Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Save the Universe Inc. Chapter 5

      Having a best friend put a smile on my face, and I didn’t need to look in a mirror to see because it reflected all around me.  I saw it in the happy nudges Mama and Auntie Tess gave each other as I passed them, or in the way the twins’ nasty barbs now amused instead of angered me.  It manifested in the mornings as I awoke early without being nudged to get ready for school.  Finally, it shone in my bouncy gait as Maria and I approached each other before classes.  Happiness, like liquid in a container, spreads itself into all available spaces.
      During the school day some of the kids we met joined us from time to time, but increasingly, we wanted to be alone.  Neither of us meant to exclude them, but I think our shared secrets pushed away the others as our bond grew stronger.  We just didn’t connect as well with anyone else.  Perhaps, we just didn’t want to.
      Sometimes, Mama encouraged me to invite other girls to the house once in a while.  “Lucy,” she nagged, “I love that you and Maria are so close, but now is the time to have groups of friends.  You two really shouldn’t be so exclusive.”
      There she was butting into my life again! To appease the nagging, once in a while I did invite other girls to the house.  “Oh Lucy,” the conversation might have gone, “do you think Greg Peters is cute?” It’s not that I don’t like giggly girl stuff like boys and clothes.  I am a teenager!  It’s always fun for a while.                      
      When Maria and I spent time together, we trusted each other enough to share anything and everything.   I even told her about my jealousy of her which she shrugged off. 
      “Lucy,” she said, with the kind of look Granny used to give me before a scolding, “You don’t need to be jealous of me.  There’s so much in your life that I never had.  You have a family.  Do you know what I’d give to have a real family?  I don’t even know my birth parents.   I’ve lived with dozens of foster families during my life.  Even when they treat me well, I have to realize that it won’t last.  Besides, you have lots of wonderful qualities and talents.  Now we’ve found each other like long lost sisters.  I feel like I’ve discovered my real family at last.  Jealousy can only tear us apart, and that would break my heart.”    
      I felt like a selfish oaf for only thinking of myself.  Seeing my life through Maria’s eyes gave me a whole new perspective on my family.   We helped each other all the time.  When tragedy struck, my aunt and uncle didn’t hesitate to offer us a place to live.  Maria had never known that sort of trust until she met me.  I realized that I had to figure out how to deal with my insecurities for her sake as well as my own.  I didn’t want to lose our friendship either.
      The bond between us continued to grow.   We could sometimes sense each other’s presence even when apart.   In fact, just about any time my thoughts focused on Maria, she either called or showed up beside me.  At first that surprised me, but I came to expect it.  Of course, she and I always met at school, and when we didn’t have too much homework, we got together after school.  Eventually, Mama stopped nagging at me to bring home other girls.  Maybe she could tell that Maria and I needed each other more than we needed other people, or else she grew sick of the nagging (fat chance!).
      When we got together our thoughts turned increasingly towards magic as though some guiding force tugged on us and demanded attention.  Sometimes we practiced small spells.  I’m the one who suggested we try a spell to make Jeffry and Todd act nicer to me, but it backfired.  We needed to reverse it in a hurry. The twins became so obnoxiously nice that I couldn’t stand it.  Everywhere I went, they followed at my heels grinning like Alice’s Cheshire Cat.  “Lucy, where are you going?  Do you need help?”  I couldn’t get rid of them.   Their attentiveness robbed me of privacy and annoyed me more than ever. I even missed their bratty behavior.   Maria and I quickly ended that nonsense. 
      The experiment with the twins taught us that we had to be very careful about magical changes. That reminded me of something Ms. Bouvier had told me.   I shared what I remembered with Maria.   It was okay to help out when necessary, but we had to be careful not to tamper too much (I guess the twins were destined to be brats).  That made us nervous and brought up questions that we couldn’t answer.  How could we know what magic spells were okay to use?  When did we have the right to alter reality without causing harm?  Perhaps we needed a teacher, but how could we find one?  These mysteries discouraged us from practicing more spells, but in spite of that, our curiosity expanded and consumed us.
      We began searching for books about magic which we read in secret.  One night as we thumbed through an old book from a used book store, a wrinkled piece of paper fell to the floor.  The faded handwritten message on it said, “Imagination is the door.  Concentration is the key.” Above the words the author had drawn a picture of a yellow door with crayons.  Something about that message made the bristles on my neck tingle.  I remembered Granny’s words when we conjured her, “Look for the door”.   That message seemed to be written for us.  We went to bed that night without speaking about the note in the book.  I think we both needed time to contemplate its meaning.
      That night, naturally, I dreamed of doors.  I was walking down a long hallway.  I saw on either side of me doors of various colors and sizes.  I kept looking as though needing to find one in particular, but it wasn’t there.
      Maria, who had spent the night at our house, woke me early the next morning.  When she slept over, Mama always slept on the family room couch to give us some privacy.  We really did need that privacy.
      That morning, my friend shook me awake.  “Lucy, did you have strange dreams last night”?  I told her about my dream and her eyes grew taking over her face.  She spoke with such excitement that I could barely understand her words.  “Well I dreamed about doors too, and I was trying to find the right one all night long.  I was looking for the one on that paper.  All that spewed from her mouth without her taking a breath.  I could hear her rapid breathing and realized that it matched my own.  As I listened to her I knew that we had shared the same dream and found the book for an important reason.
“You know, Maria, I think we have to look for that door.  I don’t pretend to understand the reason, but I think we just received a message we must answer.  We’ll probably need to write a spell.  Do you want to try?”   
      Without hesitation she blurted, “Yes, let’s do it now!”
      We sat together, and as I held her hand, she wrote a spell to help us find our door. 

