Chapter 1: The Rise of Nightingale
Rolling over, the springs squeak in protest as the mattress remolds to the shifted weight. No matter which position I try the feeling of discontentment remains. Kicking the comforters off, I turn once again to face the clock. The red numbers seem to mock my sleep deprived mind. I want to believe my eyes are playing tricks on me, but the darkness filling this room proves otherwise.
Sitting up slowly, I gaze at the darkness before me. All this tossing and turning is zapping what little energy my body has. Carefully combing my fingers through my hair, I check for tangles. Would not be the first time I have woken up with a bird’s nest for hair.
Each stroke of my fingers is sluggish. My body feels heavy from overwork, even though it is my mind that is running nonstop. The fear of dreaming keeps me awake and thinking. With dreams come nightmares. One must balance out the other. If I can stay awake long enough, my drowsiness will disappear with the first rays of sunlight.
Waiting out the sunrise is very tedious and too quiet for my liking. With nothing to do, I am resigned to analyze my life choices. I do not think about the past, because what is there to think of when I cannot even remember. My previous foster parent, Mrs. Johnston, had once asked me if ignorance is a blessing or curse. Although her mindset is lost on me, I can never seem to forget her inquiry.
How can I even answer such a complex question, rhetorical or not? The only way to know, if it is better to be ignorant, is to become aware. Yet becoming cognizant negates the definition of ignorant. Dropping my head in hand, I am reminded of why I choose not to dwell in the past. Headaches only ensue.
Being ignorant of my past leaves me blind to my future. The future is fickle and ever charging. One decision can make or break me. And yet these monumental decisions occur in the present, which is never guaranteed. I know this fact all too well.
The life of an orphan, the only life I know, has taught me such. It has become my past. My heart acknowledges this statement to be true, but my mind refuses it at every turn. My self’s imbalance is what drives the fear of dreaming that consumes me. My mind creates scenes, which pound a sense of déjà vu into my very core.
Sometimes I cannot tell if I am dreaming. Where is the line drawn between dreams and reality? I can always feel the heat emitted from the flames. Taste the salt from another’s tears as they cascade onto my cheeks. See the weeping face, as it transforms into a mask of determination. And yet the scariest part, is hearing my name being murmured repeatedly as a final fare-well. Every time I try to become the master of my dream, and change the outcome, it remains the same.
Clenching my eyes shut, I cover my ears in hopes of muting out the loving chant of my name. Nicolette. Nicolette. Nico-. The pain from squeezing my eyes tightly brings me out of the trance. Releasing my ears, I am more determined not to sleep.
Completely kicking the covers off, I slide out of bed. Maybe some fresh air will do me some good. The crisp air will hopefully wake me up, like a substitute for morning caffeine.
Leaning against the windowsill I affectionately gaze at the moon, something seemingly small but in reality larger than life. Always appearing white, but never having the same purity. In that aspect I can sympathize with the moon, always hiding behind a fake smile.
On nights like these, when the moon is a waxing crescent, I feel one with myself. Like the waxing crescent, I too am missing pieces of myself. The pieces are not actually missing; they are just hidden by the shadows of doubt that consume me. The stars, even as tiny as they appear to be, give me hope; that somewhere deep inside of me burning bright is a light. What the light represents, I do not know. Though the possibility of finding the missing pieces of myself does scare me, I yearn to know who I really am inside. I imagine the light to be a lantern, lighting up secret passage ways leading toward the missing memories I have unknowingly locked away.
At times I feel as if I remember pieces of my past, or I am reminded of something familiar by objects around me. I can never grasp the image fully. The image is always cloudy like a Polaroid picture, and once the picture starts to develop, my mind shuts down. After I regain my bearings, frustration begins to mount and I give up.
The only memory I have from my past is part of a written quote. The beginning is foggy, but somewhere in the passage it read No matter where you lie, the stars will always guide you home. I cannot recall where I read this before, but it always comforts me in my times of need.
