October 12, 2016
Lucy runs away with her high school teacher, William, on a Friday, the last day of school, a June morning shiny with heat. She’s downstairs in the kitchen, and Iris has the TV on. The weather guy, his skin golden as a cashew, is smiling about power outages, urging the elderly and the sick to stay inside, his voice sliding like a trombone, and as soon as she hears the word “elderly,” Lucy glances uneasily at Iris.
“He doesn’t mean me, honey,” Iris says mildly, putting more bacon to snap in the pan. “I’m perfectly fine.”
Good, Lucy thinks, good, because it makes it that much easier for her to do what she’s going to do. Lucy is terrified, but she acts as if everything is ordinary. She eats the bacon, the triangles of rye toast, and the scrambled eggs that Iris leaves her, freckling them with pepper and pushing the lumpy curds around her plate. Lucy drinks the orange juice Iris pours for her and picks up the square multivitamin next to her plate, pretending to swallow it but then spitting it out in her napkin moments later because it has this silty undertaste. She wants to tell Iris to take more vitamins, since she won’t be around to remind her. It’s nearly impossible for her to believe that Iris turned seventy-nine in May. Everyone always says Iris barely looks in her late sixties, and just last week Lucy spotted an old man giving Iris the once-over at a restaurant, his eyes drifting over her body, lingering on her legs. Lucy knows three kids at school whose parents—far younger than Iris—have died suddenly: two fathers felled by heart attacks, a mother who suffered a stroke while walking the dog. Lucy knows that anything can happen and age is the hand at your back, giving you an extra push toward the abyss.
She tells herself Iris will be fine. Iris hasn’t had to work for years, since receiving sizable insurance money from her husband, who died in his sixties. Plus, she has money from Lucy’s parents. Lucy had never heard her parents talk about Iris, but Iris told Lucy and Charlotte it was because she was only very distantly related.
Lucy was only five when her parents died, Charlotte a year and a half older, and she doesn’t remember much about that life, though she’s seen the photos, two big red albums Iris keeps on a high shelf. She’s in more of the photos with her parents than Charlotte is, and she wonders whether that’s because Charlotte didn’t like being photographed then any more than she does now. There are lots of photos of Charlotte and Lucy together, jumping rope, sitting in a circle of dolls, laughing. But the photos of her parents alone! Her mother, winking into the camera, is all banana blond in a printed dress, her legs long and lean as a colt’s. Her father, burly and white-haired, with a mustache so thick it looks like a scrub brush, is kissing her mother’s cheek. They hold hands in the pictures. They smooch over a Thanksgiving turkey. Her dad was much older than her mom, but he didn’t act like it. They were at a supper club, dancing and having dinner, the girls at home with a sitter, when the fire broke out. Later, the news reports said it was someone’s cigarette igniting a curtain into flames so heavy most of the people there never made it out.
When she thinks about her parents, Lucy feels as if there is a mosquito trapped and buzzing in her body. She tells herself the stories Charlotte has told her, the few Charlotte can remember.
There was the time their parents took them to Florida and they rode ponies on the beach. The time they all went to New York City to look at the Christmas lights and Lucy cried because the multitude of Santa Clauses confused her. She has told herself all these stories so many times she can almost convince herself that she really remembers them. Iris has no stories about the girls’ parents. “Our lives were all so busy,” Iris says. “We just never got together.”
Lucy glances at Iris bustling around the kitchen, pouring coffee, reaching for the sugar. She looks old, her skin lined, her hands embroidered with blue veins. Iris has never seemed old before, Lucy thinks. Iris took the girls to the park, she threw and sometimes caught Frisbees. The only thing she couldn’t do was take the girls to a movie in the evening, because she didn’t like driving at night. Plus, she preferred to go to bed early. Charlotte was always Iris’s “big-girl helper,” watching Lucy on the swings, running after her, and, a lot of the time, just sit- ting on one of the benches with Iris, the two of them with their heads dipped together, laughing, so that Lucy would have to stand on the swings and go higher just to blot out the surprise of being the odd person out.
