Chapter 1: This is the end of my life
Copyright © 2015 by Brian Bixby.
I am opening you on this day, my fourteenth birthday, because my life is over. My mother, and Stan (who I will not call my stepfather, let alone Dad) decided it would be a nice birthday gift to me to schedule our move to Netherfield on my birthday!!! That way I’d get to have my own room in our new house, and eat out at a new place for my birthday dinner, and we’d all be one big happy family.
Do my parents not understand anything?
Let me explain, dear diary, why my life is ruined. First, there is Netherfield. If people still rode horses, it would be a one-horse town. Nope, I take that back. There are horses in this town. People ride them, it’s like we’re in the 19th century or something. Maybe if I’m lucky, the drive-in theater shows talkies. And for this I left Boston. Mom, hey, Boston or Netherfield? Which one do you think I’d be happier in? I know. Netherfield. WRONG!
And then there are my friends, my BFFs, which now stands for Best Friends Forgotten. We spent the last week crying about how much we’re going to miss each other. But I’ve seen what happened when other girls left. They were unpersons within six months. Doesn’t matter I can text them or post all over social media, I won’t know what’s going on and won’t be able to talk friend talk. I’ll be the stranger who has to keep asking “what are you talking about?” No one wants that person. By fall, I’ll be a pariah back at school. Gia, Tallie, Rache, Zena, I’m going to miss you guys more than you’ll miss me. You’ll have each other.
And then there’s Eric. I can finally write his name down here and admit I was drooling over him, because I’ll never see him again. He’ll never know how much I wanted to be with him. And the really sad thing is I doubt he would care. We’d be great together, but all he can see is Dara Donaldson and her big breasts. No one ever cared about Dara until she suddenly became Miss Double-D, and then it was like she hypnotized all the guys. Cow.
Oh, you wish, Jane, you wish. Fourteen and you have the body of a prepubescent boy, almost. You’ve barely got breasts or hips. Hey, at least I don’t have to diet, unlike Donna. But even with my “charming” smile (according to Mr. Wojta, who must be at least 50) and “liquid” eyes (according to Ms. Farkas, who at least is an art teacher), the only way I’ll ever get a guy interested in me is to tell him I want to buy him a beer. Yeah, I might be willing to be a cow like Double-D. And that, dear diary, is the best evidence yet that my life is over, that I envy Double-D.
But enough about me. (Yeah, this is my diary, and I’m writing that. This diary is ALL about me!!!) So we left the hotel we were briefly staying in this morning, and drove out here with a lunch stop in some other field town, Greenfield or Deerfield or Notmyfield. It poured the moment we got out of the restaurant, so we finished the drive in a downpour. Didn’t get much of a chance to see Netherfield. Did pass a horse farm. And a llama farm. No doubt some of the locals ride llamas, too. Being a sanitary worker in downtown Netherfield must pay a hazardous waste bonus.
The house is OK. All right, I have my own room. Yes, it does make me happy. I’d be happier still if Mom hadn’t thought that just getting my own room would make up for everything else. What she doesn’t admit but we both know is that this is more because Donna wanted a room of her own. She’d rather not have me hanging around anymore. And then there’s the other really great thing about this house: Mom and Stan have their own bathroom. If there’s one thing worse than running into Stan going into or out of the bathroom, it’s running into Stan and Mom together heading into or out of the bathroom. Ever hear the phrase “too much information?” How about “too much nakedness?” I’ve seen just about all of Stan I want to see, and some things I didn’t want to see.
That reminds me of a game Donna and I used to play. I don’t know what it is about Mom’s guys, but they all seem to think that swaggering around in little or no clothing is their inherent right, or maybe they think they’re showing us what we’re missing. What they never knew is that Donna and I would play a game where we would rate them and give them appropriate nicknames. Yes, we had a Mr. Pencil Dick. Also Sasquatch, Chihuahua, Mr. Elongated Man, and Mr. Teapot. (I will spare you, dear diary, the anatomical details.) Suffice it to say that Stan is Cabana Boy.
Now you know why Mom and Stan having their own bathroom is even better than my getting my own bedroom.
We’re on a cul-de-sac (another nickname for Stan?) that comes off Main Street just east of the center of town. So it’s supposed to be an easy walk downtown and to the lake. Tomorrow’s Saturday. I’ll go see both. I wish our wifi was up, but that’s not supposed to come through until Monday. Otherwise I’d be looking up everything in the town. Mom tells me it’s loaded with history, but she’d say that about anywhere.
And now I am going to lock you up, dear diary, and hide you away. Mom tells me this is my own private room, but I know Mom. The last thing I spent my babysitting money on before we moved? A strongbox.
