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The Golden Thread, Page 2

Suzy McKee Charnas

  My goodness, Joel was being charming.

  He was also getting up to leave.

  “What are you doing for New Year’s?” I asked.

  “My parents are having a big party, lots of musicians. What about you?”

  “Going to a party,” I said dismally, thinking about how, for the first time in years, Gran wasn’t going to be part of a New Year’s celebration at our house.

  “Who with?” Joel said.

  “Oh, friends.”

  He signaled for the check. “Listen, I’ll call you, okay? Don’t make any definite plans until I call you.”

  But he didn’t.


  The Comet Committee

  MY MOM SYMPATHIZED. “It’s just as well, Valli,” she said. “He’s a high-strung boy, isn’t he? These temperamental, artistic types are fascinating, but I know they can also be a lot of grief.”

  Mom, a divorced person who was turning herself into a literary agent, had dated several literary men who certainly qualified as high-strung and temperamental if anyone did.

  “Don’t worry, Mom,” I said, “I know, too.”

  Not taking my hint to leave well enough alone, she pushed on with more of the same in the time-honored motherish manner: “I wish he’d come by and said hello, at least, before taking you to lunch. He’s almost eighteen, isn’t he? And living away from home. I’d rather you didn’t see too much of him until you’re a little older, Val. He might be, well, more advanced than you’re ready for.”

  As we were both making lots of allowances for each other these days on account of the stresses and strains of Gran being sick, this didn’t turn into a fight, which was a good thing since it would have been for nothing. Joel didn’t call.

  So the day before New Year’s Eve, like a jerk I called him, at his parents’ place on the East Side.

  “Seasons Greetings,” I said.

  “Hi, Val,” he said. “How was your Christmas?”

  “Fine,” I said. “How’s your telephone line? Have a nice New Year’s Eve, okay? I’d invite you to join me, but my plans are already made.” I hung up.

  I put Joel out of my mind and got ready for New Year’s Eve without him.

  I was late heading out to a party at my friend Lennie’s because of some chores that I was supposed to do, and Mom had gone all Iron Mother about them at the last minute. So I was not in a super mood to start with. And then I ran into this tall, thin person sitting in my lobby with his chin sunk in his striped woolen muffler.

  I immediately wished I had put on my other good sweater, the one with a pretty yoke of embroidered flowers. But I sure was not going back upstairs to change. Not for Joel, who hadn’t bothered to call me.

  “Hullo,” he said, getting up.

  “Hello, yourself,” I said. “Waiting for someone? What happened to your parents’ party with all those musicians?”

  “I’m sick of musicians,” he muttered into his scarf.

  He fell into step beside me without another word. In fact that was all the conversation we had until we got to Lennie’s. Lennie wasn’t there at the moment, though a lot of other people, guests of his parents, were. Lennie was, his father told us, out having pizza with some other kids from our school.

  “This is Joel Wechsler,” I said. From the look Mr. Anderson gave Joel, I foresaw some comment about Joel’s famous cellist father or opera-singing mother or even his conducting-prodigy kid brother. I could feel Joel, who was sensitive about all this, turning to stone next to me.

  But Mr. Anderson said, “Not related to Abraham Wechsler at Harvard, are you?”

  “He’s my uncle,” Joel said with surprise.

  “Well, next time you see him tell him Hugh Anderson thought of him and Matty on New Year’s Eve.”

  “Yes, sir, I will,” Joel said. All of a sudden he looked young and shy.

  “Go on back to Lennie’s room, you two,” Mr. Anderson said. “You don’t want to spend the turn of the year standing on the doorstep!”

  The Andersons’ apartment was a favorite place of mine: floors lined with faded carpets, lots of tightly packed bookshelves, walls hung with rubbings of stone carvings from Thailand and Balinese shadow-puppets that look like exotic bugs in transparent nightgowns. Plunked down everywhere were futuristic white plastic chairs, glass tables, aluminum seats bolted to rods hanging from the ceiling—it was like a science-fiction sculpture garden crossed with a high-class Far East import emporium. You had to get used to it.

