Chapter 3: Strange friends and strangers
Copyright © 2015 by Brian Bixby
My first day at Netherfield School. Mom had to take Freddie and me to officially enroll us. Our three different surnames meant the principal was confused for a bit. And then I got introduced to the 8th grade. I mean the ENTIRE EIGHTH GRADE! It’s ONE class! Wow, I can see my social life is just going to take off. Maybe I’ll have to resort to seducing a seventh grader. Yuck.
I don’t think I’m going to get much of an education, either. It looks like the class is behind where I was in Boston in every subject. I’d brought Strange Times in Netherfield with me to read in study hall, but I was tempted to haul it out in the middle of some classes, just to keep from getting bored.
Still, the book won me a friend, a very unlikely friend. Remember the vacant-eyed beanpole I saw at the coffee shop Saturday? Her name is Cynthia Van Schacht and she’s in my class. She sits next to me, and saw Miranda’s book when I had it out once. So at lunch, she took me by the arm and had me sit with her in the cafeteria.
Cindy is, I don’t know, kind of fun and kind of disturbing. She sits there looking as if she doesn’t have a thought to her name, and then suddenly words erupt out of her and she gestures wildly with her hands. There ought to be an alarm that warns people when Cindy’s about to go off.
She likes Miranda’s book, and we talked over the chapters I’ve read. Cindy says the town’s historical society had a fit when the book came out, because they were afraid it would attract weirdoes and damage the town’s reputation, which has never really recovered from the witches. And while they’d helped her with her research, the historical society didn’t really want to be publicly associated with Miranda.
When I asked what the problem is with Miranda, Cindy hemmed and hawed. She thinks Miranda is cool because “everyone knows” she grows her own pot and greets the summer solstice by standing naked on the town common at dawn. But Cindy doesn’t know Miranda personally, and advises me that I’m better off not knowing her. “She brings trouble,” is all Cindy will say.
P.S. My phone call with Eric was a disaster. I don’t want to talk about it. Just to say that Eric took the fragile young plant that was my hopes and ripped it out of the ground and threw it in the sewer. And he thought he was being nice to me!!!
Tuesday starts off just great. My brother leads off the breakfast conversation by asking me why I didn’t scream again last night. Donna rolls her eyes before jumping up to catch her bus to the regional high school. Mom sees I’m grinding my teeth and tries to smooth things over.
I get to school, and Cindy is in vacant gaze mode. Great. My only friend so far has shut her brain down again. I wonder if I can do that. Is it an inherited or acquired skill?
About an hour into the school day, Ms. Hiller calls on Cindy. All of a sudden this siren goes off, and everyone jumps up. The other kids start running in a panic for the door in the back of the room. I don’t, though. Neither does Cindy. And neither does Ms. Hiller, either. I don’t know how Ms. Hiller can tell, but the siren is coming from Cindy’s desk.
Ms. Hiller yells to the students. “Sit back down. There is no emergency.” And she comes marching over to Cindy’s desk and flips it open. The siren gets louder. It’s there in Cindy’s desk. Ms. Hiller shouts at Cindy, “Turn that off.” Cindy reaches in and turns the alarm off.
Ms. Hiller gives Cindy an ill look and says to the class. “Sit back down. There’s nothing wrong. Nothing but a bad joke by Cynthia here.” She turns to Cindy. “And just what is this all about, Cynthia Van Schacht?”
Cindy is treating this as if it’s all quite normal. “Well, Ms. Hiller, Jane suggested I get an alarm to warn people when I was going to talk and move about and all those things, so they wouldn’t get hurt. So I got one. And when you called on me, I wanted to warn people.”
Ms. Hiller looks mystified, and then she sees me. She turns back to Cindy. “This Jane, the new girl?”
Cindy nods. She’s back to her vacant look. In this mode, Cindy makes mannequins look intelligent.
Ms. Hiller gives me a quizzical look. Then she reaches down and takes the siren. “I’ll take this. Cynthia, to the principal’s office.” Cynthia just gets up and leaves, no concern on her face. Ms. Hiller marches back to the front of the class, puts the siren on her desk, and continues the lesson.
