I get to school this morning and there’s a pink sticky note on my locker. It reads: dumbass.
I rip off the note and stick it to the multicolored wall of insults inside.
You’re probably wondering how I got to be so popular. It’s because I’m fake.
No, really. I am fake, and it makes me sick and angry enough to punch a hole in the wall, but I don’t. I can’t, because too much depends on me being a big fat phony. Since I can’t be real, I stick to myself. I’ve tried acting shy, but come off as stuck up. Maybe I am. I don’t want to be here and I can’t fake that. I didn’t try making friends and wound up with none. How can you have friends when you’re silent, have attitude and are considered to be a
fuckin ugly ass ho
That’s the first note. It appeared on my locker the day after Kevin Anderson came up to me during lunch, which went like this:
Me: (munching sandwich and minding my own business)
Arsehole name Kevin Anderson: (waving a tiny liquor bottle in front of my face like he’s offering a dog a biscuit) Hey, Penny. Penny, right? C’mon, let’s go to the park.
Me: Piss off.
Arsehole: Do you know who I am?
Me: Piss off.
Arsehole: (throwing gang signs that look more like spasms) Bitch. I play football. You’re lucky I’m talking to you, bitch.
At first, I thought the notes were from him. Then I traced the giggles and sneers to the Daisy Chain, a crew of girls who are all on the same diet and shop at the same three clothing stores. Turns out being offered booze by Kevin Anderson is a crime punishable by cowardly acts of malice. There’s so little honor in this place. None of them has the mettle to have a go at me alone.
I pull out a binder and see the sticky yellow note at the center of them all:
No one likes you.
I know. And that’s how I want things. I’m reminded every time I open my locker to keep up my guard and trust no one.
Sitting through class is pure torture, but not because no one likes me. Up until now, I’ve never been to school. Homework, notes, tests were completely alien to me. I had to figure it out on my own, which made me look a right gom. Letters were sent home stating that “Parkside Academy is a Center for Educational Excellence!” There are no remedial classes and I needed to catch up or flunk out. My stepfather threatened me with a tutor, which lit a fire under me like nothing else. My grades are somewhat less sucky now.
First period is English Lit with Ms. Chang, who doesn’t like me. I don’t take it personally because she doesn’t like anyone, including herself. She hates to lecture, so we do a lot of in-class reading, which is fine by me. I’m doing good in this class.
We finish reading a chapter from “Roots” by Alex Haley, whose ancestors had been slaves. Instead of “surprising” us with the usual pop quiz, she announces, “We all have family. Tell me about yours. You can write about your nationality, ancestors or your family unit. I want a minimum of one page. Two pages for extra credit.”
I stare at the blank paper for a long time. If I could, I’d walk out of this place and never come back. Instead, I put pen to paper and write the fake story of my life. Each stroke is like a needle scratching my skin.
My name is Penny Sparrow and I was born in Ireland. I have a younger brother, Kai, who is 12-years-old. I don’t know much about my father because he left my mother before I was born. The same thing happened with Kai’s father. We lived with our mother, Bridie, on our grandparents’ farm outside of Dublin. My mother is a singer and musician. She taught guitar and violin lessons to local kids. She met my stepfather, Bill, in a pub. He is an American from San Francisco. They got married and we moved here.
Well, almost all. The parts that really matter.
The rest of the day is one big slice of misery pie. I don’t stick around for after school activities because a) they’re shite; b) I’ll get picked on and c) I can’t fight back.
The reason I can’t fight back comes home after work and browbeats my mother over his least favorite subject: me.
“Do you know how much her tuition is setting me back? She needs to knuckle down and stop wasting my money.”
Not their money. His money. I’m 16-years-old and I know how bad that sounds.
“She is doing better, darling. She’s already finished her homework.” Bridie’s voice quivers against Bill’s bluster.
“Finishing her homework is the bare minimum. She should be studying instead of sewing.” He raises his voice on the last word to make sure I can hear him over the whirr of my sewing machine. They’re in the hall outside my room. How can I not hear him? “And what about Kai? He can barely read.”
“He can read.” Bridie’s voice falters. “He – he doesn’t like to.”
“He’s flunked all his reading tests.”
“I told you, darling, they were homeschooled. They’re not used to tests.”
“Homeschooled.” Bill snorts. “Is that another word for running circles around you and doing what they want?”
