Little Things Ch. 01 of 04bynomennescio©
There's a lot I don't like about how the following story turned out. A feeling of too much cliché, insufficiently compelling in emotional moments, places where things just didn't quite come together. I also don't really think that I've meaningfully captured a feminine perspective. But I've fixed it up about as well as I feel capable, and it's at least something done, so here it is.
Do note that it proceeds at a fairly slow pace, without a large amount of 'action' - it's almost certainly not the right selection for quick relief. As it's rather long in its entirety, I've split it into four sections, each of which is somewhat more reasonable for reading in a single session. Hopefully, if you read it, you'll get something out of it.
The maturation of the 21st century has brought with it an increasing awareness, among governments and NGOs both, that conservation must be understood not just as restraint in development, but as an active process to protect and reinvigorate Earth's most fragile and threatened ecological systems. Wildlife and nature preserves, while noble in intent and certainly important to the future of environmentalism, are simply not enough. In many cases, the damage has already been done, and cordoning off an affected area of wilderness does no more good than quarantining a man with a knife in his back.
My fingers drift uncertainly on the keyboard as I read back over my words, a disappointed frown curling my lips. Too strident, yes. The imagery, too violent. It won't do. With a sigh, I hold down delete until the final sentence vanishes into the bowels of the laptop. I hate beginnings. I'm no good at them - weaving webs of words to catch the casual reader, striking the perfect balance of linguistic artistry and logical argument. I'm not a writer. I want to plant trees. But to actually get paid for it, I need a degree, which means I have to pass Environmental Politics and Policy. Which means...beginnings.
It'll keep. I can't concentrate, anyway. The clock keeps catching my eye. Just past eight now - I expected him to show up well over an hour ago. My cell phone's patiently charging on the desk; I pick it up, flip it open and closed a few times. It'd be the work of three buttons to call. But I'm supposed to be cool, confident. The college gal. I don't want to check in on him like a worried mother. Phone's back on the desk. I'll give him another half-hour.
It doesn't take that long. Just ten minutes later, I'm getting a diet soda from the fridge when the doorbell finally rings, a harsh electric buzz that always sets my teeth on edge. "I've got it!" I jog lightly to the door, give just a quick glance through the peephole to confirm who stands on the opposite side. A smile tugs at my mouth as I pull it open.
"Well, good evening, ma'am. I'm trying to find my sister's place, but I seem to be all turned around. Think you could help?" A goofy grin on his face - god, I'm still not used to him being taller than me, to looking up at him. Steel-blue eyes, soft and friendly, with his slightly bushy eyebrows held high in amusement. Sun-bronzed skin, earned the hard way, from long hours in the field. Wearing a rumpled blue button-up shirt and jeans, with a weekend bag slung over his shoulder, he looks like a man in the middle of a cross-country bus trip.
"Davey!" Cool, confident...oh, what the hell. It's a reunion, after all. I swing in for a hug, arms straining to reach around his broad chest. He awkwardly returns it with his free hand. "Sure took your time, didn't you?"
His sheepish look is the same as ever, self-conscious smile and averted eyes, but he laughs it off. "Sorry about that, sis. I missed a turn in La Grande and didn't realize for a while. Can I come in?"
"Of course." Shoving the door the rest of the way open, I usher him inside. Should have cleaned up more while waiting; there's pens and papers strewn across the coffee table and on the floor, a pile of shredded plastic in the corner where my roommate's kitten was playing with a bag. Too late now. "Go ahead and toss your bag on the couch, or wherever. You can see we're pretty sloppy around here. How was the drive?"
"Long." He stretches wide, his neck audibly cracking as he rolls it about. "Very long. I can see why you don't come down more often - about went crazy, ten hours in that seat with no one to talk to." Dropping his bag on the end of the couch, he turns his easy grin to me. "Still, it's nice to finally see your apartment. And to see you - what's it been, nine months?"
"Near enough." A quick, cheerful shake of the head. "It's great to see you, too. I know I've said this before, but life just isn't the same without my baby brother following me around." I cluck my tongue once, softly. "Guess I can't even call you that anymore, now that you're big as a house."
He laughs wryly. "I'm not gonna stop you. Wouldn't want to risk facing one of your noogies again, believe you me." Tilting his head to the side, his eyes unfocus as he looks past me. "Hello there. You must be one of Samantha's roommates, right?"