  Joel did not have a getting-used-to-it expression on his face. I led him quickly through to Lennie’s bedroom, which was small and cozy, its atmosphere of comfy clutter not much changed from when Lennie and I had played together here as little kids.

  The tape deck was playing New Age music, Lennie’s latest passion. The only light came from a brass incense burner on the floor, which made all his posters and photos of skin divers, coral reefs, and coasting sharks look very spooky. The scent of incense was mixed with smells of food. I spotted some miniature egg rolls on a greasy paper plate, plus two bowls of nuts and pretzels.

  Joel looked over the tapes on Lennie’s shelf. “Weird taste, this guy has. Schumann, Reich, Hovannes, and Scarlatti? Plus all this New Age crud?”

  “Joel,” I said, “I don’t think you should be going over Lennie’s things.”

  “Music is my thing, remember?” he said. “At least they left some food behind. Want some?”

  He held out one of the snack bowls.

  I really was hungry. So there we were, standing very close together over a bowl of pretzels in the flickering light and the whispering music. I could hear every crinkle of Joel’s clothing as he moved, and I caught a whiff of minty cologne.

  “We don’t need mistletoe, do we?” He grinned this wild grin and reached toward me. I remember thinking, Jeez, he is irresistible, and also, Is this what a heart attack feels like?

  Then Mr. Anderson stuck his head in the doorway and said, “Valentine? I’m sorry, I forgot about you! Lennie’s back, he and his friends went up on the roof. Why don’t you go join them? But you kids be careful up there, all right?

  I gulped. “Sure. Thanks, Mr. Anderson.”

  Up there? What about down here?

  Joel followed me to the roof. You could say that I fled up the stairs just to keep some distance between us. I felt him moving like a shock wave of warm air rolling after me.

  A group of people stood on the cool, damp rooftop around a hibachi. By the glow of the charcoal briquettes I recognized a girl from school named Mimi, and Lennie’s sister Tamsin, who I couldn’t stand, and Peter Weiss from Lennie’s science class. There was another girl in the shadows who looked vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t place her offhand.

  It was an odd group, but in a way that was the idea. This was supposed to be a sort of Better-Luck-Next-Year party. It was Lennie’s idea: a party for people who had been having a rough time and who didn’t really feel like whooping it up, because they just wanted things to get better.

  Lennie, wide as a bear in an old tweed coat, turned with a smile from tending the fire in the hibachi. He was my oldest friend in the world and the first boy I had ever kissed. (That was in sixth grade, and it had been a real shock—people actually did that voluntarily?)

  I had told Lennie a little about my magical adventures, but not much. He’d listened, he hadn’t made fun of me or anything, but his caution had shut me up. I didn’t want him to think I was becoming some kind of weirdo flake that he had nothing in common with anymore. I like Lennie a lot.

  All of the Anderson kids were adopted from different places. Lennie had come from Colombia, but he didn’t look at all like the sad, skinny kids in Time magazine photo stories about Latin America. He’d always been a chunky boy, solid and dark. He was shortish (which means not quite as tall as me, but I am a tall girl) with a heart-shaped face, brown eyes, and black hair that he kept cut short (it stuck up in cowlicks anyway). He spoke slowly, in this warm, husky voice, and often he stopped to think abo
ut things before he spoke. English was his second language.

  People sometimes made the mistake of thinking that he was mentally slow, which he wasn’t. They didn’t hassle him, though. He was a competitive swimmer, and he was strong.

  Which brings me back to the theme of the party. Lennie had been kept off his swimming team this term by an ear infection that wouldn’t go away, so he hadn’t wanted to go party with the other guys on the team. Just like I didn’t particularly feel like standing around giggling and gossiping over the popcorn and stuff at Kim Larkin’s big New Year’s bash while my Gran was lying in the hospital.

  Lennie was smiling now, but I could see the white cotton stuck in his ears.

  It struck me, up there on the chilly roof, that I was really glad to be there, feeling sort of somber with Lennie on New Year’s instead of feeling miserable by myself in the middle of a lot of other people having a plain old traditional blast.