I grip the fabric too tight and my sewing machine makes a chewing sound. Bollocks. I’m not going to ruin my new skirt over a bottle-head like Bill. I loosen my hold and straighten the seam to keep the stitches from going crooked.
Kai slips into my room as I come to the end of the hem. He’s wearing a plaid flannel shirt and the denim waistcoat I’d made for him, with little pockets for his guitar picks. He plops onto my bed and whispers, “I can read.”
“I know,” I whisper back.
“Not that Bleater stuff in school. It’s too boring.”
He glances out the door. “Think he’ll let us go?”
“I’m going whether he likes it or not.”
I shrug as if my stomach isn’t in knots.
“I need them with me, darling.” Bridie’s voice sweetens and takes on a subtle, persuasive tone. “It’s supposed to be a family show. It’d be nice if you’d come along.”
Kai and I exchange grins. Mum is turning on the Charm.
“I don’t like bars,” Bill grumps.
“It’s not a bar. It’s a pub. They serve some lovely meals. Remember, you had their chicken pot pie and thought it was delicious.”
“I don’t know why you have to go at all. You’re not even getting paid.”
Our grins fade. Bill’s push-back has been getting more insistent lately.
Bridie’s voice remains cheery. “The tips are good.”
“If the INS finds out about those tips…”
“They won’t. I’ll be getting my green card soon and it won’t even matter.” I can almost see her teasing tap on his arm. Then she weaves her Charm with honey. “There’s a nice beef stew on the stove, cooked up special just for you, and a Newcastle in the fridge. We’ll have pudding when I get home.”
Bill’s chuckle makes me puke in my throat.
“Why don’t you come with? Wouldn’t you like to watch us perform?”
I hold my breath.
“Of course, but not tonight, I’m tired.”
I exhale. You know the Charm is working when the mark believes he’s in charge, making the decisions.
Bridie coos. “Long day at work? My poor darling. How about a shoulder rub?”
Bill sighs. “That’d be nice.”
Their footsteps echo in the stairwell.
“We’re on.” Kai bounces off the bed and scampers out of my room.
I close the door, though I want to slam it shut. Slam away the rage I feel at having a mother who won’t stand up for herself and insists we live this horrid, fake life. I yank my notebook out of my satchel and write what’s real.
My name is Penny Sparrow and I am a Strowler. Strowlers are traveling people. Some call us Gypsies. Others call us worse things, like gyppos and pikeys. We don’t have nationalities. If you mean legally, I’m a citizen of Ireland, but I haven’t lived there much. We stick to our own kind and don’t deal much with Bleaters. That’s what we call ordinary people.
Strowlers live on the Crossroads, which is sort of like a secret society of underground clans. On the Crossroads, there are two paths you can take: the Glory Road of righteousness or the Wayward Way of freedom. Things like divorce and being gay are forbidden on the Glory Road, which leads to my family.
My mother, Bridie Sparrow, is 33-years-old and has been married three times. My father, Gerry Kestrel, was her first husband. Strowlers marry young and they were no exception. She was sixteen. He was eighteen. They ran off to London to make a living as musicians. They woulda-coulda-shoulda — except for one thing: Gerry was gay. He told Bridie right after I was born. Nice timing, Da.
Then they met Matthew Wong, a roving minstrel on the lam from the Two Dragon Clan. Gerry and Matthew became best mates. Bridie and Matthew became something more. They married right before Kai was born.
We all lived in the same caravan, and survived by our music and our wits. It made for a glorious life, forsaking the laws and protection of clan to walk the Wayward Way, until Gerry and Matthew were murdered.
Bridie became a toad-eater with all the disgrace shoved down her throat. We lived on the edge of her parents’ mercy in the Nest they run outside Dublin. Strowler women shunned her, turning their backs rather than speak or even look at her. At night, their husbands would scratch at the door of our tiny caravan and promise money for services she refused to render. They’d curse her for a whore, regardless.
Bridie wanted a ticket out, something that would restore her dignity. If that meant becoming the trophy wife of a visiting American businessman, so be it.
So be it.
Three horrid words that set in motion our fake lives. I’m not my mother. I won’t live a lie for the rest of my life. Somehow, I’m going to get us out of here and back to a place where we can be real.
Copyright © 2015 by Lori Saltis. All rights reserved.