Half an hour later, Cindy returns, sits at her desk, and immediately raises her hand. Ms. Hiller acknowledges her. Cindy announces, “The principal wants to see Jane, and wants her to bring the siren with her.”
So a few minutes later, I’m sitting in the principal’s office, the siren on her desk. Ms. Karen Duncan sits there frowning at me. She’s a plump, middle-aged woman. She looks like someone’s mom. In fact, she is, to judge from the glimpse of photographs I saw framed on her desk.
Finally she speaks. “Did you suggest to Cindy Van Schacht that she use a siren?”
“Yes, ma’am. I was joking.”
“Of course.” She closes her eyes for a moment. “Are you a trouble-causer, Jane?”
I think about that. “Not intentionally,” I reply.
Softly she repeats what I said and sighs. “How about unintentionally?”
That’s easy. “Sometimes my jokes get me into trouble.”
She sighs again. “Is your brother anything like you?”
That one’s easy, too. “No, Ms. Duncan. We’re nothing at all alike. He gets into trouble his own ways.”
Ms. Duncan gives a sad chuckle to that one. “Well, that’s a relief.” She taps her fingers on the desk. “Do you like Cindy, Jane?”
I shrug. “I’ve only known her one day, but, yeah, I kind of like her. She’s been friendlier to me than anyone else in my class.”
That causes Ms. Duncan to raise an eyebrow.
So I take a chance. “Is there something wrong with Cindy, ma’am? Because sometimes she seems fine and other times,” I shrug again, “well, you probably know better than me.”
Ms. Duncan shakes her head. “Such matters are confidential. But you want to help?”
“Cindy doesn’t have many friends, Jane. If you like her, be her friend. But be careful what you say to her. She sometimes takes things in an unexpected direction. As witness this,” and Ms. Duncan holds up the siren.
I think over what Ms. Duncan said and reply, “If she takes things in an unexpected direction, how can I expect how she’ll react to what I say, ma’am?”
Ms. Duncan smiles at that one. “Wiser heads than yours have been trying to figure that one out for years. Do your best. And now get back to your class.”
We are walking down the street after school, Cindy and me, just chatting. Cindy’s really pleased with me, because I stayed with her for detention, so she’s promised to buy me a hot chocolate on this cold day. Every so often, she just breaks down in laughter and says, “Did you see how the rest of the kids ran when the siren went off?”
Her smile dies the moment we set foot in the coffee shop. It’s the same one I was in the other day when I first saw Cindy, but I didn’t know her then. She turns to me in an undertone and says, “Oh, shit, my sister’s here.”
I look around the room. My heart sinks. So I say to Cindy, “Oh, shit, my sister’s here.”
Four girls who are older than us are sitting around a table. Two of them are staring at us. The one on the right is my sister. The other looks like Cindy, sort of, if Cindy were a model. Cindy figures it out, too, and whispers, “Is that your sister in dark blue, sitting beside my sister with a white wool sweater?”
“Yuh.” I look at Cindy. She looks unhappy. “Is this bad?”
“You have no idea,” Cindy replies. Abruptly she strides forward, a big false smile on her face. She goes up to her sister. “Hi, Mo!” she greets her in a cheery voice. “I’m here to ruin your day. And you must be Jane’s sister,” she says, turning to Donna. “Is she a big a pain in the ass for you as I am to mine?”
I’m creeping up on the table. Donna gives me a look, like “What have I just walked into?” Cindy’s sister looks at me for a moment and then replies to Cindy, “I doubt she could be such an embarrassment to her family as you are, Cindy. Go away.”
Cindy takes it all without turning a hair. “Oh, we’ll just be right over here, Mo, if you need me.” And she takes my arm and we go over to a small table right beside the one our sisters are at. I mentally question the wisdom of this selection.
“I take it you don’t like your sister,” I say when we are settled.
Cindy curls her lips. Speaking just softly enough so she won’t be heard by her sister, she replies, “Maureen Victoria Van Schacht and I are sisters only because we have the same parents.”
“That is kind of a precondition, Cindy.”
