“Chase, where you going? Mom will be mad you left without telling her.” Sharon watched him over the top of their fence.
He tossed a frown over his shoulder, not so much at Sharon as at the windows to see if her mother was even tracking him. She was not.
“Aren’t your parents coming home in two days?” Taylor called out. “Are we meeting up with the gang this week-end, anyway?”
She grabbed the fence links as if considering catapulting over. He waved at her, sped up, crossed the Beckley’s yard, then the Hart’s and cut between the houses. Sharon saw his shirttail and one brown hand vanish as he zipped around the corner.
“Never mind, he’s just being Chase.” Sharon turned to the little ones–JB, Jean and Darla– who scattered, then picked up a dirty, mashed tennis ball to play toss. “We’ll hear from Mrs. Braden.”
“What do you mean?” her sister asked.
“I mean, dummy, if Chase tells his mom his feelings got hurt she’ll be on the phone asking why are we always picking on him? Is it because he’s not the same? she’ll say. Or because he’s so smart and special? That’s what.”
“Oh, be quiet. We never pick on him,” Taylor said, “you do. You better watch out, you’re acting racist lately. Besides, his parents had something important to do, they left work early to catch a flight somewhere for business. So that’s why Chase came over after school today, just until his mom’s friend, Janet, comes to stay with him a couple days. He wanted to stay with Justin, he said, but no deal.”
Sharon gave her the evil eye–that she should know so much, too often!–then shrugged and went inside. Taylor finished the lime sucker JB had given her and thought it over. Chase would never run home and whine to anyone, Sharon was wrong about that. His mother could be protective, she could think stuff was wrong that wasn’t then ignore stuff she should pay more attention to according to Taylor’s mom’s jaded opinion. Taylor knew him, though; this time he was bored. Chase often got a notion there was something better to do elsewhere and he’d wander about. He was usually right, but he might have taken her along.
She and Chase knew her older sister was a bully. Now that she’d just turned thirteen, more so. Taylor didn’t get it. Sharon was their dad’s favorite–except for JB. Taylor was second in command at eleven and a half, JB was seven, and the twins were five–but she felt last in line sometimes. Even though she was the one who did most chores. Sharon acted like she was perfect while shirking her part.
“I’m a bit distracted,” their mother would say if Taylor complained. “I’m pulled this way and that. You can’t manage things?”
Taylor saw their dad worked too many hours; he wanted order when he got home. He had “deputized” Sharon because she was the oldest, he said, to her dismay.
“That’s not right,” Mom said and scrubbed the Dutch oven harder, strands of her hair falling into her eyes. Her soapy hand would shove it back and it would cascade down again.
Taylor wondered why she didn’t just pin back the mass of dark blond hair. It always seemed to blind her. Taylor was more like her, though, skinny and pale and fast on her feet, quieter than the rest unless she was outdoors. A book lover; her mother was not that. Sharon looked like their dad–broad, dark hair, a great throwing arm when they played football or baseball. Big mouth.
Chase had it easier by far, Taylor used to think. He was the only child. Mrs. Braden had tried to have other kids but they hadn’t made it into the world. Her husband moped around more than she did, her mother said, until they finally had Chase. Then he was gleeful, announcing the news to neighbors at six in the morning, shoving cigars into hands. (“I hate cigars”, their dad told him years later, “but what the heck, you were due respect–a boy finally making good!”)
Chase was half Black, half white. Mr. Braden was Black, his wife white. Chase was a medium chocolate brown with ebony curly hair he kept cropped close.
“He met Mom at Northwestern, ” Chase confided in Taylor. “He said it was like that,” and he snapped his fingers sharply. “He was going to have a career in finance and she wanted to teach high school. They were a perfect match even though she was white so they just made it legal, graduated, went to work and moved to western Idaho. Smack in the middle of Nowheresville. And finally had me. They seriously suspect I’m some magical being because I survived when others didn’t.”
They were sitting on a picnic table under the willow tree at his house. Chase talked like that most of the time, direct, open, bigger sentences. As if he wanted to make sure people were correctly informed. Taylor wasn’t bothered but some were. It was one more thing that didn’t get or accept.
“Well, it’s true you’re smarter than even me, ha. And can play piano like a grown up. And your mom did almost give up on having kids so you are their one and only.” She threw a stone she had taken out of her shoe earlier but it hit a tree trunk with only a tiny thud.”My mom had five and none of us are that fantastic.”
