One Among Starlings
She didn’t have a name in this place. She was one of the thousands who walked the halls unremembered. Bells rang and doors flew open, lockers creaked and banged, voices swelled louder and louder to be heard over others insisting on being heard. She was silent though. Unwilling to fight a battle that would only leave her embarrassed if she won it.
“What was so important?” She wondered in silent sarcasm, what vital information was being communicated among so many in such a short time? There were so few minutes between classes, what could be so important that it had to be yelled to get it out instead of sending a message later? Typically, she ignored the clamor, but on this day one of those voices got close enough to change her mind about listening. A shoulder, or was it his head, bumped into the center of her back and threw her slightly off balance. Her bag, full of textbooks, binders and laptop slipped from her shoulder and swung into the leg of the person approaching her on the left. He continued talking. Ignoring his own carelessness, the voice of the boy who had bumped into her was still insistent on speaking.
She only caught a few words. Amidst her own apologizing for the bruise her swinging book bag had surely instigated, hurrying to readjust her burden and get to her next class, she couldn’t focus for long, but she heard him say he was dying. He couldn’t be more than 17, and he looked healthy enough, was he seriously telling someone he was dying? Surely she had heard him wrong. Who was he anyway?
How many faces did she see every day in these hallways and how many did she really register as recognizable? They all looked the same. She had been among them for less than a semester and had found her own path fairly easily. She was good natured, even-tempered, polite and unnoticeable. It wasn’t unusual for someone to bump into her, and then ignore the fact that they had been rude, but even the person whose leg she had potentially damaged seemed unconcerned with her existence. Not even a “watch it!” from the victim, just a grunt, and a sideways glance that missed her completely, as his blustering conversation continued. She had apologized, knowing it wouldn’t be heard, she muttered the words anyway because she couldn’t stand the thought of truly becoming one of them. This herd of cattle, who if directed the wrong way tomorrow, would trample the people they were fake smiling at today. She would walk with them, smile with them, make them laugh if she could, but she wouldn’t be “them” if she could possibly help it. She would persist in being better than the mass because she didn’t like the mass. She saw it as uncontrollable and chaotic, wide, unpredictable, shallow, and uncaring. That was the only part she could relate to, the uncaring. She had been unable to narrow the crowd to one face or personality and so she only saw the shifting whole, and she found it hard to like.
As she slid into the seat of her math class she noticed him in front of her. The same boy that had bumped into her a few minutes earlier. The boy who was dying. Is that what she really heard? She was completely distracted now. Had he always been in her math class?
* * * * * * *
Tucked in. That’s where she had seen herself at home. Unlike most of her former friends she found solace in the four walls her parents had built around her. Most of the kids at her old school seemed to be obsessed with the idea of leaving, talked of nothing but where they would go, while she considered her home her steadiest rock. She did have dreams. None of them had to be achieved outside her hometown though. None of them, in her mind, held separation from where she was born as crucial, yet she knew that somehow, at some point, she would leave. Not only this, but she had older siblings and she knew what was coming. One of them had already left the nest. Caelon had barely gotten a good grip on his diploma before he drove off in his truck to Montana. He had literally packed his suitcase and a few boxes and had them in back of his truck ready to leave as soon as the ceremony was over. Her parents had persuaded him to at least have a nice dinner together at a local restaurant before he hit the road. She missed him, but the three years he had ahead of her, as well as their diverging interests had always kept their relationship from anything too intimate. She was proud of him, and she loved to tell people he was her brother, but she didn’t miss any particular thing they shared, only his sanguine presence in the house. She missed that, and the way he had always kept Marshal out of her business. Marshal was two years her senior and though he had graduated as well, he had not left so quickly. Community college was just fine with Marshal and the longer Caelon was gone and Marshal stayed, the more she saw their stark differences.
Despite Marshal’s nearness, things were different once he left high school. He was no longer a child in any sense of the word. He did not defer much of anything to her parents anymore and his independence was uncomfortable in a house where respect was so highly regarded. Not that he was disrespectful. Her parents would have never allowed anything resembling that sort of example to stay in the house, but he didn’t need permission to do things and didn’t eat dinner with them, or go to family activities unless he was invited. He was not under anyone’s authority, but he wasn’t under their care either. This was unnerving to her. This idea that even if she didn’t leave, she would no longer be a part of things as she had always enjoyed them. These realities were pressing in on her and converging into the grip of it was the truth she hated most. She was going to have to deal with all of these changes herself in the next year and half and face them without the comfort of the familiar house and old friendships within her grasp. This new tendency of uprooting and change made her cling a little tighter to her observations of family life. Staring just a little longer at her mother’s hands as she washed dishes, or folded the laundry, she tried to memorize the motions and the shapes, because she felt the tearing away approaching and she wanted to imprint the love of home in her mind, in order to trace it back later.