My guardians, if you can call them that, believe I have an obsession with astronomy but the moon in particularly. They keep insisting that I should be an astronaut or at least an astronomer. I am fascinated with astronomy, but my fascination runs on the hypothetical side of the universe. Having other astrologist ridiculing my theories for a living is not my ideal career. So far, I am content with watching people and the way in which they interact. A career as a detective is more my style. Detective Nightingale has a ring to it.
The gentle wind blowing through the window caresses my face like a loving mother, as strands of free hair dance around my neck.Laughing quietly, I secretly wish this moment would never end. No one is here to pity me, or constantly ask if I am alright. In this room I am free to be a normal teenager again. Even if it is just for a little while, I can forget my misfortunes and relax. Here, alone in my room, I feel safe from the outside world.
The loud grumbling of my neglected stomach reminds me, I had skipped dinner in exchange for solitude. Stretching lazily like a cat, I arch my back and yawn. Glancing at the moon one last time, I offer up my usually wish and shut my window. Carefully opening my bedroom door so as not to disturb anyone with the loud squeaking; I walk out of my room into the hall. Seeing Anthony bent over by the top of the stairs makes me a little curious.
Crouching beside my adoptive brother, I secretly eaves drop on my guardian’s conversational bantering. Together we stake out, while trying to listen to the beginning of an argument. As the conversation begins to escalate into harsh whispering, I motion for my brother to head to his room. Anthony, being the stubborn kid he is, denies my request and stays.
Rolling my eyes, I allow Anthony to relish in his small insignificant victory. Ignoring my brother, I continue to observe my guardians’ behavior. Their serious tone is unusual. Their personalities seem care-free. It is like I am listening to two different people, or alter egos.
As my legs begin tingle, I decide that my spying time is up and it is in my stomach’s best interest to get some food. Getting up from my kneeling position slowly, I stretch both my legs, and walk around my brother in the direction of the noise.
Stomping down the first few stairs to signal my presence, I awkwardly walk by them. They are sitting in the living room, crammed together on a couch. Both are startled by my presence, each resembling a deer caught in headlights. Gabriella, my adoptive mother, drops a thick navy blue folder she is holding. Some of the contents spill out. My adoptive father, Joseph, who seems more composed, still looks equally as guilty. He slams his work laptop shut.
I awkwardly wave at the two of them and turn toward the kitchen. Without sufficient time to shield my eyes, I rapidly blink away the black and white spots in my vision. I am not sure if I will ever get used to motion censored lights. After regaining my bearings I amble to the fridge.
A small groan escapes my lips as I close and re-open the fridge for the second time. For some reason I thought more appealing food options would appear. Grabbing the left over lasagna, I wonder what Gabby and Joe, as they had told me to call them, are doing. I think I saw the edge of a picture slip out of the navy blue folder.[i] The emblem on the folder is also bazar. It is an exact replica of the emblem on Joe’s briefcase, and he never allows anyone to see the contents of his briefcase. Even touching the briefcase is a no. So why does Gabby have the folder? Maybe the ‘no touch’ rule does not apply to her, because I do not recall them working together.
I remember once Anthony thought he was being funny by hiding the briefcase in the kitchen pantry. Joe did not think it was funny; he actually lectured Anthony for hours on end. After that incident I can confidently say lesson learned.
After placing my dishes on the drying rack, I scurry to my room. Whatever they are working on, I really do not care about it. As far as I am concerned, I did not see anything too noteworthy. The less I know about everyone here, the better off I am. I already have a college count down going.
Cautiously walking through my already opened bedroom door, I scan for a culprit. How did I not hear my bedroom door open? Its wails like fighting cats. Creeping over to my closet, I whip the door open. Pushing clothes out of the way like a mad woman, I find nothing. Rushing over to the bed I drop down on all fours and lift the covers. Still, I find nothing. Rolling my eyes at my paranoid tendencies, I firmly shut my door for good measures. If only the door had a lock on it.
Flopping backwards onto my bed, I stare at the ceiling. Tonight is going to be another sleepless night at the Shepherd’s house. It is to be expected since I have only been here for about two months. My last foster parent, Mrs. Johnston, could not handle taking care of a teenager, something about financial problems with this economy.
