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Jennifer Scales and the Ancient Furnace, Page 2

MaryJanice Davidson

  With lightning reflexes, she surged over the kitchen table, opened her jaws, and bit her mother’s head cleanly off with a bloody snap.

  Then she woke up.

  “So perhaps you could explain why you did that,” her father said. They were all in the kitchen the next morning, Saturday, eating breakfast. A chill autumn wind swung through the half-open window above the sink.

  Jennifer had not said a word all morning. She was staring at her mother, who was sitting exactly where she had been during dinner, and in her dream. Elizabeth looked nothing like the vision of hatred and danger from the dream. Instead, she was pale, with her hair in a tortured mess.

  Jennifer stole a look at her hands.

  Still pink. And the fingernails were still short.

  She tried to calm down. Her bad dream meant nothing beyond some guilt.

  Speaking of which.

  “Jennifer?” Her father’s irritation caught her attention.

  “I’m sorry,” she offered kindly enough to her mother. “I lost my temper last night.”

  There was no anger in Elizabeth’s eyes, just a hollow kind of sadness pulling lines of age tighter under the brows. Jennifer felt a knot tighten at the bottom of her throat. She chewed her tongue nervously.

  “Really, Mom . . . I’m sorry.”

  Her eyes did not change. “You should show your father how you won the game yesterday.”

  Jennifer wondered at the change of subject but was glad enough of it. If her mother wanted to sweep this under the rug, fine. She shrugged and shoved her chair back. “Let’s go outside, Dad.”

  “Hold on.” For a moment, Jennifer was certain that he would not honor the get-out-of-argument-free pass his wife had just offered. But instead of frowning, he pointed thoughtfully at the bowl of oranges on the table. “Toss me a couple of those oranges.”

  Jennifer picked two—she was sure he couldn’t be thinking what she thought he might be thinking, was he?—and lobbed them to her father. Then she backed up into the open space by the patio door. The kitchen was large, but she had never really thought about jumping and flipping in here. The tile felt suddenly cold and slippery under her bare feet. “Right here?”

  “Yep. Your target is the TV.”

  With the patio door to her back, she turned her head left and looked through the large archway into the family room. The black screen of the forty-inch television at the far end reflected her surprised expression. “Dad, this is weird. Why don’t we just—”

  “We can do it right here and forget about the awful things you said to your mother last night. Or we can go outside, which will be the last time you feel the sun shine on your face until next spring.” Her father said this in a perfectly pleasant, uniquely terrifying tone.

  “Right.” She cleared her throat and crouched down a bit onto the balls of her feet. “Oranges away.”

  He shifted one orange into his left hand and lobbed it gently underhand, over the table, and a bit too high.

  Jennifer shifted her weight to her left foot, skipped a quarter step back, and sprang. The kitchen pitched about her—there was that old water stain in the corner of the ceiling—and she twisted in time to slam her foot into the orange, hurtling it into the living room. She heard a dull thud and landed firmly with her toes back on the tiles.

  The fruit had impaled itself on the upper left corner of the mahogany television frame. Juice and seeds were dribbling down onto the eggshell carpet.

  “Off the bar,” her father said with a smile. “Close, but no goal. Try again.”

  This was silly. Jennifer looked to her mother for help. There was none there. “Fine. Keep ’em coming, as fast as you like. I’ll kick the whole bowl of Florida goodness into the television, if that’s what you want.”

  “Yes, you will. Make sure you get each one.”

  Another orange went into the air. Jennifer watched it as it came in a bit lower than the first, and to her left. She quickly adjusted and flipped into the air again.

  Halfway through the flip, she saw to her annoyance that her father had thrown another orange up after the first. She completed the kick and landed, then darted two steps forward to manage this new target. From the living room, she could hear the smash of glass as the first missile met its mark.

  Undistracted, she twirled up to the second and . . . saw a third orange, which her father apparently had sent after the second one. Jerk, she hissed to herself, and resolved to send the second orange into a different piece of expensive entertainment equipment. The stereo system would do nicely. With a clean thwack her long foot sent the citrus rocket cruising higher than the last one.

