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11.09.03 3:16 a.m.

People are what you make them. A scornful look turns into a complete fool a man of average intelligence. A contemptuous indifference turns into an enemy a woman who, well treated, might have been an angel.


 -André Maurois  




Previously in Xenology: Xen met Anne Marie.

Remain Tight in a Bud
"So, tomorrow is supposed to be really nice. And it is November." This was Anne Marie's attempt to dissuade me from completing any of my classwork, which was rapidly transcending molehill status. I know this ploy exceedingly well. Better women than her have tried it and failed. Nonetheless, the ruse is second only to my repeatedly yelling "road trip!" as a means of causing others to abandon their work so I suppose I am owed a bit of karmic debt in this particular forum.
"Yes, Anne Marie. It will be unseasonably nice. Probably the harbinger of global warming... Why?" I laced my voice with suspicion.
"I thought we could climb Breakneck," she suggested, unassumingly.
Breakneck is, by no means, high or steep. Sir Edmund Hillary ate Breakneck for breakfast. However, it still meets the loose qualifications for belonging to the realm of mountain and Anne Marie felt the need to use the verb "climb." Morally, I cannot climb a mountain on a Monday, especially when being asked on a Sunday night. A jaunt up a hill? Certainly. But not a mountain. I am not so out of shape that the feat is impossible or even improbable. It is just untoward. "How about we walk up Cornish's?"
"What is this?"
"It is not a climb, per se. It is the same mountain, though. Cornish's is a cluster of turn-of-last-century houses that, according to apocryphal reports, burnt down. Never mind that there is little actual evidence that this actually happened, it makes for a good story. The stone husks remain as a silent and eerie testament to the quality of modern architectural craftsmanship before Modernism came into vogue. Vines and trees have taken every effort at reclamation of these structures, so the frames are overgrown in the way that only seems to exist in the castles of Hollywood horror movies. And it is on a mountain."
She conceded for-though I do not imagine she was fully cognizant-I was not about to strain myself beyond a brisk walk up a paved path. Indeed, this is almost entirely what Cornish's entails, despite the preponderance of ankle-twisting rocks hidden under crunching leaves.
Anne Marie picked up one of said leaves and expounded, "This leaf is unusually large, which means that there was some sort of disturbance in the forest. Most likely a fire or damages that destroyed the bulk of the tree, but not its root structure, did this. This particular leaf is from a sugar maple. You can tell by its shape..."
I can tell no such thing and I readily admit this made me look beyond her in what could pass for acknowledgement, but was actually a careful study of the shape of the boulders behind her head. The giant rocks rested like the heads of half-asleep students on a summer's day. Anne Marie could not tell how little I felt leaves pertained to this nature walk, however. Why can't the leaf just be a mutant, possibly with the power of temporary flight or color changing? Why must it always be botany? Couldn't it at least meet me halfway and be cryptobotany?
As she began to verbally ask the leaf its mysterious origins, I wandered off the path toward the dilapidated house with which I was the most familiar.
Anne Marie  
Anne Marie, on a sill
"My grandfather used to live in one of these houses," I told her when she followed. "I have never actually bothered to figure out which one was his... I just pretend it is the biggest one... Or the first one I come to." I jumped down into the foundation of the aforementioned closest house. It seemed like only weeks ago Zack and Emily had wound about the solid pillars like vines. I ached for them standing here with me again. A girl who was just barely beyond being a stranger to me was trying to follow my mental and physical leaps from clod to stone. This is not to say that Anne Marie was lackluster company, save that she was the sort that felt I cared to have the slightest idea what dead thing I trod underfoot to hear it crunch, but I would have shared all of this with those to whom I am most spiritually entwined. Without them, the forest seemed a little less verdant (not merely because it was autumn, of course).
I misunderstand enough physics and philosophy to hope I can touch the past and somehow connect to the self that stood here watching Zack walk with a bobcat's graceful gait over a fallen tree that once bridged the chasm of the foundation. The memory was strong, but no evidence of a reality beyond the moment manifested. Perhaps this is because the fallen tree trunk had long since rotted, decaying the residual memories.
Anne Marie and I wandered to the next structure over. Three walls grew from the earth as though planted, growing toward a matrix for rusted metal. The fourth wall was so deeply a part of the hill onto which this was built that the demarcation vanished into mud and weeds. I sat in an empty sill, removed my water bottle from my bag, and tried to disabuse myself of the notion that this building was once a greenhouse (as such a supposition makes little sense beyond the superficial; greenhouses tend not to have stone walls).
Nonetheless, a windowsill made for an exceedingly nice place to have a drink. Granted, we were not yet more than one sixteenth up the mountain, but I was thirsty and tired of walking. The sunlight dappled browning leaves below me, coloring November with May's crayons. The lighting was at the wrong angle, making the vista seems belong to a rare space. I longed to capture a square inch cube of it in a plastic bag to show Emily.
Anne Marie sat on the opposite end of the windowsill and took out her lunch. Presumably she thought this was to be a longer stop and I was reticent to disabuse her of this notion. As was covered, I am far more interested in quietly sitting and enjoying the scenery.
Minutes turned to hours as we sat and the topic turned and returned to her ex-boyfriend Marvin. I tried to be sympathetic to her obvious pain, however Marvin had never once behaved in anything not resembling a borderline sociopathetic way and I couldn't understand why anyone would bother putting up with him.
"But you didn't know him before he went crazy," she defended.
"No, he had always been one of the least likable people I knew. This opinion has been validated by his former classmates from middle school to college. For example, when I was in a Mid-Summer Night's Dream, he violently pushed the stage manager into a wall backstage because she had asked him to remove my leather jacket before going on stage as Puck. As a side note, when I noted that we were both auditioning for the part of Puck, he exclaimed, 'you have no chance, so you should just shut the fuck up.' So, I will stick with the opinion that he is someone to be avoided."
"He wasn't always like that. Didn't you know anyone who liked him?" she asked, perhaps hoping that I could justify to her that he was once something other than a complete waste of breath.
The Door  
Likely not a greenhouse
"Kate always seemed to want to defend him, but I just think that was one manifestation of her rebellion against what I represented to her at that particular time in our lives. She could never give me a reason why I should endure him beyond necessity and I could give her a bushel why I avoided any interaction beyond the professional. He has not been stable ever, as far as I am concerned. Didn't he once almost get expelled because he climbed up on the roof of the school and threatened to jump?"
"He was like that. Someone told him he wasn't allowed on the roof, so he immediately climbed out a window."
I bit into my apple and explained, "That's oppositional defiance disorder, a pretty jacked-up way to live one's life."
I tried to deviate from discussion about Marvin to figuring out just who she was as a person. I asked about her family life, her spiritual feelings, her political leaning. However, for her reasons, circumlocutions led us back to him time and again. She would begin to sob suddenly and hold onto me until she felt better, more composed. The first couple of times, I was moved to pity and held her in return. Then, after the third time in an hour, she pulled away and I looked at her eyes. Her clear, white, dry eyes. I sent my focus to the place on my shirt where her head had been and was met with no variance in the coloration. Perhaps she cried dust and a breeze swept it away.
This led me to a predictable conclusion, and not one that made me particularly comfortable in her presence. I began to prattle to prevent the onset of further realization, "You can't let this abusive detritus continue to rule your life and how you form interpersonal relationships in adulthood. It is over. Marvin is meaningless. You have a boyfriend. You are going across the pond soon. And..." I added suddenly, "you are thinking about kissing me." I was never very good at stopping myself from coming to full awareness.
"No. I'm not..."
"You aren't?" I was a bit abashed, then relieved. "Well, excellent. I had been thinking you were for a while and it was making me quite uncomfortable. But you aren't. Plus, I am massively in love with my Emily. You have your Carl friend. But you weren't thinking such thoughts, so all is right."
She looked away at a naked sapling and interrupted, "Well, I wasn't just then when you asked. But now that you mentioned it, I have been. But abstractly. I haven't been concentrating on it."
"Oh. But you aren't going to, right?" If she did, though she fancies herself a mountaineer, I knew I could vanish and have a way home before I reached Cornish's gate.
"No. Not unless you want to."
"I don't; I covered this. I am very much in love with my Emily. You are dating Carl. Also, no."
"I agree," she immediately responded, though it lacked the force of her convictions.
Soon after this conversation, I made it clear that night was falling and I desired only to be homeward bound before the onset of the gloaming. As we walked down the path to her car, I felt her hand trying to entwine with mine. I looked down at the cephalopodan fingers and yanked my hand away reflexively, then faked a sneeze to prevent a repeat. Were it Melissa or Conor walking down this path with me, I would have no compunction at allowing this fond gesture. As yet and still, I had no real understanding of this Anne Marie creature, save that she was trying to push our friendship along far too quickly and increasing my discomfort at every attempt. When she just acted like a person - when she was not trying to lecture about photosynthesis or fake tears to obtain connection - I felt I could speak to her at length. She became and reverted to coping mechanisms. She didn't seem to know the balance or had lost sight of it.
I climbed into her car and immediately looked out my window at the desiccated leaves whispering rushed secrets to the passing trains. They did frenzied tarantella at the train's arrival and sad waltzes when it became a spot on the horizon. I looked from the periphery of my vision and saw Anne Marie raising the armrest that separated our seats. She laid her head on my shoulder and began to wrack her body with empty sobs. I don't even blink but I think I began to concentrate more intently on the leaves.

