"Intelligent" and "talented" dont sound especially pejorative. Thats why the talentless and stupid had to invent the word "arrogant."
-Conversations with Lauren
iii. ockhams razor
"Youre wearing the pin!!" I blurted, then immediately bit my lip. I would have preferred a more subtle approach, but apparently Im missing the part of the brain that weighs the appropriateness of a comment before voicing it.
"Yeah, arent these great?" Beth thrust her considerable chest in my direction, one-half giving me a better view of the pin and one-half deniable showing off. "Lauren calls them Konnichi wa pins, and konnichi wa is Japanese for "Good morning. So one would think the pins say konnichi wa."
"One would think."
"But they dont they say Im an idiot. Isnt that hilarious?"
To an outside observer, I spent the next several seconds stammering incoherently. But those in the know realize I was grappling with a philosophical conundrum which dwarfed "What if Browns brain were in Smiths body?" Namely, "How the Hell had Beth figured out something clever?"
To convey my sense of bewilderment, but wishing to soften my actual question, I instead asked Beth why she was wearing the pin if she knew what it said.
"Because Lauren asked me to," Beth said. Smiling, she ushered me in.
Beths bedroom is a life-sized replica of Barbies Town House. The color scheme is so uniform it takes the outside observer several minutes before she can distinguish anything beyond a confusion of pink. Only after prolonged concentration does one detect the slight differences in the room: This stuffed animal is a slightly lighter shade of pink than that throw-pillow. These bean bags are a more vibrant pink than that vanity. Curiously, Beth has a separate and seemingly arbitrary word for every nuance of color. "Oh, the lampshade is coral, but the bedspread is babys blush." I dont believe Ive ever actually heard her use the word pink.
Lining one wall is an overstuffed (but still very neat and orderly) bookshelf, containing several hundred paperback romances which feature cover paintings of swarthy foreign musclemen poised to kiss the necks of busty white women. Ive long considered romance novels to be evidence that feminism has a long way to go, as they demonstrate that the fantasy of women in their early twenties with enormous breasts, tiny waists and big-ass hair is not the sole province of men.
I wasnt prepared to drop the subject of Laurens pin. "If Lauren told you to jump off a bridge, would you do that?"
Beth made a squinchy face. "Dina, I know its an important component of sarcasm to extrapolate any situation to an extreme and then point out the shortcomings of the extreme. But isnt it ultimately kind of silly?"
More stammering. Obviously, aliens had replaced Beth with an identical-looking but more insightful clone. I furtively glanced under the bed for pods.
"Anyway, what do I care what the pin says? Im sure Lauren has some elaborate scheme behind them, and Im happy to help her out."
"Some scheme where youre the butt of the joke!!" I pointed out. "Did you ever think about that?"
Beth sighed gently as she settled down onto her summers rose butterfly chair. "Dina, for whatever reason, Lauren has decided that I should wear this pin. If I refuse, shell trick me into it. Or bribe me. Or blackmail me. But she wont give up until Im wearing it. Am I right?"
I nodded reluctantly.
"And Lauren has an inexhaustible amount of energy when it comes to getting her way. Shes an unstoppable daemoness from the very bowels of Hell. It saves me a lot of trouble to just wear the pin, dont you think?"
I flopped down into a bubblegum beanbag, made a show of taking my jacket off and futzing with my duffel bag allowing myself a moment to compose a reply without yielding the floor.
"But then shes won," I said at last, meeting her eyes with what I hoped read as sincerity and confidence.
"Who cares? Who cares who wins? Were all friends, why cant we just enjoy each others company and get along? Why do we have to have all these little mock skirmishes that will only hurt each others feelings?"
"Because were like lion cubs. Playing is only shorthand for preparing for the real world. Were gathering the tools well need when were up against people who genuinely hate us, for real stakes."
"You sound like youre quoting Lauren," Beth said, and I winced. "If were practicing for our adulthood, why do we have to practice fighting? Why cant we practice getting along?"
"So you dont care who wins?"
"I dont care to rub it in Laurens face, the way you do. Im happy to have my own little corner of the world. A corner Lauren cant touch."
Without meaning to, almost without noticing, I inched forward. "Describe to me a thing Lauren cant touch."