There’s one thing I like about my family on weekends: they sleep late, all of them. That means I can get up, eat my breakfast in peace, and leave before I have to see any of them, or, more importantly, hear any of them. Mom: “You should eat more, honey.” Mom: “Those clothes look terrible. Don’t you have any pride?” Mom: “Jane, we never talk anymore.” Well, yes, we do, Mom, you just take both our shares.
I walk outside, and see something I’ve never seen in Boston: snow on the ground and trees in blossom. It’s not much snow, and most of the trees are bare, but snow is usually gone by now in Boston. I’m going to have to redefine the seasons. Out here spring probably means they stop using sleighs. Wonder where the reindeer go in the summer.
I walk down to the end of our street (Sherwood Forest Drive, and all I can say to that is that Stan should be the Sheriff of Nottingham) and come onto Main Street. No horses, at least. No llamas, either, so I guess the llamas are used only for commutes to work. They probably ride Shetland ponies into town.
Town begins immediately on the right, which (check the sun) is to the west. Netherfield sits on the north side of Lake Netherfield, which (the one thing I looked up beforehand) is not a natural lake.
I start walking into town, checking out the houses and store fronts on either side, trying to get the feel of Netherfield. There are great, big houses with b&b signs interrupting rows of businesses with apartments above them. Gift shop, gift shop, coffee shop, restaurant, gift shop, antique store, ATM, pub. Most of the businesses look like they’ve been closed a while, but are still in business. I’m puzzling over that until I get to the town common. There’s an information booth there, and that tips me off just what kind of town Netherfield is: tourist trap. Seasonal tourist trap, summer tourist trap, summer lake resort.
I’m in the Berkshire equivalent of Laconia. Netherfield doesn’t just cater to Philistines, it’s a part of Philistia. I am going to die. How long does it take to die of boredom?
Fronting the town common on one side is what used to be a mansion. It’s now the “Netherfield Library, Netherfield Senior Center, Netherfield Travelers Aid, Netherfield Development Association.” It’s painted a shade of slate gray that would look more appropriate on Nantucket. Here it looks like the house equivalent of a skin disease. I walk up onto the porch. The sign says the library opens at 8 AM on Saturday, and closes at noon. The Boston Public Library it is not. I go in.
It’s definitely not the BPL, like maybe the size of one room in the BPL. At least it’s clean. There are already some people settled down in front of computer screens. I don’t know if this place has an online library catalogue or not, and there doesn’t seem to be a reference librarian.
“Are you looking for something?” A voice calls out from my left. It’s from the circulation desk. There’s a woman there who’s like maybe in her mid-twenties. I walk over. She’s smiling, looks friendly. Nice teeth, look like they were polished with snow.
I nod. “I just moved into town yesterday and haven’t been in here before,” I explain.
She understands in a moment. “Oh, and during the school year, too.” And then she makes a major blunder. “Are you in fifth grade, dear?”
“Eighth,” I reply, trying to contain my annoyance. Do I really look like I’m ten years old?
She’s all apologies. “Oh, I’m sorry, it’s . . .” She realizes that nothing she can say is going to help her, and stops.
So I help her out. “So short, so small, so much like a kid instead of a teenager. Yeah, I know, I get a lot of it. No offense taken. So can you level with me and tell me what are these ‘facts of life’ everyone keeps talking about?”
She’s nonplussed at first, and then realizes I’m joking. “I’m really sorry,” she says, and she extends her hand. “I’m Joy Barker, one of the two librarians here.”
I take it. “And I’m Jane Harris, formerly of the great metropolis of Boston, now of 12 Sherwood Forest Drive. And I’d be your humble and obedient servant, except that I think as librarian that’s your job at the moment.” I say it with a smile.
She gets it. She bows with a smile in return and tells me, “If it pleases madam, the catalogues of the libraries holdings are over there,” pointing to where the people I saw earlier are seated, “on the computers. We share a common catalogue with many other libraries in western Massachusetts, and you can order books through interlibrary loan from them if we do not have the volume in question. The signs hanging on the walls should tell you where our honored holdings reside in the library.” She’s laughing a bit to herself at the end.
I hadn’t really thought about getting any books, and then I remember what my mother said. “Do you have any books on local history?”
She nods. “Quite a few, over there,” and she gestures to some shelves along the back wall, “except for our copy of the first history of the town, written in 1848, which is kept under lock and key and can be used only with a librarian’s supervision. Anything in particular you’re looking for?”
You bet. “You have anything on folk tales, local legends, weird events, stuff like that?”
Joy brightens up as if I’d asked just the right question. “I know exactly what you need.” She turns and heads over to the shelves she’d just pointed out, me trailing behind. We must look a pair, Joy in a bright yellow outfit that looks good on her (how does she do that without looking like a canary?), me in a plaid shirt and jeans. She reached the shelves, reaches for a volume on the top shelf, plucks it out, and hands it to me.
