Posted by: patti | May 8, 2009

The Power of Story (Fiction Friday)

“Sally, can you tell us what part of the cell synthesizes food molecules and gives the cell energy?” Miss H asks.  “It’s also called a ‘cellular power plant.’”

I don’t need the hint.  “Mitochondria,” I answer.  It’s been at least three years since I read Madeleine L’Engle, but I still remember that word.

“Excellent.  Now, ladies, let’s open your workbooks to page eleven and fill in and label the empty cell diagram.  Go ahead and use your colored pencils, make it as neat and pretty as possible.”  Miss H giggles.  “I’ll be collecting them at the end of the lab.”

There’s the noise of twenty girls rummaging in book bags for books and pencils.  I plop my pencil case between me and Maggie, so she can use my colored pencils, too.  We sit shoulder to shoulder at the scratched green lab table and settle in to work.

Meg and Charles Wallace—wow.  I can’t believe it’s been so long since I reread A Wrinkle in Time.  I used to start every summer reading one of the Time books, wishing I could be part of the Murry family, wishing my mom was a beautiful scientist with red hair and violet eyes.  Wishing to travel back in time, too, of course, but also wishing to be so close to someone else, to love someone else and be loved so much that the power of that love could save a life.  Save a whole planet.

But nothing ever happens to me, and so far, this movie of my life is very very boring.  I walked through the worst part of Jamaica a few weeks ago and no one even looked at me funny.  There was that weird guy on the subway, but other than that, nothing.

I draw the kidney-shaped mitochondria and make purple hatch lines to show its metabolic matrix.  One whole summer, I tried to pretend I love Matthew as much as Meg loves Charles Wallace, but no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get the sibling telepathy to work.  But then again, Matthew isn’t quite the lovable genius Charles Wallace is.

But what if maybe that guy Johnny Mueller who lived across the street from Gramma, the one Mom said got stabbed, what if he was just like an older brother to me, and I just don’t remember.  He would have had a deep tan and blond blond hair, and a kind word for everyone.  And he was handsome and smart and nice, so everyone loved him, too.

What happened to him? Maggie will ask, because everything I say about Johnny will be in the past tense.

Johnny was such a nice guy, I’ll have to tell her, with just the right amount of sadness, Johnny was such a nice guy that he got himself killed on his twenty-first birthday.  I’ll give it a moment for her to absorb it, to say something about how sorry, or how shocked, she is to hear it.

I know, I’ll say.  It’s so sad.  He was going into the city to meet up with some friends to celebrate, and on the way, he found a woman, a stranger, in trouble.  Two guys were shoving her around and she was crying out for help.  Johnny stepped in, and the guys stabbed him.  The girl ran off, called 911, but they got there too late.  Johnny bled to death.

Now, that’s a good story.  Those are the kinds of details Mom should’ve found out.

I know—I’ll say that Johnny was always reading stories to me.  In fact, he taught me to read when I was three years old.  He brought over his battered copy of Charlotte’s Web, and we read it together, over and over, sun-kissed days on the beach, dreary rainy days in Woodhaven.  And, of course, it wasn’t long before I was climbing into my father’s lap and picking out words from Charlotte’s Web in his newspaper.  And maybe he was the one who gave me A Wrinkle in Time, when I was old enough.

That’s almost true, too.  Except it was Mom who taught me to read from Charlotte’s Web when I was three, and it was Aunt Sam who gave me all her old novels.  But whatever—that’s the kind of thing that will say I lost my best friend, my big brother, my Johnny.

The bell rings.  As Maggie and I close our books, I can’t remember how I was going to start the story.

Miss H shuffles around the room, collecting papers and chatting.  No one is in a hurry to go:  We all love Miss H and we all have the next two mods free, I mean, unscheduled.  Maggie and I usually help her do the lab check in these mods, going from table to table, picking up debris and making sure each gas jet and water tap is turned off.  But today, Maggie has to make up a Math quiz.  I can’t ask her to listen to a story I can’t even keep straight in my own head.

“See you in Homeroom,” Maggie waves as she swings around the doorjamb into the hall.

“Yeah, okay,” I say, gathering up my pens and pencils slowly and carefully, as if they are hiding the lost start of my story.

Maybe I should write it.  Maybe that’s what I’ll do for the next two mods, write the story of me and Johnny, and then, when Maggie doesn’t have a test to make up, maybe even Monday before school, I can tell her then.

Miss H’s hand tightening the tap at our lab table startles me.  “And visions of mitochondria danced in her head,” she giggles.  All the other girls have left the lab, and I didn’t even notice.

“You’re a million miles away.  Is everything all right?”

Her eyes are concerned, her round red face kind.  My mouth opens, but it seems to be acting on its own.  I clamp it shut and fiddle with the zipper on my pencil case.

Miss H leans her elbows on the tall lab table behind her.  “Oh, dear.  Are you having a hard time adjusting?”

“No, no, school’s great,” I say, quickly.  But why else would I look upset?  I don’t want Miss H to think I’m one of those moody, mopey girls.

“Things are, well, things are hard at home,” I say.

Miss H straightens and puts a plump hand on my shoulder.  We’re the same height, I notice now.  Her hand is hot and heavy.  I look down at our shoes, my polished loafers and her scuffed, pointy-toed flats.

“My older brother died,” I tell our shoes.  “He was killed, stabbed on the subway this summer.”

“Oh, Sally!”  Her hand flies to mouth.  “I’m so sorry.”

I’m so happy she called me Sally instead of Sarah that I almost forget what we’re talking about.  I run my fingers over my lips to push away the sudden smile and examine the poster on the wall next to us, the bright reds and blues of the circulatory system.

“Well, he wasn’t really my brother, he was a really good friend, but he was like my brother, you know?”

I look at Miss H and quickly look away again when I see her eyes are full of tears.  My hands are shaking and my uniform blouse is cold where it’s stuck to my skin.

“I have to, I gotta, I’m, thanks,” is all I manage, and I grab my bag and run out of the lab and down the hall, down the stairs, down another hall, and down more stairs.

My shoes slap carpet and then marble, and I’m out of breath when I stop at the auditorium.  My arm pulls a bit out of its socket when I yank the heavy door open.

The auditorium is empty and cold.  The hinges squeal in protest when I pull a seat of a chair down with one shaking hand.  My bag hits the floor with a crack, and I fold my arms on my knees and drop my head into my arms.

Panting gives way to sobbing, and I picture fractures webbing the marble from my dropped schoolbag all the way down to the stage, branching out, multiplying, growing with each sob from thin little lines into gaping crevices that will swallow each row of seats, each window, each rib of the ceiling, each chandelier, until the whole auditorium, the whole school, disappears into the deep, dark fissures I’ve opened.



  1. Great way to make a return! Glad to see you back.

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