Beth leaned forward as well, shifting in her butterfly chair with an agility you wouldnt attribute to her, until her nose was almost touching mine. Her words were lent the hushed, conspiratorial air of a secret. "What if you knew a thing so big, so amazing, that you lost interest in Lauren and whatever shes up to with the pin thing?"
"Im Laurens best friend. Why would you tell me about it?"
"Because Ive gone as far as I can go by myself. Because Ive found all the pieces and I need someone who can put them together."
Beth is a sweetie-pie, but she isnt above pushing my big, obvious, manipulate-me button: Complimenting my intelligence. "Wont I tell Lauren?"
"If you want to tell Lauren, I cant stop you. But I dont think you will."
Beths last sentence wasnt framed like a question, but it was; she was asking me to promise to keep her secret. And of course Beth could still stop me if I didnt agree to secrecy, she could refuse to tell me this big mystery. I was tantalized, of course, but also a bit cross that Beth thought she could buy my compliance with nothing more than a few laudatory words.
"I wont tell. But isnt this the same thing you complain that I do? Keeping a secret from Lauren solely for the one-upmanship of having something she doesnt?"
"If thats how you like to think of it."
Lauren taught me that if you want an unpleasant truth to sink in, merely mention it and change the subject; to debate veracity allows your subject to subtly equate the truth with your reasoning and, eventually finding a chink in your reasoning, convince herself that the second is merely a product of the first. Physical objects tend towards entropy, Lauren would say, people toward self-flattery. Like a miller who builds beside a river, let peoples tendency towards self-flattery to work for you rather than against you.
Its a difficult thing planting an anethemic idea in someones head and then leading the conversation down another road without resistance. Laurens rule of thumb is to change the topic to everyones conversational Achilles heel: Whatever gives them their sense of self-importance.
"So whats this big secret of yours?" I asked, leaning back against the cotton-candy wallpaper.
"Not here," Beth said. She gathered herself out of the butterfly chair, grabbed her riding cap and set off for the family stables.
Beth has fallen out of the habit of casual conversation. Every revelation demands histrionics, and histrionics demand the sort of place where two star-crossed lovers might run into each others arms during the climax of a particularly cheesy romance film, in slow motion with tears streaming down each cheek.
There was a time when Beths habit of reserving her meritorious news items for dramatic and beautiful vistas frustrated me to no end. I tend to think of the physical world as a necessary but largely uninteresting life-support system for the mind, which is where the real action takes place.
It was Lauren who taught me the value of sharing information against a backdrop of waterfalls and panoramic sunsets. "Imagine we were at the falls and I told you Id met the Great Love of my Life, that our arms and hearts and souls had entwined in a great outpouring of acceptance and love." She gazed convincingly off into the distance, and I admit even my atrophied little heart-strings felt a gentle tugging. "Now imagine I told you at a Burger Barn."
I smiled. "All right, I see your point. Now whos the inspiration for this extremely moving but allegedly fictional Prince Charming?"
Lauren laughed and gracefully segued to the subject of Beth. I was willing to accept her implication of the lack of any genuine love interest at the time, as we were only fourteen and our suitors were largely imaginary composites of the actors in the slow-motion-running films mentioned briefly above.
"Beth has an instinct for beauty and environment that will make her extremely sought-after by guys, once their hormones quiet down enough for them to appreciate qualities other than Bulimia, Big Hooters and Putting Out."
Horse-back riding with Beth, I had to agree. She looked back over her shoulder to make sure I hadnt fallen behind, before urging Dusty (Im not making this up) off the regular paths and into the most beautiful Maxfield Parrish forest. Great swathes of sunlight cut through the ceiling of leaves and backlit Beth like Herb Ritts on his best day, and I smiled and thought how beautiful she could be sometimes, out here in her secret world.
Suddenly I was flushed with happiness, like a wave suddenly breaking over the prow of a ship. I felt blessed that Beth was my friend. That she knew the secret of all this Girls Own Adventure stuff and chose to share it with me.
I felt like a Bobbsy Twin.