“Strange Times in Netherfield, Miranda Milan,” I read on the cover, which features a drawing of a minister in his pulpit getting blasted by a death ray. At least that’s what it looks like. I flip it open and do a cursory inspection. Despite the lurid cover, the book looks serious, with footnotes and such. Maybe Netherfield isn’t going to be such a bad place after all. I could use a death ray.
I look up at the librarian, who asks me, “Is that what you wanted?”
“I think so,” I reply. “Is the author really named Miranda Milan? Like the children’s rhymes?”
The librarian nods, quoting, “Miranda Milan, child of sin, Stay outside, I won’t let you in!”
I offer a rejoinder, “Miranda Milan, child of woe, You can’t take me, I will not go!”
Joy laughs. “I haven’t played that in years. But to answer your question, I did ask her once, and she showed me her driver’s license with her name on it. So I guess it really is her name.”
“She lives here?”
“About ten years. Head west along Main Street and you’ll see her business on the south side of the street. She’s a fortune teller when she isn’t delving into history, or doing other things.” Joy’s lips curled a bit at that. I had to wonder what else Miranda Milan does. Eat children?
‘Thanks. What do I need to do to check out the book?”
Joy looked uncertain. “Well, you’re supposed to show us proof of your identity and address. I don’t suppose you have anything like that on you just yet?”
“No. Left the house’s title deed with the bank for safekeeping.”
Joy smiles in spite of herself. “Hmmm.” She reaches into her jacket pocket and pulls out a phone. “Let’s see if this will do it.” She stabs at the phone, holds it to her head. “Hi, Karen, this is Joy. You have a new student in eighth grade just coming in? . . . Yeah, I’ll wait. . . . Jane Harris, that’s the one. . . . Why? Oh, she’s standing right in front of me, wanting to borrow a book. . . . Yes, an eighth grader who actually still reads books. . . . Yes, I’ll tell her. Thanks, Karen. Bye.”
Joy puts away her phone and turns back to me. “That was the principal of the school, Karen Duncan. She wants me to remind you that you and a parent should be at her office at 8 AM Monday. I call that proof of identity. And now we’ll make you out a library card and check that book out for you.”
Miranda’s office is in the seedier part of town, west of the town common. The souvenir stores look kitschier (is that a word? I mean loaded with more kitsch), the convenience stores have no-brand ATMs in their lobbies and advertisements for the lottery, and there are gaming arcades. It’s like discount Weirs Beach, and Weirs Beach is pretty downscale to begin with. But where are the bars?
Miranda Milan’s storefront is wedged in between a convenience store and a bank ATM lobby. Well, at least she’ll get paid, either in money or barter. I wonder how much of a fortune you get for a frozen burrito. The sign on her door’s window says, “Miranda Milan, Fortunes Told, Fates Changed, Magic Performed, Visions Provided,” followed by her hours. Miranda doesn’t get to work early; her hours never begin before 11. There’s nothing to see of her place because there are black curtains behind all of the windows. Maybe she’s a night person. Either that or in perpetual mourning. The love of her life died when she turned 14, and she’s been heartbroken ever since.
That’s the thing I don’t get. I’m never going to see Eric again. And yet I’m not heartbroken. I got as far as R-rated fantasies about him (well, sort of) while I was living in Boston, and yet I don’t really miss him. Is there something wrong with me?
Whew! Where did that come from? It’s like I’ve been in a trance, standing in from of Miranda Milan’s store. Miranda Milan, child of Hell, Don’t put me under your terrible spell! I turn and see some street bum staring at me from in front of the convenience store. He smiles at me and I head the other way, even though it’s taking me away from home. I don’t look back, I won’t give the creep the satisfaction.
So I hang a right to the next street over, which I can take back toward the common. And that’s when I find out where all the bars are. They’re on the back side of Main Street, and there are convenient little alleys to get to them. The bars all sort of look like the street bum, shabby and unappealing. One of them is even called “The Burning Dog.” Yep, I always want a drink when I smell burning dog. Maybe the dogs get run over by people riding llamas and have to be disposed of in a bonfire on the town common or something. Maybe the entire town turns out for the spectacle, and drunk beer-guzzling guys take a whiz into the bonfire.
(That was Bill, Mom’s guy when I was nine. It was on a camping trip. Bill was big on camping trips. Also drinking. And drinking on camping trips was absolute heaven for him. Did I mention he thought farting was entertaining?)
I get back to the common and heave a sigh of relief. I look at the book I’m carrying. Netherfield, I think I’m going to enjoy your past a lot more than your present.
End of chapter one
(A link to the next chapter will be posted if Jane bothers. She might give up the diary and the story if Netherfield is really boring. After all, this is the third diary she’s started.)
(Jane bothered. Here’s the link to the next chapter.)