  She came down in plenty of time to adjust to the third, which was lower and close to her original position. Testing me, she guessed, and therefore decided upon the lamp on the end table to the left of the living room couch.

  A moment later, she was back on her feet. The living room was a disaster—a shattered lamp, a cracked digital display on the stereo amplifier, and a television set that desperately needed a new cathode tube. The cloying odor of oranges filled the air.

  She surveyed the devastation with satisfaction, and then looked at her parents. They had the oddest faces.

  “What?” she asked, a bit crossly. “You told me to kick the darn oranges, so I kicked them. I’m sorry I hit the other stuff, but what was with throwing three oranges one right after the other like that?”

  “Your father did throw three oranges . . .” admitted her mother, in a very slow and measured tone.

  Jennifer looked at her father. Jonathan Scales did not say a word. She had almost never seen him this afraid, not like this, not since she chased a kickball into the street in front of a car when she was eight.

  Her mother went on. “. . . But he didn’t throw the oranges one at a time. He threw them all at once.”

  They all stared at each other for a few seconds. When her father finally said something, it was not at all what Jennifer expected.

  “It’s coming faster than we thought,” he whispered, more to himself than anyone else.

  After being exiled gently but firmly to her room, Jennifer could not hear much of the conversation that followed downstairs. But that didn’t stop her from trying.

  Coming faster? What’s coming faster? The oranges?

  She heard snippets and phrases—“rapid change” and “crescent moon” came up—but her parents were not careless enough to speak above harsh whispers.

  After a few minutes of this, she began to feel resentful. Why were they talking about her, without her in the room, when they knew she was just upstairs? Wasn’t this about her? Wasn’t this her life?

  A rap at her window startled her. She guessed who it was before she turned to look; only Susan was both daring and nimble enough to climb the slippery trellis on the outside wall. Indeed it was her best friend’s cascading black hair, bright blue eyes, and genuine smile on the other side of the glass. Jennifer crossed her room and lifted the lower pane.

  “Hey, Flipper! Bounce any balls off your tail, lately?”

  “Ha-ha. I have laughed. What are you doing here?” Jennifer was relieved to hear her friend making light of the kick everyone had found so strange yesterday.

  “Bunch of us are going out to Terry’s farm today, do up a bonfire, roast some apples and stuff. You coming?”

  Jennifer’s shoulders sagged. “I don’t know. Mom and Dad are freaking out on me; I’ll probably be stuck here for a while. How long will you be?”

  “Just a few hours. We might go to the movies after, though.” Some brown curls lifted gently by the breeze floated through the window as Susan tilted her head. “Your parents are freaking out, huh? About that kick?”

  “I suppose.”

  “What, they think you’re on drugs?”

  “I don’t think so.” Jennifer sat down on her bed. “They’re whispering weird stuff about something coming.”

  Her friend giggled. “Puberty?”

  “Ugh, grow up! No, something else.
I have no idea. I’ve never seen them like this. Normally, they don’t seem to care what I do.”

  Susan was suddenly thoughtful. “Um, you’re not actually . . . ? I mean, you’re weren’t on anything during the . . .”

  Jennifer stopped her with a raised hand. “Don’t start on me. I’m so not in the mood for this.”

  “You gotta admit, you’ve never done anything like that before. I mean, you’re the best player on our team and all, but . . . you should have seen yourself. You looked totally juiced up.”

  “So, what? You’re saying I am on drugs, and you don’t believe me?” She could feel her own face getting red. Susan was probably right—this is what her parents were muttering about! They were going to ground her! For drugs! This was so unfair!

  Her friend shifted uncomfortably on the trellis. “Geez, Jenny, don’t have a heart attack. I’m just saying people aren’t going to know what happened. They’re going to think it’s strange.”

  “You mean I’m strange. And don’t call me Jenny.”