  I also realized that I didn’t know him as well as I used to. You know how sometimes you just sort of drift away from even good friends? I’d done a lot of drifting after my first magical outing, and more since Gran’s stroke. I wondered what it would be like to have a real date with Lennie, by way of catching up with each other again. Maybe this party was a step in that direction.

  At the moment, however, I seemed to have a date with Joel. He had gone to a different school when he’d lived in New York and he didn’t know anybody from Jefferson, so I introduced him. Then we all stood there. I had this sinking feeling: it had been a mistake to bring Joel.

  He said, “Jee-sus. It’s cold up here.”

  “We came up because something moved us,” Tamsin said. My teeth curled with disgust. Something was always “moving” Tamsin. “We brought some blankets, if you’d like one,” she added.

  Tamsin, a ballet freak, specialized in being the ethereal artiste with the intense gaze. Right now she was intensing at Joel, instead of observing that of course if you go up on a rooftop on Riverside Drive on New Year’s Eve with nothing but a light jacket over your regular clothes, you are going to freeze.

  Joel didn’t seem to notice her. “Anything special to see from up here?” he said, looking over the parapet.

  “We hoped to see the stars,” Tamsin said, throwing back her black ponytail. She was from Korea, and she had long, glossy black hair that she was very vain about.

  “Well, not really,” Peter Weiss remarked. “You don’t see stars when it’s raining.”

  “It’s stopped now,” said the girl in the shadows.

  Tamsin said, “We came up for stars. They’ll come out for us.”

  If only there was some way to turn her off.

  Joel turned his jacket collar up and leaned against the parapet. He’s bored, I thought desperately. He thinks we’re just a bunch of nerdy kids.

  “It’s all a matter of concentration,” Tamsin said. She looked at Joel. “Do you meditate, or study yoga?”

  “I’m a musician,” Joel said, stuffing his hands in his pockets, his hands that wouldn’t play anymore. I felt bad for him. “I study scores.”

  Peter said, “I don’t think there are going to be any stars, Tamsin. Want some more diet Coke?” For Peter, this was actually regular human interaction. Being around Lennie sometimes had that effect on people. I wondered what Peter had to be sad about tonight. He’d won a prize at the Regional Science Fair, which had made him a kind of hero at school.

  But there must be something, or he’d be hanging out with some of his computer-mad friends from school.

  Mimi Mustache—Mimi, I shouldn’t use the name they teased her with in school—said glumly, “I hate to go back down, even if it is cold. I wanted to do something special this New Year’s.”

  Word around school was that Mimi’s mother had a bad case of Lyme Disease, which must be pretty rough for her whole family.

  I thought of my Gran lying in her oxygen tent, and I got a lump in my throat. “Me, too,” I said.

  “We could launch our own star,” Tamsin said. “Let’s close our eyes and hold hands and think of people we care about. We could make a lot of golden light to send up into the night like a star, a star of love.”

  Nobody reacted at first. Personally, I was too embarrassed. Then Peter said, “You’re not talking about some fancy yoga posture, are you? I hurt my knee at soccer practice last week”

  Tamsin said, “All we do is hold hands and think of light, Peter.”

  The girl in the shadows said uneasily, “Is that something you learned from your, uh, guru? Because I don’t think we should do anything off-the-wall—you know, occult—without somebody who knows all about it. Is your teacher here, at your parents’ party?”

  Lennie said, “Tamsin’s teacher couldn’t renew his visa. He had to leave the country.”

  “Lennie!” Tamsin flared. “That’s nobody else’s business!”

  “Come on, Tam, it’s no reflection on you,” Lennie said, sounding hurt.

  Considering that he’d had his own problems lately with that ear infection, and considering some brothers and sisters I know, it was great that Lennie even noticed that Tamsin was having a hard time of her own. But that’s Lennie for you: sweet. Though I guess Tamsin wasn’t too thrilled with having her private sorrow spelled out to the world.

  “So we’ll try it without anybody’s advice and see what happens,” Peter said energetically. “An experiment, right? Come on, let’s do it.”

  He grabbed my hand. I was too surprised to pull away. The girl I didn’t know took Peter’s other hand, and Lennie stepped between her and Tamsin, who turned to Joel.