Chase shook his head. “I know, I know.” He turned to Taylor and laughed. “No, I don’t mean you guys aren’t, uh, I meant that I hear that all the time but it drives me crazy.”
Taylor shoved him with her shoulder.”I knew what you meant.”
“I’m supposed to be someone else, you know.”
Taylor squinted at his deep brown eyes.”Meaning?”
“You know, a jock, not that great at school, somebody who can rap or something–”
“I happen to know you sing, even dance pretty well–”
“–and entertain everyone. Taylor you’re not slow, come off it. You get it. I’m Black in this white town. But not one hundred percent. It is–I am–a kind of conundrum.”
“Wait, wait don’t tell me…a conundrum means: a problem.”
“Well, it can mean a riddle, puzzle or problem, yes.”
“You’re not a problem to me, a riddle, yes, but way beyond color…”
“You’re pretty strange, you know. You create your own comic books, watch old horror movies alone and make cheesy videos with Justin, Audrey and me. Geek Central.”
“Yeah, a regular club member, please save me! Hey, we’re making another video this week-end, right?”
“Ten o’clock Saturday, my house. We’ll do it in the rec room, the basement.”
“I still have wigs, sword and candles; Justin has the other stuff.”
But though they were friends from way back, Taylor knew she could only make a weak attempt at imagining how it was. Chase was one of three students of color; the other two were Japanese. She’d seen them all harassed and if she stepped in she was shoved about, too, amid disgusting names aimed like arrows at their targets. Chase eluded them most of the time, got beat up some. If only they took the time to know Chase, she thought, how funny and nice he was mostly. Interesting. He had his moods. He didn’t like Idaho much, especially after the family had gone on trips to Los Angeles, then Hawaii. He’d sent Taylor pictures from his phone and it all looked exotic, like those movie sets with honeyed sunshine flowing and turquoise ocean waves, people milling about in their beautiful bodies, skimpy swimsuits. Chase beamed at the camera, his bare shoulders squared and bronzed. He was almost like a different person. He nearly blended in.
“I want to live there someday. And you can come visit, if you want,” he’d said the last time he came back from a trip to see relatives in LA. “But don’t think you’re my girlfriend just because I said that.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
But every day she wondered what he really meant. And that word–“girlfriend”–was from another language she might want to learn.
Sharon would never understand such things, even if she was older. No one could, not even Audrey. Not in her town. It stayed Taylor’s secret, burned like a very small, unsteady fire.
The videos they made were a combined effort but that didn’t mean they created anything without conflict. It was to be about twelve minutes long when completed. That might be too long, Taylor thought, to hold people’s attention. She and Chase would edit it, as always.
Justin adjusted his scruffy penny red wig and stood tall. He liked wearing it, it changed his shy demeanor. “I’ll be in the laundry room, right? With my sword and cape readied for entrance. Red Lion Strikes Again!”
He stood atop a table brandishing his silvery hard rubber sword. Taylor poked his own brown hair back in, smoothed his cape. He looked more like a boy playing a homely Musketeer but could appear decently ferocious.
“Audrey, you need to float down the stairs with candles lit in each hand,” Chase directed, “and Tay, curl yourself up behind the workbench with your precious painting, be fabulous Marie. Prepare for Justin to discover you and attempt to flee with your painting.”
“How many segments does this story have? Is The Red Lion dying this time for good? We’ve done two videos already.”
Taylor ignored Audrey’s complaining and hid behind the workbench with a large painting swaddled in a paisley scarf. It was to be secreted away in dark underground tunnels–the large, multi-roomed basement–and The Red Lion was going to dash after her. It was a million dollar piece of art. She had to elude him but the basement wasn’t that big.
“Ready? All in your places?” Chase yelled into a cardboard megaphone. “Scene 2, Take 1!”
Chase was Detective Charles Dubois in the next segment but he was always stage and music director. He had recorded some of his piano compositions, appropriately spooky with a classical touch–he couldn’t help himself.
“I can barely see you, Chase,” Justin said. “Move a little.”
“Of course you can’t. I’m in the dark except for one low wattage bulb over there and soon the candles. We all are, it’s called ‘atmosphere’.”