      Universe so big and wide
      Give us a way to get inside
      Help us find the door and key
      We want to learn more
      We want to see
      Imagination is the door
      And concentration is the key.

We lit a candle I kept on the table and softly spoke the words.  Then we shut our eyes and tried to picture the yellow door in our minds.  At first, nothing happened.  Then, slowly, the shape of a door began to emerge on the screen behind my eyes.  As the faint image grew clearer, it also became brighter, so bright that it seemed to be made entirely of shining light.  When the door came into focus, I felt myself standing in front of it with Maria at my side.  I could feel myself and see all around me in a normal way, but realized that our bodies had become transparent like ghosts in the movies.  “Maria, can you hear me?”  I know I was speaking because I could hear myself, but the words came from my thoughts rather than my mouth.
      “Yes”, she answered.  “Where are we?”
      “Well, obviously, we’re in front of the door we wanted to find.  Should we go in?”
      “Do you think we ought to?”
      I had never seen Maria back away from magic before, but now she seemed more hesitant than I.  For the first time in our magical lives, I took command.  Certain that we needed to go in, I knocked.  It was a curious sensation.  My fist rapped on a warm current of air, but I could hear a knocking sound as if I had tapped solid wood.  A cheerful voice addressed us.  “Come in, girls.  It’s open.”  Maria and I looked at each other.  At the same time the door slowly opened on its own.
      From within we heard that voice again.  “What took you so long?  I have been waiting for you two!”
       We opened the door and walked right into Mrs. Bouvier’s magic shop.  Everything looked just as I remembered.  Mrs. Bouvier stood behind the counter on tiptoes the way she did when we first met.  Maria nudged me.  I noticed the one new thing in the shop, a sign that floated above the counter.  It said, “Save the Universe Inc.”

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Save the Universe Inc. Chapter Four


Weekends were slave labor days.  Whether I wanted to or not (and I didn’t), I helped with the catering.  While Mama, my aunt and I worked, we chatted together.   One Saturday after Maria and I became friends Mama said, “Lucy I am glad that you don’t daydream so much anymore.”

Auntie Tess added, “And you always have a smile on your face now.  That’s such a pleasant change from before.  So, tell us all about your new school.  How are the classes?  What kids are you meeting?” 
I volunteered very little about classes.  “Um, school’s okay I guess.   I’m keeping up with all the work.  It’s okay.” 

