The meeting took place in an ancient grove of oak. They sat among the gnarled roots of a great tree and laid their plans. The future was unknown to them, but they were certain of one thing: Their alliance was strong, their bond unbreakable.
-- Hollow Planet: Destiny's Sword
I am drawing a picture of Sari Aaronsohn.
Sari is my best friend. But drawing her is harder than you might think.
For one thing, I don't usually draw people. Not real people. I like to do stuff with sci-fi or horror. Intense, with a lot of action. The people I draw usually end up having horns or fangs or webbed feet. I think they're rather cool -- but they certainly don't look like anybody you'd see walking down the street.
Not on this planet, anyway.
But I've decided I need to expand my horizons.
Besides, until they let us into the movie, I don't have anything else to do.
I've done Sari's hair, and I'm pretty pleased with it. Sari has easy hair to draw, very dark and tumbly. But her face is more difficult. Partly because right now, it's a pissed-off face. We're waiting on this line to get into Sudden Death, which is all about the end of the world and so on. And the line is not moving.
Sari's glaring down the line, like someone's purposely keeping us out.
I say, "Sar, we'll get in. We have tickets."
"I know. But it's taking, like, forever."
She runs the back of her arm over her forehead. It's one of those stinky August days when the sun is like a hammer and the air is like a huge wet hot cloth pressed right in your face. You can't breathe, you feel gross, and all you want to do is get inside, where there's air-conditioning.
See, the thing is, it's our last Saturday of summer vacation, our last day of freedom before we start high school. We have this whole great day planned. I can't blame Sari for not wanting to spend it waiting on line.
Actually, Sari just hates waiting in general.
Looking at my picture, I can't decide how to start her face. I should start with the eyes, because they're definitely what you see first. But then I think I should try something easier, like her chin. A few times, I almost touch the pencil to the paper. But then I chicken out. Glancing at her, I wish she would stand still; it's impossible to really see her when she's turning and twisting so impatiently. I'd ask her to hold still, but I want the picture to be a surprise. A sort of Last Day of Freedom present.
She doesn't notice me drawing. We've been friends so long, she's totally used to me doodling away.
Finally, I decide to risk it. With one stroke, I draw the entire outline of her face, from the top of her hair to the bottom of the page. Then I look at it, this empty face under a dark storm of hair. I can't figure out whether I've done it right or not.
I suspect I haven't. I suspect I've screwed the whole thing up.
I lean back and close my eyes. The sun is really hot on my face, and I imagine that I'm on a ship, bound for the outer world of Prolus, another exile banished by the Exalted Ones. There is a knife in my boot; the guards didn't find it. The heat isn't the sun, but the engines of the ship...
rThen I hear Sari shout, "Let us in!" and it's like I'm startled out of sleep.
Sari starts clapping her hands, starts chanting, "Let us in! Let us in!..."
The other people on line are giving her looks. You can tell they're thinking, Obnoxious teenager. Little glances back and forth: Oh, let's not sit next to THEM.
I put my sketch pad away in my backpack and start chanting with Sari. Together we yell, "Let us in! Let us in!" We do a little dance while we chant, swinging our arms and doing kicks on "in," like some kind of crazed Rockettes.
I'm laughing so hard, I can't breathe. I'm wondering how long I can keep this up when all of a sudden, people start coming out of the theater. The line starts to move. As it takes a big leap forward, Sari puts her arms above her head and cheers.
Sari and I have been best friends since seventh grade. We had the same gym class, and we were always the last two picked for every team. Me because I was bad, Sari because she just didn't care. One game, the teacher made Sari be goalie, and she let the ball roll right into the goal. The other team started jumping around and slapping hands. The teacher immediately made her sit down on the bench next to me. I held my hand up, and we slapped hands.
Basically, it was inevitable that we became best friends. We are essentially the only normal people in our entire school, the only girls not obsessed with their weight or hair, the only girls who don't communicate by squealing and squeaking. I mean, there are a few other people not like that. But a lot of people are afraid of the cliques. You can tell they'd like to be accepted by them. Whereas Sari and I despise them and fear no one.
