Chapter 5 – Birdsong

“I always wanted to fit in.” Carly sank into her memories, her eyes unfocusing as she remembered. “But you know that. That’s what led to that horrible day in that horrible barn.”

Davey nodded, nibbling on the end of a crispy piece of bacon.

“My greatest wish was to be one of the popular kids. I would have sold my soul for the privilege. I would have done anything, including walking along that beam, and falling, and shattering my pelvis. Even after they ran away and left me there. Even with their laughter haunting me. I still believed that they would be my friends. I had done what they wanted.” Carly picked at the edge of the blanket incessantly, almost angrily. “I did what they wanted! And even if I couldn’t have them. If they didn’t accept me. I’d always have you, Davey. My very best friend. The one person who’d never questioned me. Even though we hadn’t known each other that long, you’d loved me for who I was. I never doubted that. But then I was in the hospital, and you just disappeared. I kept waiting for you, but you never came. Day after day I waited. Watching that door. Watching for you. Then, about a week after I was put in that stupid bed, my mom came in and said that you were gone. Your parents were gone. Your house was empty. You’d just vanished. Without even trying to say goodbye.” Carly brushed away a rogue tear with the back of her hand. The movement more resignation than anger or sadness. This was the best she expected for herself.

“I was in the hospital for almost two months. The bones took so long to heal. My parents would visit me, but no one else. The school sent a card, but not a single student from my class came to see if I was okay. Not one of those people I longed to be deemed me worthy of could bother to give me even five minutes of their time. I was so lonely. When my parents saw that no one was coming to visit me, they wanted to know why. To know where all my friends were. They had no idea how hard it was for me at school. How lonely it was to eat lunch alone every day. To be teased for being chubby. Then, about a week before I was released, something changed. My parents, my loving, adoring parents, started to suggest things. Like maybe it was my fault that no one was visiting me. Maybe it was my fault I had no friends. Maybe I wasn’t trying hard enough. That I had to do better.”

“That’s not fair! Carly, I wish I’d known…” Davey started, but Carly waved a hand to silence her.

“You wanted to know, Davey, so you need to understand it all. You need to understand what happened after you left. There was this one nurse; she was always so nice to me. She would read to me at night when I was too weak to hold my book. She would braid my hair and talk to me about how things would get easier when I was older. She kept me sane in those long hard weeks. She overheard my mother accusing me of being unwelcoming and snuck in to my room after visiting hours. It was only a few days before I was scheduled to go home. She woke me up from a boredom induced sleep and explained to me that some things in town had changed while I was in the hospital. That I was going to have to try even harder to fit in, or it could get very, very bad. Worse than being completely alone for two months. She said that I would need to be quiet and calm and just blend. To do what I was told and become a background person. I didn’t know what she meant. How could I try harder than I already was? How much more could I do?

“When I finally got to go home, I still wasn’t allowed to go back to school. I was confined to my bed for most of the day. So, I did my school work at home for the remainder of the semester and caught up on what I had missed. Even when I was better, I spent most of my time indoors and studied until I couldn’t study anymore. Without the intrusion of anything resembling a social life, I was back to being an A student by the time I was ready to return to school. Mom bought me an entirely new wardrobe. She changed the way we were eating. And within a month, I’d dropped two clothing sizes and was looking more and more like the girls I wanted to impress. I was actually excited the day I got to pack my bag and head out to school. I remember every detail of that outfit. My long brown skirt flowed around my knees with these tiny white eyelets along the hem. The silk of my blouse was soft against my skin, the fabric flowy and perfect. My favourite part was the boots. Dark red leather with a small heel and punched designed. They were beautiful. I wanted to wear them every day.

“I took that nurse’s advice. I was quiet and stayed on the fringes. I hardly looked like my old self. If I was quiet enough, maybe they wouldn’t notice that I was trying to be one of them. As soon as I got to school, I knew things were different. Even more so than they were in the rest of the town. The adults were all trying harder to be better, to be perfect, but the students… It was like nothing I’d seen before. You remember what the school was like before. There were different groups of friends. Different social circles. Everyone had a place, even if it was a small place where they were almost alone. But that morning, when I stepped into the school, everything had changed. Everyone looked the same. Everyone. The girls all wore the same style skirt as me. The same peasant style blouse that I was wearing. The boots. My pretty, perfect boots, were just one in a sea of beautiful footwear. Everyone wore what Joy and Marisa declared the hot item. The boys followed Marco and Jett. The Fenton had moved in and established a seat of power over the entire town, but their focus, their home base, was the school.

“What are the Fenton?” Davey found herself leaning forward, hanging on every word. Something was wrong in this town. Something her engagement profile hadn’t explained to her. Something she wasn’t even sure the Veil leaders knew about.

“Patience. I’d gotten my wish. I didn’t stick out. I looked like everyone else. People just assumed I belonged, because I looked like I did. Things were perfect. I kept my mouth shut and blended. I was slowly absorbed into the fold. From time to time, people would step out of line, would buck the rules set out by the top students. They would go to detention and come back looking a lot worse for the wear. No one really knew what was happening, but we all learned the lesson – follow the rules.