Stevens Hill is the sort of place that might appear on a Buffalo Creek postcard, if we tricked enough people into visiting and thus buying postcards. (Actually, on a slight tangent, we might save these hypothetical tourists time by pre-printing the postcards: "I regret to report that the television commercials produced by the Buffalo Creek Tourism Department may have been somewhat misleading; its Hell on Earth here, only less interesting. Will see you soon, assuming I dont slit my own wrists.") Anyway, Stevens Hill is lush and green and beautiful. It overlooks the town square, which is abutted by all the official town buildings and dominated by a huge copper statue of a buffalo beside a frontiersman. Surrounding the town square are the better homes, where people with horses and Jaguars and heated pools live. People like Lauren and Andrea and Beth. Sometimes I feel like an impostor visiting the Hill. But I was with Beth, and she has the magical quality of making everyone feel as though they belong.
Beth unfurled magenta picnic blanket and smiled a smile of deep contentment. I put a blade of straw between my teeth, Daisy Duke style, and settled in beside her.
"Tell," I said.
"About a month ago, I was in the library doing my paper on Hemingway...?"
"I remember. That was the first paper on Hemingway Ive ever read that didnt mention his writing."
"How can someone that famous who knows hes going to be photographed wear that leather-daddy mustache? Anyway, it was would have been Kellys birthday. Just as a lark I did a search by her name in the library database. I thought maybe Id turn up some minor celebrity with the same name, and have a story for our next shindig."
Beth looked over at me, and her eyes were especially moist and almond-shaped. The smell of fresh-cut grass drifted through the air, mingling with the acrid sweat of the horses. I had the sudden sensation that Id remember this afternoon for always.
"Theres a book. The Ghost of Kelly McDonald, by Dorea Beaudreaux. I special-ordered it from Loquacious Porridge."
Beth drew a paperback from her bag. The book was weathered and had sticky notes every dozen pages or so. She opened to a place she didnt need to hunt for and read: "Kellys hair fell in sumptuous red ringlets, accenting her jade eyes and light sprinkling of freckles. She had the devils eyes, but the smile of an angel."
"Beth, all those books"
"Theres more." She flipped to another page. "I can never be the bride you deserve, Luc, not in this world...
"Luc crushed her to his powerful, bronzed chest. Then come with me to the Americas, and well make a new one. Leave the rules to the rule-makers, and find the place where hearts are free..."
"I remember she used to say that," I said. "I remember Kelly used to say that all the time, starting in maybe ninth grade. It was like her little signature catch-phrase."
"Theres more. Every fiber of her being cried out for his touch, burned in a symphony of want and desire. She felt his hot, quick breath against her neck as the space between them crackled like fire. Where, my love, where is there a place big enough for your world?
"Buffalo Creek, he said, carrying her to the bedroom as his eyes devoured her. Buffalo Creek, Wisconsin."
I tilted my head to one side. "Housewives really masturbate over this stuff?"
Beth closed her eyes slowly, opened them again. Then she handed me the book. I swear on a stack of Bibles and/or religious books of your choice, the cover was a painting of Kelly McDonald, long dead b*girl, wearing a cheesy period outfit and having her ear nibbled by a blood relative of Fabio.
I began salaaming Beth, which for you heathens is what the faithful do every few hours towards Mecca.
"Theres more," she said, pulling me up and heading down Stevens Hill towards the center of town. You wouldnt think a heavy girl could move so fast.
"The statue...." She obviously meant to form a complete sentence, but Beth was breathing almost as hard as I was. She pointed and said again, "The statue..."
I brushed aside some moss or something and read the inscription aloud: "Luc Boncautèle, Founder of Buffalo Creek, 1774."
Beth produced another book from her knapsack, handed it over to me carefully. "Look at page 204. Thats Luc Boncautèle, the hero of Doreas book. He was a real guy. He came over from France with an Irish wife and a family fortune. He discovered this place away from the Indians."
"A Frenchie with an Irish wife in 1774? Thats a bit unusual."
"Isnt it? Whats even more strange is the Boncautèle family history. They didnt have a family fortune. They were poorer than dirt. Yet when Luc Boncautèle arrived in America, he was wealthy enough to found an entire community.
"Doreas book strongly implies that Boncautèle was a pirate. A good one. Pirates tended to die young. The rare few who retired wealthy tended to do it a bit nearer the coast. Boncautèle was ambitious enough or wanted enough to make it all the way to Buffalo Creek."
"Beth, youre... this is all incredible. This is the most amazing thing Ive ever heard in my life!! Do you know who the writer is?"
"I think so, maybe." She looked at her watch. "Ill show you in fifteen minutes. But theres another thing, something pretty important. The Boncautèles changed their name over a hundred years ago, to disassociate themselves from Lucs notorious past."