The movie's dumb but kind of fun. I can watch anything that shows you a big black sky with billions of stars, the standard shot of any space action movie. In this one, a group of astronauts have to blow up Mars before it hits the earth.
After the movie, I say how there's no way a single bomb would destroy Mars, whether or not you blow it up at the planet's core. Sari says there's no way she would spend her last night alive with Bailey Watts, the guy who played the dudely dude second in command.
As we head toward the bus stop, Sari says, "At your house we're doing the Book, right?"
I nod. "Absolutely."
Sari's sleeping over, and we catch the crosstown bus to my house. While she stares out the window, I go into my knapsack and get out my sketch pad. Looking at my drawing, I see I haven't gotten her at all. Even when Sari's just looking out the window, there are a million things going on in her face. All I have here is some squiggles.
I don't know why drawing real people is so hard, but annoyingly, it is. I think I see it, I think I have it right. Then I try to get it on paper, and somehow, it all just disintegrates. In my head, I know what it should be, but it's like my hands won't cooperate, and nothing ends up the way I saw it.
It's totally frustrating.
Then I notice this guy across the aisle is staring at us. Well, really at Sari. He's not trying to hide it, either.
He's old. Not old old, but way too old to be staring at a couple of kids like us. I stare back, and he looks away.
This happened a lot this summer. All of a sudden, men who could be in college or even married were checking Sari out. Mostly, it was just funny. But one time, a guy ran after us and asked her to marry him. It freaked her out, I could tell.
The bus rolls to a halt at my stop. As we get off, I glance back. The guy's watching again. I give him a look like, Creep, and jump off the bus.
I live on the tenth floor of our building. In the elevator, Sari pushes the button for my floor, like she lives there too. Which, frankly, she almost does.
I want to ask her if she noticed the creep on the bus. But I decide not to. It might upset her.
As we ride up, Sari asks, "What do you think the Book's going to say?"
I close my eyes and intone: "The Book must keep its secrets until the time is right."
My parents have gone out to dinner, so the apartment is dark and silent when we open the front door. I call, "Hello?" and hear the click-click-click of my dog, Nobo, coming down the hall to greet us. Sari gives him a quick smile. Being a confirmed cat person, she is not entirely wild about dogs.
We order in a pizza and eat it in the kitchen, passing an enormous bottle of Coke between us. Nobo lies under the table, hoping for the best.
"Okay, here's a question." Sari tips her head back to catch a strand of cheese. "Your last night on earth -- who do you spend it with?"
I have no answer to this, so I guess. "My family?"
Sari rolls her eyes. "No, I mean, like a guy. Like the movie."
I think. I hate questions like this. Sari loves them.
Sari presses. "Your last night on earth."
"He's dead," says Sari. She gives me a funny look, like she's worried I don't know this. Or don't care.
I shrug. "Guess I'm out of luck on my last night on earth."
"Come on, what about someone real?" says Sari. "Someone you know?"
I made a barfing sound.
"Come on," she says. "Think of everyone you know."
"I am thinking of everyone I know."
"You never know," Sari says. "High school could offer some very interesting opportunities."
"Yeah, right, like that's so likely." I take a slug of soda. "What about you? Who do you spend your last twenty-four hours with?"
I though she'd have an immediate answer, but Sari thinks about it for a long time.
Finally, she says, "I don't know. I don't think I've met him yet."
Then she sets down her glass. "I think it's time for the Book."
Because it's time for the Book, we don't turn any of the lights on in the rest of the apartment. We creep down the hall to my room, where slowly, I open the door. Then I switch on the light, because otherwise, we won't be able to see anything. Plus, I forgot to clean my room, and I don't want anyone to break their neck.
Unfortunately, when I turn on the light, I see something else I forgot to do.
I forgot to take down my drawings.