That night, I went Emily's. Her knee had gotten so bad that is was mutually agreed that it would be in the best interest of all concerned that Emily not drive until after her surgery. I hardly minded, though the Grape Ape had begun to protest at such journeys.
Bam!  
Seriously.
As we relaxed on her bed, teaching Sora how to jump properly in Kingdom Hearts, Emily broached the subject of my day's adventures.
"It was okay. A bit awkward. She wanted to kiss me," I kept my eyes on the pommel of Sora's Keyblade.
"And now she will die."
"She didn't and I wouldn't let her."
"Of course not. But she will still die," she swore, her voice crouched like a jungle cat. After a few moments of cursing the rotund Heartless that was jumping at Sora, Emily mewed, "Was it okay that I called you today?"
"What? You mean when I was on the mountain? Of course it was. I always like when you call me." I truly do and had welcomed her call when I was with Anne Marie. It allowed a cubic millimeter of the world around me to pass into M.
"I wasn't checking up on you. I just... you're never going to leave me, right?"
"Let me take this in reverse. I don't plan on leaving you. Ever. I love you. Crazy cakes are involved. And it is perfectly okay to check up on me. I know it is not that you mistrust me, just the rest of the world."
"See, that's all I need to hear. That you love me and you have Twizzlers for me."
"I do and always will. To both."


Soon in Xenology: More with Anne Marie. Sleepovers. Surgery. Conor and Flynn.

last watched: Secondhand Lions
reading: Xenocide
listening: A mix Zack made M.
wanting: To have a picnic with several on my dearest friends in the ruins of a house.
interesting thought: This day existed for a reason.
moment of zen: Summer's light on winter's victims.
someday I must: give Emily a cubic foot of sunlight on autumn leaves.

Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings. He likes when you comment.



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