Finally Auntie blurted out, “Girl, I’m dying to know about your new friend.”
After glaring at Mama who pretended not to notice, I said, “She’s really nice.”   
Then Mama said that Maria seemed like a nice girl.  “Of course,” she said with a smile, “I am the one who is responsible for their friendship.”  She pretended not to see the grimace I sent her way.  She was right, of course, but I didn’t let her know. 
Aunt Tessa suggested that I invite Maria to the house. I don’t think my aunt could hear my heart pounding.  What if Maria said no or worse yet, came and hated my family? In spite of those thoughts, the next day I asked her. 
 “Maria, “Do you want to come hang out at my house one day?  We could go home together after school.  You could have dinner with us, and then my aunt or uncle could take you home.”                                 
Maria smiled.  “Sure, it’ll be fun!  I think my foster mom will let me go if I can get all my chores done the day before.”  We finally decided to ask if she could come for dinner on a Friday so she might also sleep over.  Mama said that If Maria spent the night, she’d sleep on the couch in the family room, and I wouldn’t have to help with the catering on Saturday.  I gave Maria my phone number so she could call me after asking for permission.  When she called to say yes, I heaved a big sigh. Now all that worried me was what pranks the twins might pull.
The day that Maria was going to come to the house, Mama and Aunt Tessa buzzed about me asking all sorts of questions about Maria’s taste in food and pastimes.  They seemed as excited as I about my new friend.  The boys often invited kids to the house.  They played video games and energetic boy nonsense, but Maria would be the first teenage girl aside from me to ever enter the family home. 
 I looked at Mama and Aunt Tessa and said somewhat pleadingly, “I only ask that we can please have some privacy.”  I glared at the twins who were making some gross gestures at me from behind their mama’s back and then looked back at the sisters.  Mama nodded at me without saying anything.  I’m pretty sure she understood me, but I don’t think Aunt Tessa realized what I meant.
 I guess I had been so involved with self pity that I never realized how much Mama and Aunt Tess worried about me.  They fussed so about my friend coming over mulling over the details of dinner and how we would entertain ourselves.  I saw how much they wanted to make it a great experience for me.  My selfishness during the past few months became a little clearer to me.  I made a promise to myself right then to be a little more considerate of the others (maybe even the brats but probably not).
It also occurred to me that Maria and I had never really spent time together outside the lunchroom.  I wondered if she would she like me as much after seeing how I lived.  How would it be hanging out together like real friends and not just school buddies?  
On the bus ride home Maria and I talked about what we would do together.  I asked Mama to rent some videos for us to watch, and Maria had something mysterious she was going to show me at the house.
The bus dropped us off about four blocks away from Aunt Tessa’s, so we trudged slowly through snow drifts on streets lined with houses and trees.  We chatted all along the way.  The air temperature hovered around two degrees Fahrenheit; cold enough for breathing to hurt the lungs.  We both had woolen scarves wrapped around our mouths and noses, but we were so absorbed in our conversation that we hardly noticed the cold.  It’s funny how you adjust to new weather.  In New Orleans, any temperature below sixty degrees felt freezing to me. 
 Maria knew a lot about my new life by the time she first visited.  She knew that Mama and I stayed with Aunt Tessa’s family until Mama saved enough from her night job to get us our own place.  She had also heard about my cousins and how they loved to harass me.  Now she was going to meet these people and be under their scrutiny.  I guess I kind of hoped to impress Maria with my family.  The one area in which I could feel superior to her was that I had a real family.   As self-centered as it sounds, my insecurity made me long to impress my friend, yet I still felt knots in my stomach.
While we walked to the house Maria commented, “Nice neighborhood!  You’re lucky!  My foster parents live on a big ugly street.  It’s busy and noisy all the time.  This is much prettier and so quiet.”  A smug smile crossed my face.  She saw me as the lucky one!  I hadn’t ever thought of myself as lucky, at least not since Katrina   Now, I saw my new home through Maria’s eyes.  It pleased me to hear her words of appreciation and even boosted my self-confidence.  It seems funny that other people’s perceptions of you can affect the way you see yourself!
 Sucking in my breath, I took off one mitten, and searched through my purse for keys.   Hopefully, the twins wouldn’t do something to ruin the evening, at least not right away!  After finding the keys, I hesitated and took another deep breath before applying them to the lock.
      While we left our boots in the mud room, a waft of chicken gumbo tantalized our senses.  Maria inhaled deeply and smiled.  We stepped into the living room where the heated air forced us to remove our outer clothing with haste.  As usual, the twins were lying on the living room floor playing video games.  Maria looked at them and said, “Hey dudes, what’s up?”  I tensed for their reply, but they were amazingly polite and normal.     
“Hey’, they answered in unison, and continued playing their game without looking up.  As we left the room, I heard loud chuckling and girded myself for some prank that was yet to be revealed.