A week ago, I taped everything I did over the summer up on the wall to see if I had gotten any better. It's not something I'd want anyone seeing anyway -- even Sari -- but what makes it worse is that almost every
single drawing is of Hollow Planet.
Hollow Planet is this series of sci-fi books about a world inhabited by people known as the Exalteds. The Hollow Planet is a perfect world, there's no crime or violence, and nobody there is ugly or poor or stupid. But part of the reason the Hollow Planet is perfect is that its leaders have exiled all the criminals, thieves, and undesirables to the off-world of Prolus. The books are about the wars between the two groups.
I am obsessed with Hollow Planet. Sari is totally not.
I say, "Don't look at those, they're bad."
Sari doesn't listen. In fact, she goes right up to look at them. I cringe. So, I'm ridiculously fixated. It's not something everyone needs to know.
I pretend to be doing something else while Sari checks out a picture of a woman with wild flame hair, wielding a sword above her head. Queen Rana, leader of the Undesirables. At least, as I envision her. Then Sari peers at the drawing next to it and grins. "Who's Tusk Boy?"
I can tell from her face, she thinks the whole thing is ridiculous.
"Forget it, it's dumb. Let's do the Book."
That gets her away from the drawings. Raising her fists, Sari exclaims, "Fetch the Book!"
Intensely relieved, I go under my bed, where I keep the Book in a special box. Sari drags an old round rug to the middle of the room and settles down, cross-legged, on one side of it.
I sit down opposite her. "What are you going to ask it?"
"About this year. What's going to happen this year."
Now the Book, in case you were wondering, is nothing powerfully mystical or deep. It's just a paperback of David Copperfield, which Sari and I read last year in English. We've decided it has the power to tell the future.
We do have a reason for this. One day last year, we were studying for a test on David Copperfield and Sari was all worried she wouldn't pass -- basically because she hadn't read any of it.
Finally, I said, "Let's ask the book."
Sari looked at me like, Yes, she has finally lost her mind. "Ask the book?"
"Yeah. Who would know better if you're going to pass a test on David Copperfield than Charles Dickens?"
So half joking, we held up the book and asked it if Sari would pass. Then I opened it, and without looking, Sari placed a finger on the page.
For a second, we stood, nervously not looking at the page and feeling kind of stupid. Then I peeked at the sentence under Sari's finger:
"And be happy," responded Dora.
"That means I pass?" said Sari.
I shrugged. "I guess."
And when she did pass -- even though she spent more time worrying than studying -- we decided to consult the Book on all matters of importance.
Sari is really into the Book. In some ways, even more than I am. It's been right a few times; it's been wrong a lot, too. But once she's found something to believe in, Sari doesn't let go. Fate, destiny, what's "meant to be" -- she believes in all that stuff.
I lift the Book between us, cover closed. I say to Sari, "Will you speak the words?"
Sari closes her eyes. "Tell us, O Book, how does the future look?"
I wait. "Do you want to do it?"
Sari shakes her head. "No, you."
I open it, point, and read out loud. "'Anxious to be gone.'"
Sari winces. "Ouch."
It's dumb, but I can't help wondering: Is that my future or Sari's? Or both?
I want it to at least be both.
I hand her the Book. "You go."
Sari nods. Closing my eyes, I chant, "Tell us, O Book, how does the future look?"
Sari opens and points. She points very fast, her finger landing so hard on the page, I'm afraid she'll tear it.
"What does it say?"
Sari reads, "'A new one.'" She brightens up. "That's pretty good."
I'm jealous. The stupid Book has given Sari a better reading than me.
I take the Book from her. "Yeah, but it's referring to Mr. Murdstone. As David's new father."
"So, Murdstone's evil."
Sari rolls her eyes. "In the book, so what?"
"Could be a warning."
Sari snorts. "It's not a warning. It means something new. Like new opportunities or love or -- "
I interrupt. "Well, if it's a guy, he's a jerk."
I can tell from Sari's face I should give it up. I know I'm being a little creepy, but still. You can't take half the fortune and not the other half. You have to deal with the whole thing.