“Yeah, like they say in school, it’s a necessary condition, not a sufficient one, and I have trouble imagining my sister as necessary to anything.” Abruptly she cheers up. “Hey, I promised you a hot chocolate with shavings and a cherry. I’ll go get it.” And with that non sequitur, Cindy stands up and heads over to the counter.
While she’s attending to our drinks, Donna comes over and sits in her seat. “New friend,” she observes.
“Yeah, Cindy of the Van Schacht tribe. Yours is Maureen?”
Donna nods. “Cindy seems kind of obnoxious.”
I shrug. “I’m taking lessons from her in how to be a proper sister. My own sister kind of gave up on me.”
Donna gives me a startled look, starts to say something, stops, and gets up. “Later,” she says, and goes back to her table.
Cindy gets back a few minutes later. “Big sister giving you the talk?” she asks.
I shake my head. “Not really. We used to get along, but these days . . . she usually just leaves me alone.”
“I wish.” Cindy blows a raspberry loud enough for everyone in the place to hear. “We’ve never gotten along. Though that’s partly my parents’ fault, they think I need someone to watch over me, so they always try to get Mo and me to do things together.” She takes a sip of her drink, looks around, and sees something. “Omigosh. Look who just came in the door!”
I turn. Standing in the doorway is the goth chick, also from the other day here. My, aren’t we having a reunion. Where’s the middle-aged woman who needs orgasms? I turn back to Cindy and say, “Yeah, you mean Our Lady of the ‘Black Isn’t Dark Enough’ Clothes? Who is she?”
“That’s Miranda, Miranda Milan.”
Oh, great! Oh, wait! I really don’t know what to do, so I float a suggestion. “Maybe we should invite her over here for a discussion.”
Cindy looks at me as if I’m crazy. “Are you kidding? No, no how, no way.”
I’m mystified. “Wasn’t she in here on Saturday when you were here?”
Cindy gives me a surprised look, and then nods. “She’s in here on and off. But you don’t speak to her, ever.”
“Because . . . she’s not that friendly, and . . . uh, strange things happen to people who know Miranda.”
This is a most unsatisfactory answer. Instead of replying, I turn around to look at Miranda Milan. She is just that, a goth with no fashion sense. Black shoes, black slacks, black blouse, black jacket, black nail polish, black hair, even black lipstick. Against that, her skin looks so pasty white that I almost wonder if she is an anemic vampire. Her eyes I can’t see, because she wears wraparound sunglasses with, naturally, black frames. In fact, the glass in them looks black, too, as if Miranda’s blind. Must be a metaphor for her fashion sense. Or maybe goth is a classic look in Netherfield. I’ll give Miranda credit, the cut is stylish and the fabric doesn’t look cheap. And are those silver buttons on her jacket? I catch myself, wondering why I think that, since I can’t tell silver from plutonium at sight. Do not hire me as a nuclear power plant inspector.
Miranda gets her drink and turns to walk toward a table. And then her head snaps back, and she is looking right at me. I quickly turn back to Cindy.
Cindy lets out a low whistle. “She’s made you, Jane. You must carry the mark of Satan.”
“Good, maybe she’ll come over here and invite me to a black mass Friday night,” I reply. “I’ll bring my favorite puppy and we’ll sacrifice it to grant me dark powers.”
Cindy laughs. “She probably knows how. But just stay away from her, Jane.”
“Just because. It’s safer that way.”
I’m getting annoyed about this mystery and debating whether to go over and introduce myself anyhow, when a voice calls out. “Hey, Miranda, left your broom outside?” It’s Cindy’s sister, Maureen. Cindy moans and buries her head on the table.
I look around, see where Miranda is sitting. She’s in a booth, her feet propped up on the table, her body slumped against the back of the seat, with a book in her hands. She doesn’t seem to have noticed Maureen’s call. So Maureen tries again. “Hey, Miranda, maybe you can tell my fortune by looking in your sippy cup?” Her friends, my sister excluded, laugh.