I still wonder why Gabby and Joe adopted me. I came equipped with a warning sign, and the whole shebang. Back in the orphanage, when my name was mentioned, fear filled the eyes of every staff member in the immediate vicinity. Although part of me feels guilty, that I was the cause of their anxiety, another part of me, the more dominant part as of lately, relishes in this new found power.
It is not like I am mean or nasty to anyone. Other people always feel awkward when they hear my life story. They do not know how to approach me anymore, and start to act like I am fragile. Pity is one thing I do not want from anyone. My life made me who I am today, and I will not feel sorry about that. I am proud of who I am and the experiences that I have endured.
Some people see my pride as a defense mechanism. Maybe it is and maybe it is not. If I cannot find a way to access my own memories, I will not allow someone else to. I am a firm believer in fate. Everything happens for a reason. I will regain my memories when the time is right. No sooner and no later.
Rolling over in bed, I close my eyes and try to fall asleep. Flashbacks of my overzealous confrontations with the awkward neighbors filter through my mind. One flashback in particular makes me sit up, eyes wide gasping for breath. Turning my head to the window, I shut my eyes at the sunlight streaming in. Maybe if I keep them closed long enough, the sun will disappear. Very unlikely, but I’m hopeful.
Gazing at my door, I muster the strength to get out of bed. Stumbling towards the kitchen, I bump into Anthony on the way. It seems we both obtained the same amount of sleep.
Upon entering the kitchen, I gaze adoringly at the feast Joe is making. I have to admit; using food is one way to weasel into my good graces. When I first arrived at the Shepherd’s house, I refused to come out of my room for any family events. I felt out of place sitting at the dinner table with them; it was as if I was being forced to play house with complete strangers who did not understand that eating together did not make us a close unit.
If not for the mouthwatering food that Joe creates, I would still be up in my room getting ready for the day; only eating after I am sure everyone has left the kitchen. Not because I have a servant complex which sadly does happen to some kids placed into neglectful foster homes, but because I feel more comfortable alone.
The only time in the orphanage when I ever had time to be myself, was when I was alone. I did not need to pretend for perspective foster parents or for inspectors checking out the orphanage. I never needed to be a good role model for the scared younger kids. Being alone does not need strength, just resolve. Apathy equals the resolve I need.
Closing my eyes from the sight of the food, I inhale the aroma and sigh. Lazily as if in a drug induced haze, I open my eyes to greet the chef. Joe in his white apron shakes the spatula over his shoulder without turning around. I take it as his special good morning and grab a seat at the island table.
Looking around the room, I finally notice Gabby is not around. Odd, she is the breakfast advocate. If you are not here you are square. Mental eye roll, she is rubbing off on me. I have only known her for weeks, and I already understand her mannerisms. Maybe I really should become a detective.
Hearing noise by the kitchen door, I turn around to politely greet Gabby, only to be disappointed when it is Larissa. Picking apart her outfit I roll my eyes. Who wears high heels to school? She needs to relax; this is not a Miss High School pageant contest. Though if it was, I can bet my life that she would lose. But then again that one idiot won because she put Africa in her speech, even though all her information was wrong. I guess ending with help the children won the hearts of voters. It was such a typical outcome, degrading pageant winners everywhere.
As I watch Larissa stumble over Anthony’s discarded backpack, hands wildly grasping around to regain her balance, I cannot help but feel sympathy for her pumps. The thin heel seems to be struggling underneath her. If only it would snap. Calculating the trajectory of Larissa’s possible fall, I scoot my chair to safety. I can never be too safe.
Joe having heard the squeaking of the chair legs turns around to see what is happening. He glances at Larissa’s outfit and then towards my pajamas. His mouth opens as if to say something but instead he turns his attention back to the stove only shaking his head in the process. One can only guess what he is thinking about.
After seeing Larissa safely regain her balance, I turn my attention back to Joe. In his hand rests an empty china plate. Every time I see the design[ii] an ice cold sensation trickles down my spine sending a shiver throughout my body. The tremors are short lived as the flower design is soon covered by eggs and sausages.
Any perception of déjà vu is forgotten as the food makes its way to the island’s marble top. Hopping out of my seat, I set the table. The least I can do is be a little helpful. I would ask for Larissa’s help too, if I was patient enough to wait for rain in the Sahara Desert, both being ephemeral and pointless.