I turn around to see Marie standing at the end of the hallway, one hand giving David a small wave of greeting while the other holds her kitten. Its eyes are half-closed with either sleepiness or bored contempt. "Yeah, you should meet the whole crew. Ape, get out here and say hi to my brother!" I call loudly down the hall. "Anyway, Marie, this is my brother David. David, Marie. She's pretty much a genius. Going to be a doctor - brain surgeon, right?"
She's blushing. Been shy as long as I've known her, a little over two years now. "No! God, you always say that. No, I'm not certain what my specialty's going to be yet, but probably gastroenterology or endocrinology."
"Well, that's all Greek to me, but it's nice to meet you." He grins brightly as he shakes her hand.
"Likewise." Her gaze flits back and forth between David and me. "My word. You know, you two could be twins, you look so very much alike."
I laugh. "Trust me, I know. That's the first thing everyone always says when they see us together." It's true, of course. We have the same hair, strawberry blond and slightly wavy - his just a bit shaggy, while mine hangs down to the base of my neck. The same eyes of pale blue, alert and gentle. For a long while we even had a similar build, allowing for the three years I have on him; athletic, but lean. Then he started with football, and piled on muscle like rock on a mountaintop. Only his slightly narrow jaw now carries that trace of delicacy. Really should tease him about that.
"Well, hel-lo." Slinking slowly out from her room, my other roommate regards David with dark brown eyes and an avaricious smile. "This is a pleasure. Samantha's told us all about you." She glances at me for a moment, a look of sly amusement, before turning back to him with painted lips flirtatiously pursed. "Though she never mentioned how cute you are."
I just roll my eyes. "David, this is April. She's the campus bike."
With an awkward smile, David tears his eyes from April to look at me, his brow furrowing in perplexity. "The what, now?" Not always the sharpest knife in the drawer, this guy.
"Oh, shush." April shoves me lightly and sidles up closer to David. "It's wonderful to finally meet you. I hope you'll be staying long enough for us to get to know each other." She tosses her head lightly to the side, a lock of unnaturally red hair falling to artfully obscure her right eye.
"Hey, listen, Ape." Frowning, I catch her elbow and turn her grudgingly to face me, speaking under my breath in serious tones. "I'd like it if you left him alone, okay? My brother's pretty sensitive, and I don't think your kind of romance is quite what he needs."
But now it's David who protests, albeit half-heartedly. "Sam, that's nice and all, but...I can handle myself, okay?" And then, turning back to April, he actually manages a flirtatious wink, adding "Though I'd rather not have to." She giggles back with well-practiced coyness.
Surprise widens my eyes, drops my jaw. This isn't like him - David's always been quiet and unassuming, diffident despite my encouragements. Since we were in grade school we've been inseparable, and for all that time he's hidden in my shadow, while I've watched out for him, protected him, kept him out of trouble. Or at least, steered him to the best kind of trouble. Now he's outright flirting. I'd be proud of him if I weren't so shocked. And if it weren't with April -- he could do so much better.
I guess I shouldn't be surprised, really. Almost three years now I've been away at college, and he's had to fend for himself. I could hardly expect him to stay just the same in all that time. But I feel like I might miss my adorably bashful little brother, the one who used to hide behind me when relatives came to visit, who was so uncomfortable with the telephone he would ask me to call up his friends.
"Oh, you're both hopeless," I conceal my reaction with a groan and throw up my hands in mock disgust. "Whatever. Look, are you hungry? I've got a pizza in the fridge that went cold waiting for you, if you feel like stuffing your face with something."
"Always do." His laugh rings out in a brief and gentle baritone as I lead the way to the kitchen, and we pass around soda and chips before settling in around the sofa. David, true to his word, wolfs down the cold slices as though he's been starved for weeks - I feel fat just from watching him eat.
"So, um, David," Marie speaks up again, with a quiet voice and curious eyes. "What exactly brings you out here? Did you just come by to see your sister?"
"Itsh-" Trying to answer with a mouthful of pizza, he sprays crumbs out across the coffee table, drawing barely suppressed laughter from the three of us. A touch of pink sneaks onto his cheeks, and he waits until swallowing before trying again. "Uh, it's not just that, though that's a big draw, too." He shoots a grin at me, and I feel a little better. "Mainly I'm here to check the college out, to see if I want to go."