Miranda finally seems to notice. She looks over toward Maureen, tilts her head back and forth as if viewing Maureen from head to foot. And then in a bored voice, she says, “You’re clumsy as well as rude. Too bad about the dry cleaning bill, bitch.” And she goes back to her book.
Cindy raises her head and looks over to her sister with a worried expression. Looks like she has reason to worry. Maureen looks to be hopping mad. Something about the way Miranda said that has gotten under Maureen’s skin. So she stands up to confront Miranda. However, while she’s standing up, Maureen stumbles against the table, shaking it with enough force to topple her coffee frappe over. The lid comes off and the contents go splashing all over Maureen’s white sweater and beige skirt. Both wool, don’t you know?
For a few seconds, everything in the coffee shop is still. Maureen stands there, outraged and horrified. The frappe drips off her clothes and onto the floor, leaving behind a huge stain. And Miranda seems oblivious to it all.
With a shriek, Maureen charges over to wreak vengeance on Miranda. But before she gets there, several people grab her and stop her. She’s screaming about how she’s going to tear out Miranda’s eyes and many other things, with liberal helpings of profanity, as the others try to get her out of there and over to the rest rooms. Finally, Maureen admits defeat, and lets herself be herded into the rest room to clean up. Miranda ignores everything, save at the end, when I catch her shooting a glance at our table and frowning before returning to her book.
The coffee shop is dead silent for a few seconds after, and then the customary buzz picks up. I notice Cindy’s actually smiling. I give her a quizzical glance and she explains. “Mo is always taunting me about something. Nice to see her get payback for once.”
I utter a silent prayer to the god of sibling relations that I never feel that way about my sister, and then say, “I think I’m beginning to like Miranda Milan. Maybe I should meet her after all.”
Cindy sharply shakes her head. “No. Stay away from her. Didn’t you see what just happened?”
“Coincidence.” Which explains nothing. Especially the way the frappe seemed to defy the laws of physics. Shouldn’t it have spilled away from Maureen, not towards her?
Cindy throws up her hands, and in a soft voice tells me, “She’s bad news, Jane. But you want to meet her, go ahead, ruin your life.”
Of course, I don’t, not right then. Cindy’s my friend. I wouldn’t be so rude as to deliberately ignore her advice. Well, not right in front of her.
But that doesn’t mean I won’t try to meet Miranda Milan, some other time.
End of chapter three
(OK, so Jane didn’t abandon the diary. At least not yet, while everything in Netherfield is still new. And can’t we get a few more details about Eric? What did he say? Maybe Jane will get around to it in the next chapter.)
“…I have trouble imaginINg my sister as necessary…”
“…’Black Isn’t Dark Enough’…” — single quotes
“…charges over to wreAk [or work] vengeance…”
I’m surprised none of these were in my last-minute edits . . . which sadly speaks to how easy it is to read one’s own writing and not catch errors. And I had to laugh at thinking through the literal meaning of “wreck vengeance.” Corrections made, thank you!
I’m curious who or what inhabits their house and why in such distress! Loving the cast of characters!
Thank you. As for the sobbing whatever-it-is, I’m curious, too. 😉
Chuckled and spluttered (sotto voce) almost all the way through. A tad nostalgic though: goths always remind me of the ‘fashion’ students when I was at Art College: every one of them a goth. Of course, we ‘graphics’ students were far more chic, having an innate sense of good design! But I do like the way it’s developing.
I’ve known very few goths myself. We had ONE in my Ph.D. program, who I found rather nice, but who did leave some people shaking their heads. Of course, they also shook their heads at the two supporters of absolute monarchy in the M.A. program.
And I meant to ask, what’s with the Netherfield? Can we expect an unmarried male with an unspecified large income in search of a young woman to take care of it for him. Or is it just coincidence? Or something Freudian perhaps: ‘Bottom Field’, humph. 🙂
In truth, I picked the name because there are a lot of Massachusetts towns with -field endings, and “Hitherfield” just doesn’t work. Only then did I recall Jane Austen.
There are unmarried males, people with large incomes, and at least one man in search of a young woman in the story, but I’ll not say if all three characteristics combine in one person. That said, I did promise some sex. 😉