 “They’re not so bad.” mumbled Maria.  She didn’t notice the obscene gesture Jeffry gave me when her back was turned.
 I looked at Maria.  She was so pretty in an exotic sort of way with her gray eyes, high cheek bones and long slender body.  I shrank a little.  She reminded me of the models in fashion magazines.  I could never be one.  I am barely five feet and a bit too fat (granny called it “womanly”).  The way I look used to bother me a lot back home, but I hadn’t thought about as much here in Minneapolis until I compared myself with Maria. 
 When Maria asked me what I wanted to do with my life, I told her I didn’t really think about the future.  I was too busy moving beyond my past.   She stared at me for a few minutes and then asked me a question that stunned me.
 “Lucy”, she whispered to me.  “Would you like to learn magic?”  I looked at her too surprised to speak.  “Honestly, I think it’s just what you need.  You’ve had a tough time lately.  
Magic can take you far away from all that.   You must have wondered about it a little after meeting that lady in New Orleans.  Why not learn to use it?  Do you want to give it a try?”
My eyes grew very wide, and she laughed at me. 

“Do you mean now?”  I thought about my talk with Ms Bouvier back home. Sure, I had been curious, but I never thought about actually doing magic.  What could we accomplish?  I wasn’t even sure if I believed in it.
 “You know it’s a sin,” I said remembering Granny’s warning.  “We could get in all kinds of trouble, even go to Hell.”  As I said that, I think I didn’t really believe it, but the idea of practicing magic made me so uneasy.
“Don’t be silly.  We won’t be doing any harm, just a simple spell so you can see how easy it is.  We’ll just go outside for a few minutes.  Tell the others that you are going to show me the backyard.  Then you’ll see how to can create light and warmth when you’re alone in the dark.  Honestly, it just takes a few seconds.  I know you’re going to like it.”
I felt like a criminal, but Maria’s enthusiasm overpowered my fear.  With a pounding heart, I stammered, “We’ll have to be very careful.  My bratty cousins always spy on me.  If we got caught, my aunt would probably make Mama and me leave.  We’d be homeless.”
“Lucy, you really get on my nerves with all this worrying.  Nothing’s going to happen except that you’ll feel good.  Don’t you want to feel happy?”  Working on feeling good was an idea that didn’t really enter my thoughts very often.  Since meeting Maria, my misery stopped, and I enjoyed my life a lot more.  I guess I just didn’t think much about maximizing happiness.  Caution warned me that disaster could be waiting around the corner.  In that sense I still hadn’t recovered entirely from the trauma of the storm, and I also worried about the Devil jumping out to grab me. Against my better judgment though, I agreed to see what Maria wanted to show me.  She advised me not to say or do anything to attract attention to us.
We put on our winter wraps and boots then walked to the back door.  Mama and Aunt Tessa were in the kitchen making dinner and talking.   As we approached the kitchen I lowered my head.  I didn't dare make eye contact with the sisters who worked together on the evening meal.  Uncle Joe hadn’t yet returned from work, and the twins were still in the living room (thank goodness!).  We would have to pass through the kitchen and sun porch (Mama’s and my bedroom) to get to the door.  I followed Maria who began chattering about something that happened in one of her classes.  I saw from the corner of my eye that Mama and Aunt Tess looked up and smiled as we passed them   I felt as if the whole world knew I was a criminal. Maria poked my side with her elbow.
When we got behind the garage Maria told me to hold her hand.   As I tensed up, she said, “Just relax.  It won’t hurt, and you’re not going to turn into a toad or anything.  It’s just a gentle little spell.  So, I took a deep breath and tried to relax.   She said some words in verse:

      “Cold and dark’s the winter night,
       Give us warmth and give us light.” 