  “I didn’t say you were strange. And since when do you care if I call you Jenny?”

  “I was ‘Jenny’ when I was six years old. I’m in high school now and I like ‘Jennifer’ better. And wouldn’t I have to be strange? Isn’t everyone just saying I’m a freak, slipping steroids or whatever?”

  Susan looked down at the ground below. “Listen, Jen, I gotta go. Are you coming or not?”

  “Yeah, sure, right after I pop my pills and shoot up.”

  “Fine. I’m out of here.” Without even looking back up, Susan scrambled swiftly down the trellis and was gone.

  Jennifer seethed as she stared out the open window for a moment, then got up and slammed it shut. She crossed her room, whipped open the door, and shouted down the stairs to her whispering parents.

  “I’m not on drugs!”


  Screaming Butterflies

  It was a wretched few weeks after that. While her parents released her from her room after an hour that day, they didn’t say much more about oranges, or drugs, or what was “coming,” or anything else. Her father seemed on several occasions to want to say something, but at the last moment, he would just sigh and mutter about how he was always available if she needed someone to listen.

  Of course, he went off on another trip for five days.

  Meanwhile, Jennifer continued to have disturbing dreams. In some, she was a dinosaur attacking her parents. In others, she was an angel drowning in the clouds. In still others, she was a python in the dark, coiled around a tree branch and waiting to drop onto her friends.

  All of this was too unsettling to share. So she just lurked around the house, waiting for her parents to say something, and wishing they wouldn’t. And while Susan and the rest of the soccer team weren’t nasty to her, they weren’t exactly friendly either. Fixing relationships there would take time.

  About two weeks after the day with the oranges, she barged bravely through the front doors of the still-frightening high school and nearly ran over Edward Blacktooth. And she smiled for the first time in what felt like a year.

  Eddie, her next-door neighbor, reminded her of a sparrow. He had pale skin and deep brown accents in his hair and eyes, and his nose arced like a gentle beak. A crooked, mischievous smile graced his face as he and Jennifer recognized each other.

  “Eddie!” she cried, delighted. “You’re back!”

  “Jenny!” He grinned. He knew she hated that nickname. “The soccer star who rules the school. They haven’t skipped you up to tenth grade yet?”

  “Hardly.” She blushed. “How was England?”

  Normally Eddie started the school year with everyone else, but this year his family had insisted on taking him on some strange month-long vacation in England. Eddie had told Jennifer before leaving that they would visit ancient churches, museums, fortresses, and other horrifically boring historical points of supposed interest. Apparently, he could trace his ancestry back several centuries to some baron who lived in a castle not far from Wales.

  “The castle was pretty interesting. Everything else was tolerable. We had a good time—Mom and Dad even smiled once or twice. How goes the battle?” Eddie was always talking in military metaphors: How goes the battle? Who’s winning the war? What an amazing coup!

  “The battle goes badly,” she muttered as he fell into step beside her. “Way badly.”

  “Oh, don’t let people like her get you down.”

  She looked at him. Brown T-shirt and blue jeans. Brown loafers. His mud-colored hair fell into his eyes and he flicked it back with a jerk of his head. And for the first time, Jennifer noticed a faint scent of aftershave. Edward Blacktooth was reliable, there when you needed him, less so when you didn’t. He was—Eddie. “People like who?” she asked.

  He breathed in a bit and then spoke quickly. “Nothing against Susan. The three of us have been buds since first grade. But I heard about that kick, and she’s obviously jealous. You two have owned the soccer field together for a long time. Next year, when you both try out for the varsity team, she’ll have to start at the bottom again—but maybe you won’t. She sees that and doesn’t like it.”

  Jennifer didn’t answer right away. Eddie pressed.

  “It’s her problem, Jen. She’ll deal with it herself.”

  She nodded and tried to smile. True, Eddie could be a bit of a snob—he got that from his parents, who disliked everybody—and Susan was deeper than Eddie let on. But right now, Jennifer didn’t care. She knew why he said those things.