“Then the disappearances started. It was in my second year back. I was thirteen, and everything was perfect for me. I finally fit in, Davey. I finally had friends. People would invite me over. Girls would come over to my house. I’ve never been as happy as I was then. But then, Frances started acting up. She was one of the girls on the fringes with me. We weren’t popular, but we made our social standing work for us. Until the month when Joy declared the dress code would be tight leather pants and tiny little shirts that ended well above the belly button. Frannie hated those shirts, and she refused to wear them. Refused to have her stomach hanging out for everyone to see. So she wore something else. She got in a little trouble for that. Nothing serious. No detention or anything, just a warning.

“That’s when she decided that she’d had enough of the rules. She wasn’t going to follow them anymore. She started with her clothes. She wore whatever she wanted. Not the uniform. She got a couple detentions. I noticed that she started losing weight when those started. For a while, I thought that they must make you work out down there. But then she started to change. She stopped caring about the social order. She no longer tried to fit, but it wasn’t because she was rebelling. It was like she no longer had the emotional strength to rebel. Or to try to fit in. She didn’t do anything. She just came to school, disappeared from time to time, and came back looking greyer and thinner than before. Then one day… one day she was just gone. I tried to figure out where she was, but I was also trying to fit in, so I couldn’t look like I was with her. Like I was still friends with her. I had to act like I’d dropped her, or I would be in just as much trouble. I had spent so much energy getting to this point. I couldn’t stop now. I looked for her. I tried to find her parents, but they were gone too. It was almost like when you left. I felt abandoned all over again, but at least I was still flying under the radar. Just popular enough to not be noticed. It stayed like that for another two years. Until Jett decided that I was worth noticing.

“Jett? Like the guy from earlier?” Davey couldn’t help interrupting.

“The very same.” Carly nodded. “It started slowly. He would say hi to me in the hallway, or we’d bump into one another at the store. Random events where he was nice to me. A boy had never paid attention to me before that. Ever. For months, it was nothing more than hellos. Then I started finding gifts in my locker. Little things, like a flower, or a book, or a scarf. In the winter, I found this adorable pair of purple mittens, just like the pair Joy had started wearing. I loved them so much. I had no idea where they were coming from or how they were getting into my locker, but I did know that I didn’t want it to stop. Then I caught him one day, as he was dropping off a small, wrapped box on the top shelf. I was so excited to find out that it was him. This was more than I could ever have dreamt of. If Jett liked me, then maybe, just maybe, I could be like Joy or Marisa. Maybe I could be one of the inner circle. I was so far away from where I was when you were here. Honestly, I hardly remembered you then. Things were perfect. The fall was a blessing. It gave me the opportunity I needed to become the person I had tried to be.

“He gave me this,” Carly reached into her sweater and pulled out long chain with a brass canary dangling from the end. She rubbed it between her fingers before tucking it back under her shirt. “I love canaries. I have no idea how he knew, but he’d gone to the trouble to find this for me, and I was touched. So extremely touched. Joy came around the corner just as I pulled him into a big hug. And he was returning the embrace. We were pressed against one another when she interrupted us. Wanting to know what was going on. We tried to brush it off, but she was having none of that. I tucked the necklace in my bag. I didn’t want her to know about. To make some rule that I couldn’t wear it. But we couldn’t hide it any longer. Or Jett couldn’t. He told Joy that he liked me and that he wanted to go on a date with me. I remember blushing so hard I could feel the heat radiating from my skin. He wanted to go on a date with me. With me, Davey! This was the greatest thing that had ever happened in my life.

“Joy was happy for us. She told Jett it was about time that he found a girl and brought her up in the ranks. She hugged me before she skipped away. It wasn’t long before all the girls in our grade knew that Jett and Charlotte were the new item. That Carly was moving up. That I was making a play for Joy’s position as head girl. The rumours ran rampant, but that’s what happens when people are jealous of you, so I paid them little attention. Joy had been there when Jett asked me out. She knew that I wasn’t wrangling for position. So, we went on our first date. A lunchtime picnic under the tree behind the school. All dates under the age of sixteen have to take place during school hours. I was so excited. I wore my best outfit that day. It was a cowboy phase, so my options were limited. A long denim skirt, a blue suede sweater, and yellow cowboy boots with these brown bird silhouettes. I tucked that necklace under my sweater and glowed every time it touched my skin. It was a late fall day with a chill in the air, so Jett wrapped his arm around me as we sat under that tree and shared our lunch. I can still remember that feeling. That last good thing before everything changed. His hand was right here.” Carly placed her hand on her arm, about three inches below her shoulder.