Suddenly, a soft light glowed around us.  A gentle heat replaced the crisp chill I had been feeling a few minutes before.  It wasn’t a strong heat, the kind that could make you sweat.  I just didn’t feel cold any more.  “Is that it?”  I asked.
 “That’s it”, she said.  “See, it’s not as bad as you thought.  Would you like to try doing a little magic yourself?”  I did want to in spite of my fear.  I thought of Ms Bouvier in her shop.  In my mind I saw her smile and twinkling eyes.  She couldn’t possibly have been evil like Granny said, and Maria was my friend.  I trusted her (in spite of my envy).  Maria talked me through the process.  She told me that magic is just using your imagination and concentrating on what you want to happen.  She asked me what I wanted to do.  I wanted more than anything else to see Granny once more.  “Well,” she said screwing her face into a frown, “I’m not so sure about conjuring up the dead, but we can try.  You just get a good picture of your granny in your head.  Imagine her smells and her touch.  Picture the colors and sounds you associate with her especially her voice.” 
I thought of our life before Katrina.  Once, after the storm had died down, we returned to the skeleton of our old home to look for anything that we could bring with us to Minneapolis.  My body shook with sadness as I remembered our life in that house.  We found very little to take away.  While mama searched for clothing, I spotted Granny’s flask of lavender perfume on the floor and quietly slipped it into my pocket.  I imagined the smell of that perfume.  My thoughts filled with love as I remembered Granny’s laughter, her songs, and the warm hugs. I conjured in my mind her different scents that reminded me of her; the lavender, the musky smell when she worked in the garden, the spicy aromas of her cooking, and her special vanilla scented candle she lit before prayers.
Maria whispered, “I will say a spell for you, and we‘ll see what happens.”  She took my hand again and chanted:

      “Spirit who moved on to the light,
      Come back and visit us tonight. 
      Come back through a portal of our making,
      And help to heal a heart that’s breaking.” 

 All the time that Maria was chanting, I imagined Granny in the garden of our house.  She smiled as she pulled some greens for dinner.  I smelled the sticky damp air of New Orleans and Granny’s musky sweat.  My heart filled with an overpowering sense of love; my love for Granny. 
“Lucy,” Granny’s voice spoke to me right there behind Aunt Tessa’s garage.  “Lucy, don’t be so sad.  I will always be with you, girl.  You can call on me whenever you need me.  Just think of me, and I’ll be there.  I understand things differently now, so don’t go frettin’ about something I might’ve said before.  Now, I know it’s not a sin to be helping out if you know what you are doing.  Oh, and remember to look for the door”.  Then she gave me a kiss.  It felt like a whisper of air.  I remembered feeling the same thing right when she died in the Super Dome after Katrina.  I knew she was gone after the kiss, but I felt a weight in my heart lift at that moment.  As she was disappearing, I thought I heard Granny say the word, “door” again, but I couldn’t be sure.

Maria was beaming at me.  “Lucy, we did it!  I wasn’t sure it would work, but we did it!  I’m so excited!”
I didn’t answer at first.  For the first time in a few months I felt totally at peace.  I wanted to savor it, not lose it too quickly, but finally, my curiosity became too strong.  “How did you learn to do that?”
“Honestly, I don’t really know.  I just seemed to know little by little that I could try certain things like spells, and the more I did, the better I got at it.  It seems that whenever I want to do some magic, spells just come into my head.   One thing’s for sure.  Knowing magic really helped me deal with being shuffled around to different families”
 I looked carefully at my friend.  She found a way to be strong even during terrible times in her life by using a little magic.  Surely, magic could be a useful tool.  I made up my mind about it right then.

