That’s all it was.

Oh no.  Wren.  Miles’ wife.  The partner and child who became sick in the City.  The babe – Nola – who had survived for having left it all behind.  The wife who had not.

Neith felt tears but ignored them, running harder.  How could she have been so stupid?  She saw now Nola had engineered the moment to take place with her father absent.  How could Neith have been so fixated on pleasing her, and forget Miles in all of it?

She hadn’t though.  She had thought of him the entire time – but Nola too.  She’d thought of him as she made the choice in novel.  She simply didn’t factor in how a device was a problem.  Neith may have been in Nydia for the most part of three seasons, but she still didn’t think the way they did.  She could still forget.

She reached the stone wall by Elle’s, the front steps just after, and dropped onto the stoop.  She saw the log she’d first seen Elle on – when she’d thought Elle was nibbling on a child.  Neith’s hacking, dripping, ugly cry-laughing continued.  Here she was – still making mistakes in reading a moment.  Only this time, it had flattened a swirling, magical thing inside her when she’d done it.

Neith heard the door behind her but didn’t turn.

Elle stepped down and settled beside her.  Amos was wrapped around her like a tree frog Neith had seen on the Intra. 

“Neith?   What is it?”

“It’s complicated.”

“Oh, Neith.”  Elle put her free arm around Neith’s shoulders and held her tight.  “I know.”  Neith cried.  Elle thought she knew.  It was going to get worse.  “I take it things didn’t go well?  At the school?  With Miles?”  Elle urged.  Amos hugged Elle, mirroring his mother’s concern.

“I was stupid.”

Elle hugged her tighter.  “It’s going to be okay.  The stupid stuff is part of figuring it out.  We all do stupid things.”  She released some of her consoling grip before letting go entirely to pat her on the back.  “Wipe your eyes, and come inside when you’re ready.  It’s kind of a surprise.”  Elle leaned close to Neith’s face, pulling back her hair to look at her dear friend.

Neith hiccupped.  The dinner.  The stockings.  She pulled herself together and went in.  She would do her best not to blemish the night with recollections of her earlier folly.

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