"So whos Dorea Beaudreaux, really?" I asked finally. It had taken several minutes to fully process the history behind Laurens family tree, minutes of dancing around the statue and jumping up and down and laughing and clapping my hands. But the next order of business was discovering the authors civilian identity, and we went right to work.
"Well, the novel is peppered with long passages in French..."
"Oh, Ms. Merteuil," I said instantly. Beth frowned at having her soliloquy cut short, furrowed her brows unpleasantly. Ms. Merteuil was the high school French and drama teacher, a gen-u-eiyne article from France itself, and as cultured as one can hope to be in a forgotten backwater like ours. She was the only Buffalo Creek resident I knew of who couldnt name all the characters from The Brady Bunch. Rumor had it her husband had misguidedly brought her to Buffalo Creek on their honeymoon twenty years ago, and then inconveniently died, marooning her here. Not only was Ms. Merteuil the only adult within a hundred miles who could speak French, she was one of the few residents who had ever set foot outside of Wisconsin.
Obviously, Ms. Merteuil was our culprit. But I realized in a rare moment of empathy that Beths feelings would be hurt if I robbed her of the opportunity to explain how she had figured it all out.
"Uh, if only we had some evidence..." I said, by way of throwing her a bone.
"I have that!!" Beth yelped triumphantly. "One Ms. Merteuil spends all morning, every day, in her cottage by the lake. Youve seen it?"
"Ive seen it. Very picturesque."
"Exactly just the sort of place one might write romance novels. Two Ms. Merteuil speaks French. Is, in point of fact, from France."
"Right. Thats pretty damning, right there."
"And three every afternoon, right around two oclock..." Beth glanced at her watch and emitted a little yelp, hurriedly shepherded me behind the statue.
With situation comedy timing, Ms. Merteuil moseyed into view. I had to admit a certain respect for Beths dramatic flair.
"Shes on her way to the post office," Beth whispered. "Every day at two oclock. You could set your Swatch by it. And every day shes carrying a manila envelope under one arm."
Beth met my eyes. I wanted to blurt out the obvious, but had the good graces to let Beth announce the contents of the envelope. "A new chapter. Every day she writes a new chapter, and mails it off to her editor in New York."
I looked back at Ms. Merteuil. She looked the sort of woman one could imagine writing romances. Her sense of fashion had gelled around 1963, somewhere in Europe during a particularly unfortunate period, trend-wise, and failed to evolve since. She wore an unpleasant aqua skirt, a white cotton knit sweater, a scarf tied loosely at the neck, oversized 60s sunglasses, and a hat with a brim you could hide Denmark behind. Her features were buggy and alien in certain lights, attractive and coquettish in others. She had tiny hands and a small oval head with just a slit of a mouth, giving her a fetching-yet-vaguely-repulsive quality somewhere between a Spielberg alien, a third-trimester fetus and Anaïs Nin.
"Now what?" I asked as Merteuil disappeared into the Post Office.
"Nows where you come in." Beth slipped one arm up around my shoulder. "You need to figure out if its really her."
"That shouldnt take long," I said, somehow failing to glean the indirect and covert nature of Beths plan. I leapt to my feet and headed for the post office.
"Wait!!" Beth cried out from behind me. "Wait, you cant just go up and talk to her!! Thats not how these things are done!!"
I jerked my head back, to try to figure out what Beth was saying, but just then the door opened and Ms. Merteuil appeared in my path. We collided, sending her purse flying up into the air and her tiny body into an ungainly sprawl.
"Sorry, sorry," I stammered, helping her collect the contents of her bag. Surprisingly, it seemed to contain mostly those little liquor bottles they give you on airplanes.
"Listen, Ms. Merteuil," I began, thinking she looked particularly inscrutable behind those big sunglasses. "I just wanted to say, we know whats in those manila envelopes."
"Yeah, we do," I said without confidence. By this time Beth had arrived, and I was remembering her hesitation.
"We think its great," Beth wheedled. "We think its... romantic."
Interestingly, Ms. Merteuil didnt seem flattered. Instead, she made a noise like a jittery little dog when you step on its tail. She grabbed her purse and raced off in a huff.
"Wow, did you see the color of her face?"
"Yeah," Beth answered morosely. "Pink."
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After Kelly ©1995 by Kristen Brennan