"Oh, you're examining your options. Naturally." She nods, with an understanding air.
"Yeah, something like that. Never even really thought I was gonna get a chance, until recently. Sam probably mentioned that our folks aren't exactly rolling in cash. The farm does okay, but if you're not signed up with one of the big corporate names, things are a lot harder. You know how it is." Glancing at April and Marie's blank expressions, he chuckles briefly. "Well, maybe you don't."
"But anyway, they barely even had enough money to send one of us to college, let alone both. So maybe five years back, we all sat down, talked it over, and figured that if only one of us could go, it should be Samantha. She's the smart one of the family, the one who would get the most out of coming here." I make as if to protest, but he waves me down. "Oh, don't make a fuss, now. It's true."
"So I mean, I was all set to stick around at home, help my dad out with the farm. But then a couple months ago some recruiter was watching our game against Burley, and he comes around after and offers me a football scholarship, if you can believe it. Full tuition paid, room and board, and a little spending money, too."
"That does sound like a good deal," April chimes in. "Why is there even a question about taking it?" Her raised eyebrow speaks of a more than casual interest. "Tired of the game? Girl back home?"
"Not really." A laugh in his voice as his gaze jumps to me, and back to April. "No, it's more...I thought I knew what my future was gonna be. Had it all planned out. So just 'cause some new offer comes along, well, I'm not sure I want to change it just on the basis of that. And besides, the farm needs me. Dad says it's up to me, that things'll be okay down there no matter what I decide, but I know it's not as simple as that. So I want to make sure first that this is actually gonna do some good for me, at least. I'm not gonna run off just for the hell of it and leave him in the lurch." He grins crookedly. "Not sure if all that really makes any sense, but yeah."
Shaking my head, a heartfelt smile on my lips, I reach over to give David's hair a friendly tousle. "That's my brother for you. Always thinking of his family. God, this one time -- it was at his eighth birthday party -- I lost my favorite bracelet, and he totally refused to go back inside until he found it. Had half the guests out hunting around in the snow."
He sticks his tongue out at me. "Hey, I found it, didn't I?"
"Oh, you found it, all right." A quick, sardonic snort. "Three hours later, with your face turning blue from the cold. You were sick for a week after that."
"Charming," April utters blandly. I can't quite tell if she's being sarcastic or not. But then a speculative look climbs into her gaze. "You know, David, if you're trying to really get a feel for the college experience, I think I have something that'd be right up your alley."
"Yeah?" He glances back at her. "What's that?"
"Just stay right there." And, jumping to her feet, she scampers off into her bedroom, while Marie and I exchange a mildly exasperated glance, suspecting what's coming. A few seconds later she pops back out, and there's no mistaking the green glass cylinder clutched in her hand. "I've got enough herb left for a bowl or two; might as well use it while we have company, right?"
As far as I know, David's never used drugs - the discomfort on his face certainly backs me up on that. "Ah...I don't really know if I should..." He looks to me uncertainly, and I feel a little surge of gratified responsibility. Guess he does still need my guidance, after all.
"It's okay, Davey." I reassure him quietly as April gets water from the kitchen. "The stuff's harmless. I've had it dozens of times, and I haven't gone crazy yet." A tiny, self-deprecating smirk. "Or crazier, anyway."
"I guess." He doesn't look entirely convinced, but he doesn't raise any more objections, either. Probably just doesn't want to look like a square in front of his big sister. Well, that works. I'm pretty far from a pothead myself; I mostly just smoke socially, when April feels like sharing what she gets from her friend-of-a-friend. It can be relaxing, when I'm stressed out from classes.
April, of course, is another story. She's already gotten everything packed and ready. "You want the first hit, David?" She holds the bong out to him delicately, like a gift of fine china.
He makes no effort to take it. "I think I'd better go last. Get a chance to, uh, see your technique."
Shrugging, she sits down in the chair opposite him and lights up with a practiced ease, viscous white smoke filling the chamber and then her lungs. Marie takes the opportunity to bow out, rising to her feet with a faintly apologetic air. "I'm afraid I still have a fair bit of studying tonight that I'd like to approach with a clear head. You three have fun, though. And David, it was nice meeting you." He nods as she heads off to her room, while April blows twin streams of billowing smoke from her nose, grinning like a maniac.