“Well, I truly want to learn more about this.”  For a moment, I was back in Ms. Bouvier’s little shop smelling the mixture of incense and beignets and hearing her husky voice chatting about magic.
“Lucy!”  Maria’s voice broke my reverie.  “Lucy, this is amazing!  I could see your thoughts!  I was with you in the shop!  I saw your Mrs. Bouvier and all her potions and magical things. Why, you have some powerful magic in you too!”                                                                                                                                            
 I didn’t know what to say.  Was it possible?  I never even imagined that I had magical abilities.  What could this mean?  I was stuck between excitement and a little bit of caution.
“Lucy, we’re definitely going to explore this, but not now, I’m getting cold again.  Besides, your family might wonder what we’re doing out here.”

When we reentered the house, I felt the warmth of family fully for the first time since we left New Orleans.  It encircled me like an embrace.  The good smells in the kitchen, the laughter of my cousins and the gossiping of the two sisters; I belonged to this now.  It’s funny, I hadn’t really noticed before how good it felt in Aunt Tess’s home. “Are you girls enjoying yourselves?” Mama asked.  Maria started giggling and suddenly, I realized that I was giggling also.  As we left the kitchen, I heard Mama tell Aunt Tess how wonderful it was to hear me laughing again.  She said that she always knew that I’d get back to normal.  I just needed time. 
      When we got to the living room Maria looked at the boys absorbed in their game.  “Hey would you let us join you guys?”  The look of astonishment on the boys’ faces must have matched my own.  I never did anything with them other than eat at the dinner table.  They looked at each other for a moment as if speaking in some secret twin code, and then said in one voice, “Sure!”  I don’t know how long we sat with them.  I never really saw my cousins as people before, only as little monsters.  They were really fun to play with, and they had a great sense of humor too.   Even though Jeffry poked me with the joy stick several times and made some nasty noises, I could ignore him while enjoying how that must have irritated him.
      When Aunt Tess called us to dinner, I realized that I was ravenously hungry.  She explained that Uncle Joe would be coming home late that night so we had to eat without him.  I was asked to say Grace.  Maria and I looked at each other and began laughing.  Mama was annoyed and scolded me.  I offered a little prayer of thanks more heartfelt then my family realized while sucking my stomach against my ribs to keep from bursting out with more giggles.  Relieved when I arrived at the end of the prayer, I sighed and reached for some food.  Mama remarked at my hearty appetite.  She loved seeing me eat with such gusto.  Lately, I had just picked at my food and ate only enough to keep from being hungry. 

At Aunt Tess’s dinner table there was always lots of chatter and good food, but I had never really allowed myself to enjoy it.  Until recently, I had been physically present, but never mentally.  That slowly changed since Maria and I became friends, but on that particular evening everything felt new.  I was smiling and joining in the dinner conversation more than ever before.  The boys and I exchanged amusing insults with each other while Mama and Aunt Tess plied Maria with questions about her life.  Maria chatted cheerfully as she spoke about her foster parents and how well they took care of her.  She explained that they were nice, and accepted her into their family.  Unfortunately, when you moved in and out of homes as much as she did there was always the fear of having to leave again.   She desperately hoped these people would adopt her.  They spoke of adoption, but as of then, they hadn’t acted on it. She liked being with us.  Her situation made me appreciate my family in a new way.  How awful it must feel to change families all the time!  Clearly, her situation seemed worse than mine, yet she complained much less.  My life seemed better and better. I even promised myself to work on not being so envious of Maria.  Of course, Jeffery chose that moment to spill his milk all over my lap.  I’m pretty sure it was on purpose!      
Just before Maria and I retired for the night, Mama came over to me and whispered to me, “Your friend is such a nice girl!  We’ll have to have her over again.  That poor child, we’ll give her a taste of real family life!   
I just smiled and went off to bed with Maria following close behind.  She waved goodnight to the boys and they waved back.  I looked in surprise, but Jeffry offered me a nasty grimace which assured me that some things remained normal.
While we talked and giggled, Maria said, "Lucy, I'm awfully glad we became friends."

With a smile that radiated from my very center I answered, "Me too!".   

After hours, our eyes grew too heavy for us to continue talking.  We finally snuggled under the heavy winter blankets to sleep.   I thought of the secret Maria and I shared and felt like the proverbial cat that swallowed a canary.