“I thought that this was the moment when everything went right, but Joy hadn’t been telling the truth. She didn’t want me to be one of them. The social order may shift a little in the lower ranks, but the families at the top never changed. In the years since my accident, Joy, Marisa, Marco and Jett had been the power kids. There were popular kids in other grades, but no one came up to the level of those four. I don’t know why I thought this might change. Joy hated that Jett was interested in me. She wanted him. She thought that he was the only person worthy of her time. Marco was already paired with Marisa, so Jett with his thick black hair and bright white smile, was meant to be hers. He was charming and endearing and everything a girl like her deserved. He was too good for me. Honestly, I thought the same thing, but I was so happy, I let myself believe that things were finally turning around for me. It was a perfect first date. It would have been better if Jett had kissed me, but that’s not allowed on school grounds, so I couldn’t expect more than I got. We had physical education that afternoon. So, like everyone else, I changed into my athletic gear and left my belongings in the change room. My necklace was tucked into the pocket of my skirt. When I returned to change at the end of class, my clothes were gone, all of them, including my beautiful necklace.

“I was forced to leave the change room in my shorts and t-shirt. To go to class that way. I knew I was going to get in trouble, but I hoped that someone would be kind enough to return my clothes. No one did though. We were less than five minutes into class when I was called to the office. It was the first time I’d been to the basement. No one goes down there is they don’t have to. Even from the top of the stairs, you can feel how awful it is down there. That was the day I met the toad. She looked exactly the same that day as she does now. And I don’t mean she hasn’t changed much. I mean she looked exactly the same. Her clothes, her hair, her body, her skin. Everything is exactly the same. She rolls in and out of that back room like she lives there. I’ve never seen her outside that room. Out of that chair. I swear she exists solely for the purpose of handing out punishments. That first detention was short, just until the end of class. I remember walking down that hall for the first time. It was Jerome that led me to the room the same way Morrison led you there today. He’s just one more student that people have forgotten existed.

“It’s weird for me, but I remember that first detention so clearly. It should just blend into the fog of punishments I’ve received since then, but it doesn’t. Sitting in that cold, barren room with that constant wind and sad, oppressive air. It was horrible. I hadn’t felt that alone since the days in the hospital. I’d almost forgotten how horrible it was. It felt like I was in there for a year. So completely alone. And cold, so very cold in just shorts and a thin little shirt. I thought they’d forgotten me there. But finally I was allowed to leave. The relief of getting out of that room was, and still is, indescribable, Davey. I made it to the main level just as everyone was preparing to go home. Joy and her cronies were joking around in the hallway, Joy was twirling something around her finger. Something that glittered in the hallway lighting. When I got closer, I realized it was my necklace that she was swinging. The little canary buzzing speedily around her finger.

“When I got close enough, I grabbed it off her finger. Anger blurring my common sense. I should have just let her keep it. I should have realized that my entire future hinged on that one moment in time. I wish you’d been here then, Davey. That you’d pulled your great reappearing act on that day. It would have changed everything. Before I knew what I was doing, I hauled back and slammed her right in the face with my fist. It’s the only time I’ve ever hit anyone, and I wish I could take it back. I had just enough time to shove the necklace in my bra before the Fenton officers appeared from the basement. They hauled me downstairs as I continued to yell at Joy for ruining everything. I didn’t even have my feet under me; they just drug me down there with the tips of my shoes skimming against the surface. I expected to be thrown back into the detention room, but it was so much worse.

“The Cage resides on a level below the detention floor. A level where the depression you felt today feels like sunshine and roses. The air there is thick and feels like it could choke you. The frigid air from the floor above was gone. The air there is so hot you begin to sweat the second it touches your skin. The officers wear special uniforms that protect them from the heat and the sulfurous smell that colours the air. They ripped my clothes from me. Not gently. Not allowing me to do it myself. They simply pulled at the fabric until it gave way and I was in just my underwear. Their gloves are covered with a thick, abrasive fabric that assists in the removal of clothing, and whatever skin it happens to touch. The heat makes your body feel like it’s imploding. And then they…” Carly’s face twisted, but she could not get out the words. Her lips pursed and gaped, but no words passed them.

“Carly!” Davey dropped to her knees on the floor in front of her friend. “Carly, what’s wrong.” The girl looked anguished, like she was in physical pain.

“We’re not allowed to talk about The Cage.” Carly’s face was still pinched. “If we get caught… it’s worse. It’s so much worse. I know they probably can’t hear me in here, but I just can’t do it, Davey. I can’t break that rule. Just in case.” Her voice dropped to a low whisper, “Just in case.”

“It’s okay, Charlotte. It’s okay.” Davey brushed back the scraggly hair behind the other girl’s ear. “You don’t have to tell me.”

“That was my first trip to The Cage, but it wasn’t my last. Detention is a regular part of my school day. I choose to break the dress code and wear a sweater every day. It means that I’ll spend a half an hour after class in that room, but I’d rather guarantee doing it in a thick, warm sweater than risk getting thrown in there in anything less.” Carly rubbed her hands against her eyes. “It’s exhausting, Davey. This life is exhausting, and I’m not sure how much longer I can take it.”

“You don’t have to tell me anymore today, Carly.” Davey hugged her frail friend close and tried to warm the cool body. “How about I walk you home?”

“I’d like that.” Carly smiled and drained the rest of the water glass. The two girls got up and left the room, both heavily weighed down by the events of the afternoon.

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