“Yeah but you’re darker, you about disappear…”Audrey responded, “and I don’t want to stumble over you as I come down the stairs and break my neck!”
Silence fell. They could hear each other breathing, see faint outlines of bodies.
“Well, that’s me, just living in the shadows alongside you geniuses! Come on, Audrey, just watch where you’re stepping. A little candlelight makes darkness brighter but you have to look confident.” Chase said. “Take your place, be the wicked accomplice. Everybody ready? We’ll make it a rehearsal this time.”
Their story unfolded as Chase directed the heck out of it.
Taylor thought as she listened for her cues: this is the best year of my life but Chase can’t stay here forever. Someday we’ll all say we knew him.
The thought stung a soft spot in her center, the spot where where such things dug in and didn’t let go. She clutched the oblong painting of red roses and lilies-of-the-valley some family or person had in their house for decades, and then one day the owner died and it was put in an estate sale where everyone could touch it and dicker over it. And now Taylor owned it, had begun to like it. She hoped Justin wouldn’t successfully damage it. It meant something to her.
“Action!” Chase called.
This time they got it together and made what would be the next-to-last of their childish videos. Taylor sensed nothing could remain the absolute same. She knew she was going to undergo change, too, like something sticking its nose out of the earth to find a whole other world out there. Like it or not.
“We’re moving,” he said. “In two months, after school is out.”
“Where?” She then held her breath; she didn’t want it to escape into the moonlight, not yet.
Chase was sitting by her on the second floor balcony of his house. It overlooked his large back yard and several others. She could almost see hers. He had brought a bowl of popcorn and two sodas. They’d eaten their fill on an ordinary blooming spring evening.
“Los Angeles. My dad got a job transfer, a bigger bank. My mom will look for another teaching position.”
“Oh.” Air hissed from between her lips, hot then cool.
“I’m going to a private school, Taylor, oh man!”
“Makes sense.” She hugged her knees close, felt them press into her strong, wing-shaped ribs.
“There’s a famous piano teacher there, that’s the thing. I’ll learn so much. I’ll play more!”
“Right. I know there isn’t any fine teacher for you here, not anymore.”
“Not so much is here, in general, for me. I do like the grand mountains, our house. My three friends.”
“Yeah, love our mountains, too, and maybe there’s more here for me. Or not, now you’re leaving.”
Taylor glanced at Chase to see if he agreed but his eyes told her he was already dreaming of another life. They were wide open, struck by moon rays that glanced off large black pupils then high cheekbones, full lips. He was silver and gold yet only a hint of the man he would be. And he shared with her a tender night full of things she didn’t understand and didn’t have to, perhaps. Taylor wished he would leave tomorrow–or not for a few more years. Maybe if it happened either more quickly or took longer it would be less maddening. Desperate feeling.
They sat closer to one another, her left and his right arm side-by-side. His brown arm and her white one. His large hands tapped a rhythm on his knees, an answer to some inaudible tune, then the right hand moved over to hers and rested there, dry and warm. She caught his little finger with her thumb and he hooked it tighter. The scent of lilacs rose from beneath them, that flourishing bush he and his dad had planted when he was barely five.
“I’m afraid, Tay…of leaving. Of not being around you. That huge city. Of failing. How will I fit in, in LA of all places? Growing up…yuck, I don’t like those parts.”
“I know, I know, but we’ve been afraid of things before, Chase. Both of us, right, fighting off the creeps, coping with the parents, getting hurt. But we’re okay, so we’ll stay okay, right? Conundrums, riddles, puzzles or not.” She laughed, more a funny whimper. “Or we can make up some new parts.”
“Yeah.” He sighed. “That’s right. Smart.” He looked right at her. “I’ll call. Write. Skype. I’ll record my piano pieces if you want…”
“Oh, Chase, really, what’ll I do in Idaho?”
A tiny tremor ran through her and he felt it. She lay her head on his shoulder; his rested on hers. She liked the smell of his warm skin, the feel of him close. If time could please just stop or jump forward ten years. Please God.
Five night birds stirred in the top of the willow tree, took wing as Chase and Taylor raised their hands at once to say farewell to them, to praise something bigger than themselves, to usher in the coming of the beautiful unknown. But she saw his hand meld with deepening night sky. Knew he would not be around to walk it with her. They would have to figure it out, each their own way. Somehow.