  “Sorry,” Joel said curtly, “I’m just a fiddle player, I don’t do magic.”

  He turned and left. We could hear his footsteps rattling quickly down the stairs from the roof.

  I’d forgotten about his hands. No wonder he didn’t want to touch anybody! I felt my face turning hot and red. God, why was I so clumsy and dumb around people? You’d think the grandchild of a great enchanter like Gran could manage not to keep stepping in it, socially.

  “What’s his problem?” Tamsin said, frowning. “We could have used another boy, to keep things more balanced. Oh, well.”

  Her bony paw closed very delicately on my hand, which felt funny—girls holding hands, especially me and Tamsin. She stood with her head back and her hair lifting dramatically in the wind.

  “We’ll make a New Year’s comet,” she announced, “falling into the sky from the world instead of the other way around. It’s a present from us to the universe.”

  All we needed now was Walt Disney. Maybe Tamsin was Walt Disney, reincarnated. Too bad her guru wasn’t around so we could ask him.

  “You mean, like a shooting star?” Mimi said.

  “A lucky star,” Lennie said.

  And the other girl murmured, “A wishing star.” I wondered who she was and what she wished for to make the next year better, but it didn’t seem like the right time to ask.

  I didn’t say anything because I felt foolish, but not as foolish as before, maybe because Joel wasn’t there to sneer out loud at Tamsin’s theatrics. I knew magic was real if anybody did! I should have been the one to suggest doing something on New Year’s, though not something as soppy as Tamsin’s comet, shooting up into the night sky instead of down out of it.

  Still, since the idea had come up, why not try? Maybe if I thought hard enough about Gran getting better, my share of the family talent would help make it really happen.

  We stood around the glowing coals, holding hands. I shut my eyes, tried to think about golden light, and saw just darkness as usual behind my eyelids. I forced myself to think only about Gran. I gathered together everything I felt for her and just sort of beamed it at the sky. Words formed in my head like a chant, “This is for Gran. For Gran. For my Gran,”

  Standing there holding Peter Weiss’s hand in my right hand and Tamsin’s in my left, with the wet breeze pouring past me and the hibachi heating up the knees of my pants, I began to fee
l as if I really was glowing. Right through my closed eyelids I saw bright light spread on either side of me through my hands and everybody else’s hands, making a circle.

  The light brightened and started to lift. There was this distant roaring sound, like flame blowing in a strong and steady wind, and a rushing sense of motion. It was so strong that I panicked, thinking, Oh, no, we’ve fallen off the roof!

  By squinching my eyelids down hard, I kept seeing only the brightness of our circle of clasped hands. I sort of inhaled light and pushed it out again in a silent shout from my heart, “Fear, get away!”

  Then I was flying. We all were, skimming up into the night sky like a bright ring of Saturn thrown from a giant’s hand. I felt us turning and glowing and shining, filled with light instead of breath, as we sped up a curve of longing that ran ahead of us into the night.

  I will never breathe again, I thought, so I can be like this forever—buoyant and bright as a star slung through the dark.

  Then a bolt of wild, blazing heat came zooming out of nowhere and slammed into us, splashing huge licks of light and darkness in all directions and exploding us away from each other too fast for sound.

  My back banged into something hard that knocked the breath out of me. My eyes snapped open. I stood spread-eagled against the side of the elevator housing on Lennie’s roof. All around there was yelling and tooting of horns and music blasting from parties and from people on the street below, making my head ring.

  I saw Mimi and Peter hanging on to each other a few feet away from me, and Lennie in his big coat stomping on coals scattered from the upended hibachi. Tamsin crouched in a corner of the parapet, and the girl I didn’t know was picking herself up off the puddled roof in a dazed sort of way.

  “What happened?” Mimi gasped.

  Still trying to catch my breath, I looked up. There was a fine, misty drizzle and the gloomy night sky. No star, no light-trail. No trace of an explosion.

  Peter coughed. “Nothing, what could happen?” he said. “We lost our balance, that’s all. You know how dizzy you can get standing around with your eyes closed.”