Her dad had no obvious sentimental side and she appreciated his candid approach to the every day. He would wake up and leave for work before most of the family had seen him, and get back in the early afternoon, so he could spend the rest of his day working on projects at home. She had fewer observations to take in of him, but what there was, she relished. She was proud of who she was because of him. She liked the part of herself that had risen to his expectations, because it was that part that made her choose greater challenges, and stirred something of excellence into her dreams. He was her greatest fan, as well as the person she felt she hadn’t quite pleased enough. He hurt her feelings at least once a week with his impatience or perfectionism, yet she caught him watching, even smiling, as she did things she loved, in her way, and often in her own world. She really didn’t understand him, yet she rose to his grimace or his smile, without fail.
She had a defiant streak in her that often got her into trouble at school, but was never a problem at home. At home her defiance was met with something most of her teachers couldn’t measure up to. Trust. She could be red-in-the-face angry at her parents but no matter how deeply she disagreed with them, she trusted them and it kept all her arguments and questions from directing her words or her actions. She respected them. It was not the harsh, cold, and unbending sort of respect that some of her friends had for what seemed to her, angry parents. Instead it was a deep seeded belief that they were on her side, and that despite what they didn’t know, they still knew more than she did. They had cultivated this into her with honesty, conversations, patience, lectures, steadfastness, and communication that was never limited by what they needed to say to her, but included what they needed to hear from her.
Self-esteem was never part of their goal for her. Of course it wasn’t off the table, but they were more concerned with her ability to esteem others. She had siblings. Lots of siblings. She had dozens of cousins, and even more second-cousins. Her parents were both raised in big families, families that were more concerned with family than with careers or callings. Her parents weren’t conventionally educated, but seemed to have unending knowledge about almost any subject she broached with them. She didn’t know how they managed that, but she suspected their limited years of education were somehow superior to what she was getting at her modern high school. Her small group of friends at her old school were amazing, but they were never as close as her sisters. They simply couldn’t relate in the same way. Even her cousins held a more comfortable place in her mind. They were like her. They respected what she respected and didn’t need to impress her. They could stand beside her and see what she saw, stoic when necessary, shedding tears as they were simultaneously shaken too hard, and laughing accordantly at what rolled through their bellies in waves of sweet nonsense.
This kind of esteem was what held her chin up. Never a belief that she was better than her peers, only the belief that she was representing something bigger than herself. She believed in what her family believed in. Faith in God and faithfulness to family. She didn’t have many friends who felt as safe as she felt. She didn’t understand what it was fear the faces of her parents. She couldn’t relate to the hollow feeling that accompanied the label “dad” for her classmates. She was completely naïve to the horror of being a stranger in your own home, or the challenge of finding your own resources for survival in order to get through a week of school. She averted her eyes from anything that looked too dysfunctional for her to wrap her head around. She couldn’t understand it, and the warmth of her own situation was too alluring to let her try.
* * * * * * *
Walking the path of the sidewalk after school she could not free her mind from the remembrance of the boy in her math class. It made her question things she had never really considered a part of her life before. Death and dying weren’t foreign to her. When you are surrounded by such a large family, you see death often. You measure years by it, and mark changes because of it. Death taught her things. It taught her to see the important things. Watching her cousins melt in misery as their father breathed his last, taught her that no matter how securely she was tucked in, there were no guarantees she would always be so closely guarded by her circumstances. Yet this idea of death touching skin so young wasn’t a line she had ever traced before. She couldn’t find it straight or un-forked and she couldn’t bend with it or divide her own truth into his. It hurt somewhere inside she hadn’t thought was accessible to anyone but her family, and she needed a distraction.
Siblings were always good for a distraction, and hers did not disappoint. When she reached the front of the house, she could already hear the disturbance. Brothers are born for adversity. Ryan and Marcus proved this almost daily. The shouting didn’t surprise her, but the scream that was from no child drew a response to move her feet more quickly. She found her mother pulling herself up from the floor of the kitchen, covered in some thick liquid that smelled like bananas. The blender lid lying on the floor next to her was the only clue on that side of the room to indicate what happened. The rest of the blender was still sitting peacefully, if not a bit surprised, on the opposite counter dripping smoothie contents down the sides of the pitcher, the base, over the edge of the counter and onto the likely criminal rug that had probably slipped under the feet of racing middle school boys. Rena guessed that her mother had been toppled over in the fray, and was now seeking a plan of action for herself in rebuttal. The look on her face was rage and surprise co-mingled with something that looked like the beginnings of a reckoning, and so occupied her she could only offer Rena a nod and a sarcastic,
“Would you like a smoothie?”
The silence and stillness in the rest of the house was testament to the ability of middle school boys to have just enough sense to know when it’s time to hide. Rena, forgot the heaviness of her day, the boy from math class, and remembered she did love something about this new home. She loved the people in it.
* * * * * * *
Bent over her science homework that night she traced her finger over the curving design of the flock of birds photographed and printed in her book. Their black wings partially visible in the whole of the flock showing only a glut of birds, in which no one individual could be identified. She was sure she was one of them. Despite her desire to never be a part of the mass, she looked at the photo and realized it was only in the mass she could survive the air she was flying in. She would move when they moved, and she would land when they landed. Until she could find herself in the depths of that hoard of feathers, she would simply allow herself to be led.