Iris turns the TV to another channel. She shakes her head when she sees the hippies on the news, a sudden influx of them congregated and camping out in Boston Common, spread out on the green lawn like wildflowers, all of them in tie-dyes and striped or polka-dot pants and bare feet, some of the girls in flowing dresses or minis so tiny they barely cover their thighs, but Lucy finds herself glued to the set. “Like sheep!” Iris says, pointing to the way the cops are herding the kids back onto the streets. “Look at how they dress!” Iris marvels.
Lucy sighs. Iris wears jewel-tone silk dresses every day, or blouses and skirts. She’s always in low-heeled, strappy shoes. Her white hair is braided into a fussy ring around her head, like Heidi, and her earrings are always button ones, instead of the long, jangly ones Lucy wears. “Look at that one,” Iris says when the camera focuses on a boy with ringlets skimming his shoulders. “What a world,” Iris marvels, and she shuts the set off. But Lucy loves the way the hippies look, the multitude of rings on their toes and fingers, the clashing clothes. These kids are part of a life glittering just inches away from her, and all she has to do is grab hold, the way she does with William’s hair, thick and shiny as satin. She can almost feel her hands in it, tugging him closer to kiss her.
She wants to tell Iris and Charlotte. She wants to tell someone, but she can’t.
Iris hands Lucy a brown paper bag filled with a peanut butter sandwich and an apple, the same lunch Lucy’s had since elementary school. Iris sits down and pulls out the crossword puzzle from the daily newspaper. This is her favorite part of the day. She picks up a pencil and chews on the end and then glances at Lucy again. “Honey, go find a hairbrush before you go,” Iris says.
Lucy pats down her cap of curls and then sits and finishes her juice. She looks around the kitchen as if she’s memorizing every detail—the oak table and chairs, the braided rug—because until she’s eighteen, just two years from now, when no one can legally stop her from being with William, she won’t see this room again.
She has to leave the house before Charlotte can catch up and ask why her knapsack is so heavy, why Lucy seems so nervous, why she’s in such a hurry. Charlotte worries over Lucy the same way she worries about everything, and though Lucy used to like that, now it’s a burden. She’s taken only what she thinks she’ll need, because William says that the whole idea is to simplify their lives, that people today are too hung up on having stuff. She packed two pairs of bell-bottom jeans, one of them elephant bells, a paisley mini-dress, her favorite pink felt shift dress—the same one Twiggy wore on the cover of Seventeen— and her Love’s Baby Soft shampoo. She has a brand-new Lanz nightgown with black lace trim and a pair of yellow marabou slippers she found on sale for two dollars, crumpled in a bin at Zayre, the feathers fluffed around the toes. And of course, she has her blue journal, a new one that she’s already started to use.
She wonders whether Charlotte will miss her. Though they go to the same school, Lucy is a sophomore, while Charlotte is a senior, and that makes a big difference. Charlotte loves every stupid brick of Waltham High, but Lucy is in misery. The school is so small minded. Last year, while all the world and other high schools were protesting the Vietnam War, Waltham High had a tiny walkout of just twenty kids, mostly the art and drama students, and by the time everyone spilled onto the blacktop outside, the protest had changed from being against the war to wanting a Coke machine in the cafeteria. “What do we want?” someone screamed. “When do we want it? Coke! Now!” As soon as all the kids came back inside, sweaty from the heat, jazzed up, they all got detention, including Lucy. “The president knows better than you what should be done with the war,” Iris said to her. “What if people did this during World War Two? What if all the soldiers decided they didn’t want to go? We’d all be under Nazi rule.”
The day of the walkout, Charlotte didn’t get detention, because she was taking her SATs for the third time, as if her stellar scores the first two times weren’t high enough. But even if Charlotte had been there, she probably wouldn’t have joined the protest, because she’d have been worrying what would happen, whether getting detention would spoil her chances of landing her choice college. She’d have made a list of every positive and negative, and by the time she was done, the war would have been over and she wouldn’t have had to make a decision at all.