My turn next -- I take it slow, so David can see how it's done. It's kind of a weird feeling, doing this with his eyes on me, a little tickle of excitement at the center of my chest. Like I felt when we broke into the abandoned cement factory together. The thrill of the forbidden, I guess, his presence putting me in mind of my younger self.
A shadow of uncertain worry crosses my consciousness, thinking of that. I hope I'm not being a bad influence on him. I mean, he'd probably try pot sooner or later anyway; better he does it here and now, where I can keep an eye on him, right? At least this way, I can be pretty sure the stuff is high-quality, and isn't laced with anything.
I don't completely reassure myself by these thoughts, but I don't really need to. As the heady vapors swirl in my lungs, my momentary anxiety evaporates away, and I laugh out a few puffy clouds that drift and dissipate across the room. I'm being silly. Everything is fine. I hold in the rest until my lungs begin to itch, and then blow a thin stream of smoke that blooms into a kaleidoscopic array of whorls and vortices. Beautiful. "Ready to give it a try, Davey?"
"Sure," he takes the bong out of my hands, and I can't help a little snigger at the look of bravado on his face. His mouth thin and serious, eyebrows straight and low...it's cute, and oh so transparent to anyone who knows him well. He doesn't do too badly for his first time, either, manages to light the thing with only a little fumbling, his cheeks puckering slightly as he seals his mouth to the chamber and inhales deeply. But he's only halfway through when he pulls back and coughs explosively, his hand moving to cover his mouth as the smoke forces its way back out of him. "Man," he coughs a few more times, smiles weakly. "That's, that's something."
"Oh my god," April squeals quietly, as much to herself as to me. "He's so innocent." And like a wolf smelling prey, she gets to her feet and slinks up before him, bending at the waist to give him a deliberate look down the vee of her shirt as she brings her face near his. And he looks -- boy does he look, gawking like an idiot. I have to struggle to suppress an irritated groan. April's got the kind of breasts that plenty of women end up paying for, and she doesn't have a shred of shame about showing them off. I can tell myself that she'll be sagging by the time she hits thirty, but it doesn't make it feel any fairer right now.
"You want me to give you a little lesson in smoking, David?" She's using her low, seductive voice. I feel like retching.
"Uh...s-sure." Pink-cheeked and stammering, all his bravado looks to be pretty much gone by now. More the brother I know. I don't know if I should say something or not, intervene -- I've seen April pull this before, and there's no question where it's going. I hate the thought of her adding my brother to her list of conquests. But Christ, I don't want to be a killjoy. I know what guys are like. He's not a little kid anymore; this is probably a dream come true for him.
So I just shut up and look half away, while she slips down boldly into his lap, takes the bong from his unresisting grasp. "Watch close, then," she coos, rubbing her hand suggestively at the thin glass cylinder. An easy, careless confidence in her manner as she flicks a tall flame from the small, pink lighter. Waves it back and forth a moment, hypnotically, before looking at him again with a serpentine smile. "You have to accept everything. Let it fill you up, but keep your breath moving, don't stop. And don't try to hold it in when it starts to itch. Just breathe it out again, slowly."
She demonstrates, then, after a deliberate and showy licking of her lips. Applying the flame, the smoke bubbles up again thick and hazy, and I'm sure she's carefully considered the way her chest expands as she inhales it. Despite her instructions, she holds it in for a long few seconds after pulling her mouth away, two thin wisps escaping at the corners of her sly smile. Then, moving like liquid, she puts her mouth to David's and exhales into his lungs, smoke streaming outward as it escapes the imperfect seal of their lips.
God damn it, I can't just sit here and watch this. I get stiffly to my feet, animated with tight-wound irritation. Sometimes she really gets on my nerves. This is supposed to be a chance for me to spend time with my brother, who I haven't seen in almost a year. But of course, since she likes the look of him, it has to turn into 'April gets fucked again.' No class. And no decency. "Have fun," I snarl bitingly as I tromp out of the room. April doesn't respond at all, but David mumbles something, muffled into incomprehensibility by their kiss. It just angers me further.