People wonder why a sixteen-year-old girl pours through history books and antique photos. It's just that I need to look into the face of the friend I lost. Sometimes I think he only ever existed in my mind. What if my overlapping memories, of two different lifetimes, mean that I'm crazy?
I remember my childhood here in suburbia--first day of kindergarten, Christmas at the grandparents' house, going to movies with friends. But I also remember another time. I was still me, but things were different.
Cell phones, computers, and even a digital clock would have amazed me. Now don't get me wrong, we had mechanical things. In that time, as in this, my brother was wildly clever. He once built a flying bicycle and drove it off the edge of Rearing Horse Hill. Admittedly, it crashed and he was left with a limp, but he also fabricated things that worked. A wind-powered butter churn. Steam-powered motorcycle. A cuckoo clock. I was so proud of him, but deep down, I wished somebody would be proud of me too.
When I close my eyes and breathe, the memory of warm grass on the wind is so tangible, I can smell it. I was running through the meadow, my coyote Arty by my side. The rabbit I'd shot with my bow was tied to my pack and its body flumped against the pack each time I reached a dip in the meadow.
The gate in the rail fence enclosing our yard creaked as I pushed it open. I dodged around the chicken coop and machines in various stages of creation. I bounded up the steps to a wide porch strewn with junk and opened the door. My brother Stewart looked up from where he sat with gadgets, tools, and whatnots scattered on the table in front of him.
"Hi, Poppy. You catch dinner?" he asked. I turned around to display the rabbit on my pack. "Looks like a ground squirrel." I frowned at his comment. It wasn't a large rabbit, but that made it a tougher target. If he ever bothered to hunt, he'd have known that. I decided to change the subject to something that might actually impress him.
"Take a look at what I found." I held out a can. It was empty and dented, but seemed to me to be a rare treasure from before the Great Quakes, the earthquakes that fractured time long before I was born.
"Where'd you get that?" Stewart reached for the can, but I held it away from him. He had enough relics. That's mostly what he used to build his gadgets. This was mine.
"In a bush where Arty and I had to dig this guy out," I said, shaking the rabbit, "because he kept on running after I shot him in the butt. I had to break his neck."
Okay, before you think I'm heartless, let me explain. If I didn't hunt, we'd have no meat. Ever since our dad left, it was my garden, my hunting, and my gathering that kept us fed. We earned some from Stewart's inventions, but he'd trade away most of them for parts for new projects.
I dropped my compound bow, whose strings had derailed and broke, onto the table and walked to the kitchen area. Stewart gave the bow a glance.
"I'm not restringing it for you," he said.
"You made it. I think there's something wrong with it." I didn't want to admit there was probably something wrong with me. I didn't know why it broke.
"Use your old bow."
"I traded it for fabric and thread." My old bow hadn't been as good. This was a little compound bow with pulleys at each end to make the arrows fly farther. Stewart made heftier models to sell, but this one was just for me.
"Listen, Poppy, Dale and I are going to Marketland and..." His voice trailed away into a sigh when our eyes met.
"Will you take me with you?" He had to say yes this time. Arty nuzzled my hand.
Stewart turned away and donned his spectacles, the ones with the hinged arms sticking out with various lenses that allowed him choices in magnification when doing intricate work. They made him look like a bug. He eased open the back of a pocket watch.
"You know the answer," he said.
Yeah, I knew. He always said I was too young to go to Marketland. There were too many rough people there, whatever that meant. Stewart was nineteen, only three years older than me, but he treated me like a child.
My coyote went into a play bow, his tongue lolling out. "Of course you look pleased," I said to him. "Everything you want is right here." A warm breeze blew through the open window, bringing the familiar ring-ring of a bicycle bell. My heart leapt, but I kept my voice casual. "Dale's here."
"Mm-hmm," Stewart said, intent on his project.
I hung the rabbit on a ceiling hook in the kitchen area and hurried to the door. My hand flew to my long hair, which I'd thrown into haphazard braids earlier that morning. I was sure they were as frazzled as a squirrel's nest by then. Wearing my dad's old baggy trousers, held up with a bit of rope, made me feel as if I looked like a sloucher, those people who wandered New California with no home.
Blast, too late to change.
At the knock, I threw open the door. A warmth rushed to my cheeks upon seeing Dale. His bowler hat was pushed over his mop of blonde hair. Hair the exact color of the hillside in summertime. He wore his usual, suspenders with a holster and gun over a striped shirt that hung loosely on his thin frame. He smelled of sun, grass and faintly of clean sweat.