Charlotte has no idea how good she has it. She’s always been in the accelerated honors program. She’s completely gorgeous, with startling eyes, green as limes, and the kind of thick, straight cocoa hair that Lucy yearns for. But instead of growing it to her waist, parting it in the middle, the way Lucy would have, Charlotte chops it to her chin, cutting it herself with scissors in the bathroom because she’s afraid that the hair salons won’t listen to her, that they might give her an artichoke or a pixie style instead. Plus, Charlotte has already decided her whole life. She loves animals and she wants to be a veterinarian, and she got a full scholarship at Brandeis. “It’s only ten minutes away,” Charlotte tells them, but Lucy gets this ache behind her eyes when she thinks about it. Her sister has always been in the house with her. How can she so easily leave Lucy behind?
Ever since Charlotte started worrying about college, the only person she hangs out with is her friend Birdie, another study-all-the-time girl who’s going to be a theater major at Emerson, and when Lucy listens in on their conversations, all they talk about is leaving home.
Charlotte bought saffron-colored Indian bedspreads for her dorm room from the Harvard Coop, and a funny lamp shaped like a pineapple. She’s already written to her roommate, a girl from California named Cherry Mossman, who sent Charlotte a photo of herself and her beagle, both wearing angel wings for Halloween.
Lucy knows from friends of hers how it is, how their brothers or sisters went off to college and made lives there and didn’t come back, and even if they did, the person who returned was different. Just like William told her. “People move on. They change. They go on and make new families.”
“What’s a three-letter word for pies starting with the letter z?” Iris asks, readjusting a white bobby pin in her hair.
“Zas,” Lucy says, and Iris frowns. “Are you sure?” she says. “Is that really a word?”
Lucy has a feeling that if Charlotte answered the question, Iris wouldn’t doubt her. “It means pizza,” she says. She hesitates and then gets up from the table and kisses Iris on the cheek. Iris flushes. “Well, what have I done to deserve something that nice today?” Iris says. “Did you eat enough? Are you taking a jacket? It might get cool later.”
Lucy nods. Sometimes Lucy feels that Iris worries over her more than she does Charlotte, and it makes Lucy feel deficient, as if she can’t take care of herself. She keeps thinking that soon she will be one less thing for Iris to worry about.
Lucy hears Charlotte coming into the kitchen, the rat-a-tat-tat of the green cowboy boots she insists on wearing every day, the heavy way she walks as if she needs to weight herself to the earth or she’ll fly away. There she is, Lucy’s sister, as startling as an exclamation point, in a purple mini and orange tights.
“Morning,” Charlotte says, reaching for a bagel on the counter, brushing close.
Lucy breathes in deeply. “Hey,” she says.
Her sister, who never eats much, takes neat bites out of her bagel. “If you wait a few minutes, I’ll walk to school with you,” Charlotte offers.
The thought scares Lucy. She knows if she has to speak, her plans will be doomed, they will helplessly leak from her. She’s never been able to keep much from her sister.
“I can’t. I have to see the science teacher before class,” Lucy says, and she bolts toward the front door.
“See you later, then,” Charlotte says, waving a hand.
On the way out, Lucy spots the long red silk scarf Charlotte’s taken to wearing, which is hanging on the doorknob. She grabs it. She’s taking this part of Charlotte with her. She has to have something. She wraps it around her neck, lets it flutter to her waist, and races outside.
CAROLINE LEAVITT is the New York Times bestselling author of Pictures of You and Is This Tomorrow, both of which were on Best of the Year lists—plus eight other novels which didn’t do so hot except for the first, which made her think it was always going to be that way. She reviews books for the San Francisco Chronicle and People, and her work has appeared in Modern Love, New York Magazine, Salon, The New York Times, Real Simple, and more. She teaches novel writing online at Stanford and UCLA Writers Program Extension and for private clients. The recipient of a New York Foundation of the Arts Grant in Fiction, she was also a recent finalist in both the Sundance Screenwriters Lab and the Nickelodeon Screenwriters Fellowship. Visit her at her website or on her second homes of Facebook and Twitter.
Adapted from Cruel Beautiful World, by Caroline Leavitt, Copyright © 2016 by Caroline Leavitt. With the permission of the publisher, Algonquin Books.