Larissa is the kind of girl, who makes her own rules on her own time. She has probably been spoiled her whole life. She is like a free bird; it is impossible to take her wings away and expect her to fly. At this point I am resigned to realize that she is useless when it comes to domestic work.
Stiffening slightly as Larissa pulls out the chair next to me, I shift closer towards Anthony. He is the lesser of two evils. With Anthony, I know what to expect. He is at that age when pulling pranks is all the rage. Furthermore, he never tries anything harmful, it is always for laughs. He reminds me of the other boys his age at the orphanage.
“At school, you don’t know me and I don’t know you.”
Turning to look at Larissa I raise an eyebrow. My first thought at that statement is: is she crazy? She must be. She has to be in order to think that I would want to be publicly affiliated with her. If I am seen with her, I can kiss sailing under the radar good-bye. I do not plan to be invisible; but I also refuse to end up in Larissa’s posse always seeking attention and public approval.
Impatiently tapping her nails on the marble counter top, she goes on. “Do you understand? Or do you want me to repeat it slowly for you so you can catch up?”
The attitude and tone of voice Larissa uses makes my skin crawl. “Who are you again?” I ask scratching my head to add emphasis on my confusion. Picking up a piece of pancake with my fork, I smirk directly at her before taking a bite. Two can play her game, but only one can win. Did I mention I am very competitive?
“And here I was hoping you two would get along.” Looking backwards over my chair, I spot Gabby. Casually leaning on the door frame with her arms and legs crossed, dressed in a business suite. “Maybe even go on shopping trips with me.” She adds in a hopeful tone.
Good thing neither Larissa nor I are pushovers. The puppy dog eyes can sometimes be a deadly weapon. I have seen grown men fall to such weapons of mass destruction. Ok well maybe only Joe falls for it but he usually ends up doing ridiculous house hold chores.
“I am immune to those eyes. I have seen better from toddlers in the orphanage.”
“Yeah, so have I”, Larissa agrees. Wait a minute she agrees with me. Is the sky falling? “And no amount of begging will get me to shop with your newest charity case.”
Okay maybe not. Glaring at Larissa my appetite is lost. I quickly stalk away from the table and place my dishes in the sink. Situations like these are the reasons I do not like being in a room with everyone. My past is always brought up. The notion of sore topics seems to escape this family.
Upstairs in my room, I flip through my closet. Charity case she says. One day I will show her a charity case. She obviously does not know that when she messes with fire, she will get scorched. Shuffling around in my closet for a comfortable outfit, I find a nice pair of black skinny jeans with my favorite white top. Looking through my coats, I find the black leather jacket Mrs. Johnston gave me before I was brought back to the orphanage and put back into the system. Throwing my outfit on my bed, I start the search for the chain the kids at the orphanage gave me.[iii]
With my lucky chain secured around my neck, I search around for my shoes. Through the open door of the closet, I see my black converse peaking around a box. Pushing the door open I grab the shoes. I will definitely need some new ones. Not to replace these ones, but so that I can give them a rest. The heels look like they have seen better days. Both are worn down, blaringly obvious evidence that they are my everyday go to shoes.
“Nicolette, hurry up Larissa is ready to go. You have to leave early to drop Anthony off at school too.” Gabby yells from down stairs.
Grabbing my bag I walk back downstairs. “She can go ahead, I’m walking anyway”, I reply while slipping on my shoes. “I want to enjoy the good weather while it lasts.”
“Are you sure?” she asks, raising a brown eyebrow at my statement.
“Yup”, I nod. Smiling to reassure any doubts she might have about my decision.
“Do you know where you are going?” Joe asks.
“Yes, now can I go” I ask, fidgeting with the ends of my jacket’s sleeves.
“Okay but be safe”, Joe says cutting Gabby’s complaints off.“And take this.” Looking at Joe’s out stretched hand, I stare questionably at the card. “It’s a Charlie Card. You can use it for public transportation.”