  “Thanks, Eddie.”

  “Welcome. See you in gym.” He casually smacked her shoulder and took a sharp left. She stared after him for a long moment, then started walking to class.

  “Everyone, this is Francis—”


  Ms. Graf squinted at the yellow transfer sheet. “Francis Wilson.”

  “Please, just Skip,” the new kid sighed. Jennifer fought down a giggle. Skip Wilson’s eyes were green, or maybe blue, set far apart from a narrow nose and under dark chocolate hair. He was taller than Ms. Graf, who many students dubbed “Ms. Giraffe,” and his incredibly long fingers splayed across his schoolbook: Principles and Applications of Calculus.

  In ninth grade? She thought to herself. She had felt pretty bright for picking up Advanced Algebra this year.

  “Skip’s family just moved here to Winoka from out of state, right, Skip?”

  He shrugged.

  Ms. Graf was a veteran teacher and knew to give up at that point. “Just have a seat right there,” she said, pointing to the empty desk behind Jennifer.

  The silence in the classroom was pronounced. Jennifer felt sorry for this boy. This was, after all, high school. No one was going to say hello, or smile, or even really look at him. No one ever did.

  Except for Bob Jarkmand. As Skip walked between him and Jennifer, Bob stuck out his enormous leg.

  The heavy and thick limb was squarely in the new kid’s way. Jennifer sighed. This was one of the moments when being a girl was definitely better than the alternative. When Skip tried to step over it, Bob would bring his leg up and kick him in the groin. He would then feign innocence while his victim doubled over in pain. Then Ms. Graf would try to figure out what had happened, and everyone would be too scared of Bob to speak up. Then the bell would ring and they’d all forget about it. Except for the new kid, who would never feel more alone and friendless in his entire life.

  Jennifer watched, wondering whether to intervene. Bob reserved his worst bullying for boys, and generally ignored girls unless he felt like making a crude remark about breasts or bodily functions to get his cronies laughing. Another day, she would not have hesitated to speak up—but today, she wasn’t sure she needed the additional aggravation, just to help some new kid who may turn out to be a jerk himself.

  She had no time to resolve the issue. Skip raised his leg to step over Bob’s leg, and then—just as the larger boy’s leg kicked—jumped straight up in the air, outpe
rforming Bob’s knee by at least six inches. At the same time, he swung his heavy textbook around, catching Bob in the side of the head so hard, everyone in class looked up at the sound.

  But by then, Skip was sliding into the seat behind Jennifer, and Bob was bellowing like a walrus. It had all happened so fast, she was certain no one else saw it. She stared, mouth open in delight.

  Bob’s ear was an angry red and was already swelling. He spun his head around and spat at Skip.

  “You’re dead, Francis!”

  Skip turned in his seat—eyes, head, and body in full—to face the other boy. Jen was impressed with how calm the new boy seemed.

  “I don’t see that happening,” he replied.

  Ms. Graf, of course, had missed the entire thing. She was pulling a stack of large, wooden picture frames off of a low shelf behind her desk.

  “Today, class, we will start our unit on insects. We begin with the order lepidoptera . . . more commonly known as butterflies and moths. Lepidoptera means, literally, ‘scaled wings.’ ”

  Jennifer perked up a bit at that. Scaled wings—that sounded kind of cool. And she’d always thought insects were fascinating. When she was younger, she’d catch dragonflies and grasshoppers and butterflies with her bare hands and look at their heads through a magnifying glass. They had the sweetest expressions.

  Sadly, Ms. Graf could render even the most interesting subject lifeless. Within ten minutes Jennifer had gone from clear-eyed interest to droopy-eyed boredom. Next to her, Bob had tilted his head and begun snoring.

  She came all the way awake when Ms. Graf opened the picture frame cases and began taking out specimens.

  “Of course,” the teacher said, “there’s nothing like seeing these creatures up close to get a full sense of their beauty, complexity, and elegance.”