"Hey, Sprocket. Is Stew here?" He leaned down to feed Arty a piece of meat. Dale always brought him a bit of something.
"Yeah." I stepped aside. Entering, Dale swiped off his hat and ran a hand through his hair.
"Almost ready," Stewart said without looking up. Dale grabbed a chair and spun it around to straddle it at the table. He picked up a pair of pliers, but Stewart took them from his hand. "Don't touch anything."
I hadn't moved from the door and felt silly when Dale looked up at me. Holy coyote feathers, did his eyes sparkle!
"Got anything to eat, Sprocket?" he asked.
Shaking myself from my Dale-induced trance, I shut the door and went to the cupboard. I brought a basket of almonds and a clay pitcher of water to the table, though there was little free space with all of Stewart's junk and my bow. Finally finding my voice, I turned to my brother.
"Why are you going to Marketland? The yard's full of your half-finished projects and nothing's ready to sell. The trip's not worth the fuel. Let's go to town instead."
"Town" was Stonyville, a tiny village and trading post a two-hour walk from out cabin, or about half an hour by steambike. But Marketland was truly exciting, or so I'd imagined. Stewart and Dale--especially Dale--would return from there with such stories! I wanted to meet the purple winged fairy who lived outside the city walls. Dale said she spun yarn that glowed in the dark, and sung so beautifully, it'd make you weep.
The only creatures from the Magical realm I'd encountered seemed ordinary, like the electric blue lizards that made your hair stand up when they ran past, or the winged carapace mice that ate your grain and pooped on your head. They were boring compared to the wonders of Marketland. Stewart said Dale invented most of his stories, but even if a handful were true, Marketland would be amazing.
Stewart shut the back of the watch he'd been working on. "There's something I need to do at Market. He looked at me over his spectacles and added softly, "I'm sorry you can't come." His pity felt almost worse than his refusal. I'm not a child! I bit my lip to keep from saying it aloud. I didn't want to sound whiney in front of Dale. Stewart dumped a pile of coins onto the table and only returned a couple to his own money pouch. "We'll go Stonyville next week. I promise."
He slipped each of his tools into separate pockets of his canvas tool roll so methodically, I found it painful to watch. I could never have the patience to be so precise. I wanted to scream, "Just fling them into a sack!" Dale tossed me a knowing grin before throwing an almond into the air and catching it in his mouth. He too was accustomed to waiting for fastidious Stewart. My annoyance melted like butter at that grin. After all, I wasn't eager for them to leave.
"Dale, you want to see what I found?" I asked.
Hoping he'd find me clever, I practically sailed to the shelf where I'd put the tin can. I held it out. "A bona fide relic of the modern era."
He took it from me. "You sure?" he said. "The tinsmith in town makes cans like this." I let out a little gasp of indignation. It had to be real; it looked so old!
Stewart stood up. "Poppy, you remember where the revolver is?" I nodded. He took the can from Dale. "You remember how to use it?"
"Yes." It came out as an exasperated hiss. They were the same questions every time. I figured it made him feel less guilty about leaving me.
"George the tinsmith made it." He tapped the can. "His initial is stamped on the bottom." I took the non-relic can from him as my stomach twisted into a humiliated knot, and followed the guys to the door. Dale leaped off the porch, not bothering with the steps. Stewart pulled on his leather gloves. "We might be late. You should lock up before dark."
"If you were concerned with my safety, you wouldn't leave me behind."
"Poppy, I know you're not scared." With his walking stick, he strode to his steam-powered motorcycle and crouched to light the firebox. "This is about you wanting to come along."
I crossed my arms, muttering, "You're a donkey." Dale caught my eye and raised his brows before climbing onto the bike.
Does he realize how cute he is?
Stewart pointed his walking stick at me. "I'll bring you a present."
A trip to Marketland would be nice. I watched Dale shove his hat firmly onto his head. Or you could leave Dale here. That'd be fine too.
"Into the coal car, Dale." Stewart said. The steambike had a sidecar for carrying coal, water bags, and other things. Stewart let me ride on the steambike behind him, but he always made poor Dale sit in the sidecar.
"Don't feel bad," I called. "That's where we put Arty too." I smiled when he shook his head in good-natured resignation.
"It's undignified," he said. One hand held his hat on. The other made an exaggerated supplication to heaven. The bike turned and drove through the open gate, making chuggity noises and puffing out breaths of steam in its wake. Arty ran with me to the dirt road to watch until it was only a speck in the distance.