“I’m taking the school bus. I am not-”
“Well just in case you make friends and want to hang out after school”, Gabby interrupts. “I would feel better knowing you have it.”
Sighing, I take the card from Joe and stuff it in my pocket. Mumbling a quick good bye, I quickly walk out of the house. Stopping on the porch, I search through my bag for my wallet, cell phone and sunglasses.
I feel like Dora the Explorer searching through my backpack. If only my backpack could come alive and speak to me; maybe even give me help. Spotting my white Guess wallet, I mentally fist pump. Now I can double check my wallet to make sure that I have my school identification card as well as my folded up class schedule. Without those I will not survive through the day.
Once satisfied that everything is where it should be, I place Joe’s Charlie Card into my wallet for safe keeping. I hate when people lose my things, so I try not to lose the belongings of others. After my wallet is securely tucked away in my backpack, I am ready to go.
While walking down the front walkway, I hear Gabby yelling “wait”. Turning around, I raise an eyebrow at her. “I know we said you could go on your own, but my friend’s son offered to drive you to school and we accepted for you. You just wait here and he should be here in a second.”
Turning toward the sky, I keep repeating why dramatically in my head. I evaded riding in a car with Larissa but now I have to ride with a complete stranger. Using my hands as a balancing scale, I try to weigh which outcome would have been better, Larissa or the stranger.
Thinking back to all the fond memories I have of Larissa, I can find none. Stranger it is I think while parking my butt on the porch stairs. Removing the headphones from around my neck, I put them away in the front pocket of my bag. The worse that can happen is the guy is as awkward as I am, and I am forced to endure a tense oppressing silence for twenty minutes.
Looking to the bright side, silence is golden. Larissa is deadly. I definitely dodged a bullet today. While trying to keep an optimistic outlook on the morning, a black range rover drives up to the house. Looking back at the front door as it opens; I watch Gabby smile and wave to the driver of the car. Heaving myself up from sitting on the stairs, I walk over to the beautiful work of art. The driver inclines his head to the passenger seat, and I nod in response.
Waving bye to Gabby I pat myself on the back. I just got shotgun without having to fight for it. Nicolette two points while life’s pessimistic grasp still zero.
Once I am fully situated in the car, he drives off. We sit in an awkward silence. He keeps his eyes on the road and I stare out the window. When he decides to break the silence, I am already so tense that I jump a little and miss what he says.
“Sorry could you repeat that?” I ask, looking at the side view of his face.
“I’m Ajay,” he repeats. Stopping at the red light, he turns to me and continues. “But my friends call me Jay.” Giving me a sheepish smile he adds, “sorry but I don’t know your name. I was just given orders to be a chauffeur”.
“I’m Nicolette Nightingale.” Looking back to the road I add, “Sorry your parents are making you do this. For the record I wanted to walk and take the school bus.”
“It’s fine. Not every day I get to drive around with a pretty girl,” he winks at me.
Laughing at his comment, I have the feeling that the ride will not be a total disaster. “I bet you say that to all the girls”, I roll my eyes only half-serious.
“Guilty as charged” he grins back, while turning to face the road.
We both laugh and easy conversation flows between us. I learn more about Clyde’s Preparatory Academy. For such a renowned private high school, I am surprised that a uniform is not enforced. I thought equality would be cherished here, but apparently everyone values liberty over equality. It is no wonder the world easily falls into chaos these days. Instead of repeating the past we stay in the past.
Looking at Jay as he laughs at my darkly sarcastic reply, I notice his image has changed in my mind. With him I do not think I will have to act like I am happy all the time. He understands how it feels to be lost without guidance. He knows the empty feeling that I carry with myself every day.
How I know this for sure I cannot really explain. For better words, I can sense it. It takes someone who has seen darkness to be able to laugh at it. I thought he would shrug it off awkwardly and change the subject. Instead he amazes me with his ability to dish out great responses even though they are not on my level yet.
I say yet because I realize that our degrees of exposure to life’s bleak realities are different. Unlike me, he has never been truly alone. However, it is enough for me that he can understand my plights and not pry. In his eyes I can see the empathy. Knowingly, I look away, a secret smile forming on my face as he continues to narrate a story.