The thing with Sari is, she hears what she wants to hear sometimes.
Still, it's just a stupid game.
So why are Sari and I all annoyed and not saying anything?
Then she says, "Why don't you go again? Maybe it wasn't warmed up yet."
I want to say no. Rules are rules, and I had my go. But then I feel all panicky, like the Book does have power, and somehow, the difference in what it told me and what it told Sari is important. I want Sari and me to have the same year. Not the same things happening to us, but...I don't know.
I want us to feel the same way about things. Not her all excited, and me "Anxious to be gone."
Going again is probably cheating.
But I can't stand how it feels between me and Sari right now.
I'm about to pick up the Book when there's a knock on the door. Hiding the Book under the bed, I yell, "Come in," and my mom opens the door and sticks her head in.
Sari waves. "Hi, Mrs. Horvath."
"Hi, Sari." She smiles at me. "Don't worry, I'm not going to interrupt. I just want to tell you, spare towels and pillows are in the linen closet, okay? Now I'll get out of your way."
"Say hi to Dad," I say as Mom closes the door. For a second afterward, Sari and I just sit there. It's like a spell's been broken, and we're not sure what to do.
Finally, Sari says, "So, go ahead. Do it again."
I look over at the Book. "No. I think it tells you what it tells you, and you have to accept it."
Sari nods. Then she grins. "You know what? It's just a dumb book."
After that, we put the Book away and discuss the following issues: Will being a freshman suck? (Yes.) How much will it suck? (A lot.) Will we ever make it to sophomore year, or will we be the first people at Eldridge never to leave ninth grade? Sari says if she doesn't make it out of ninth grade, I can't leave either. And vice versa -- if I fail absolutely everything, she'll stay behind with me.
For a second, I imagine myself as a 102-year-old freshman. This is entirely possible. It could very well take me eighty-eight years to understand algebra.
Around midnight, my mom knocks on the door and says, "Good night, girls," in this way that means: lights off. I unfold my futon chair and drag my sleeping bag out of the closet for Sari. She changes into a T-shirt of mine that has a big dog on the front, then settles right in, lying back with a sigh. I go to turn off the light, then get into my bed.
For a second, I can't see anything. Then I pull the blinds open so the moonlight comes in, and Sari's there, staring up at the ceiling like she's thinking about something really serious.
"If you could pick one thing not to happen this year, what would it be?"
"Um...that I don't completely flunk out. What about you?"
I flop on my back and concentrate. Into the dark, I whisper, "That I don't fall prey to the evil forces of Eldridge." I say "evil" in a way that makes Sari laugh.
Then, for a long time, we don't say anything.
I think about the day. It was a good Last Day of Freedom. Even if it didn't end perfectly. I wish my picture of Sari had been good enough to give to her.
"What's the thing you want to happen most?"
Sari's quiet for a while. "I don't want to say."
"No, it's...I can't explain it. It's too big. Forget it. What about you?"
"No way, I'm not saying if you're not."
"Nuh-uh. That's it, time for sleep."
As I listen to Sari turn over, the rustle of the sleeping bag, I wonder what I would have said if Sari had said what she wanted. In the dark and quiet, I imagine I'm free to have anything I want. In my head, I hear...
To draw. Draw better. Have people like what I do.
Hang with Sari.
Not be around people I can't stand.
Then I think, Forget having people like what I do. That shouldn't be important. Art isn't about being liked. It's about being...
But I don't see how you're free at school.
Then I hear Sari whisper, "Jess?"
"What do you think will really happen?"
I think for a very long time. But the future is too big. It's like when I sit on the beach and try to draw the ocean. I can't get my eyes around it, and I always end up with a straight, flat line that doesn't look like anything.
"I don't know."
After what feels like a long, long time, I whisper, "Good night."
For a long time, there's just silence. For a second, I wonder if Sari's asleep.
Then I hear her say good night back, and I feel like this year will be okay.
No matter what.
Copyright © 2003 by Mariah Fredericks