FANFIC: House of Light – Speak

The tears dissolve the last block of ice in my throat.
I feel the frozen stillness melt down through the inside of me, dripping shards of ice that vanish in a puddle of sunlight on the stained floor.
Words float up.

–  Laurie Halse Anderson

House of Light

1. Prologue
2. Morning Madness
3. Give Me Something (To Hold Onto)
4. Hunches in Bunches
5. [ Ocean Waves ]
6. This Is A Recording
7. Speak

“There are a lot of things you’re going to want to push the rewind button on,” they tell me, and my natural instinct is to respond with sarcasm: The rewind button? You think?, but instead I bite my bottom lip and listen.  “There are a lot of things you’re going to have completely relearn, a lot of basic things you used to take for granted.”  Listening is one of those things.  I never realized how much of the world I missed out on when I could see, those little sounds that used to just be background noise to me but now they are everything.  “It won’t be easy,” they say, as if they weren’t stating the obvious, “in fact, I can guarantee you it’ll be frustrating.  Most likely, you’ll be angry for a long while.  But we can get you through it.  We can help you rewind.  And we can help you get back to a place where you can press play again.” 

There are a lot of things I want to say in response, if I wanted to be total bitch, if I wanted I take my anger out on the people I know are trying to help.  Like, enough with your shitty remote control analogy already!  Don’t they know you don’t say things like that to a foster child?  The only thing we want to rewind is our whole lives—and maybe this time when we press play and “do it over” we would finally luck out and get the perfect family from the sitcoms on TV, live in the nice house with the winding staircase and matching furniture, and be the kind of girls who even dared to dream of dating the star quarterback in high school.  But I don’t say it.  I don’t do anything but nod.  I don’t do anything but try to move on.  It’s the only thing I can do.

Before I leave Valerie’s house, I find something I wasn’t expecting to find—a jagged piece of textured ceramic about the size of a golf ball.  I discover it under my bed as I run my hand along the wooden floor under the skirt, making sure I haven’t missed anything I’ll need.  I can’t think of anything worse than having to come back later and retrieve a forgotten item.  It takes me a few seconds to realize what it is and where it came from: a fragment of Valerie’s birthday present to me, her “house of light.”  It must’ve broken off and bounced under the bed when the lamp hit the floor.  Whoever cleaned up the mess and swept away the evidence must’ve missed it completely. Without thinking, I close my fingers around the fractured piece and slip it into the hollows of my bag just before they come in to whisk me away.  “All set, Lux?” they ask, their voices bright and cheerful.  And I withdraw my hand and say yes, I’m set, I’m ready.  Valerie stands in the background, almost as if she’s behind a barricade, at the edges of it all.  Even though she says nothing, I can feel her presence.  It isn’t until I walk out the door that she relinquishes her grip on me. As far as I’m concerned, she no longer exists.  And needless to say, I don’t look back.

When I return to Sunnyvale, it’s different from all the times before.  First of all, I’ve never been away for so long and things have inevitably changed in the interim: new rules that I’ll have to learn, new layouts that I’ll have to get used to.  Secondly, and most importantly, I no longer have the capacity to experience it the way I used to.  In some ways, I hardly recognize the place.  My hand runs along the walls when I step in the building, fingers brushing against the chipped wood and uneven paint, the graffiti messages etched with pencil points and fingernails, all the imperfections in the structure that I never paid much attention to in the past.  Some part of me, somewhere in the back of my brain, remembers the oppressive air and the familiar smells and sounds of an ever-changing herd of untamable young girls, but it all feels heightened now, magnified by two or three or four. 

For the first time, they assign me to one of the good rooms.  It’s located in the back corner of the building, near the bathroom and cafeteria, but far enough from all the noise that I have some peace and quiet.  As soon as all the introductions have been made and they leave me alone, I let the mattress and pillow of my new bed envelope me like the arms of an old friend.

I don’t find it until days later, while reaching into the secret interior pocket of my duffel bag.  My fingers search out a wad of cash along with the stolen piece of ceramic lamp.  The bills are rolled into a thick bundle and secured with a rubber band.  I hold it in my hand for what feels like a century, uncomprehending.  My heart sinks when I realize where it must’ve come from, that Valerie must’ve put it there to shut me up, to make sure I don’t tell anyone else the story that I told her.  It occurs to me that maybe she believed me after all, and it just wasn’t enough.  Somehow that’s what hurts the most.  Once more I think of that game Tasha and me used to play when we were kids.  I think, what’s worse, when the woman who was going to adopt you doesn’t even believe you, or when she does, and she still takes his side?   I’m almost glad that Tasha is living at her mother’s right now and we haven’t been talking much lately.  I wouldn’t know what to say to her.

 

[ * ]

“So are you finally going to tell me what’s been on your mind these past few weeks?”  Mr. Daniels asked, slight exasperation worming its way into his words.  Lux could tell that he was starting to get tired of perpetually coaxing information from her well-guarded lips.  Well, too damn bad.  He would have to deal with it until he apologized for leading her to believe that he was someone else.  It was just plain rude to take advantage of someone like that.

It was their third meeting since Lux had learned that Tasha would be leaving Sunnyvale, and their second meeting since Lux had learned where Tasha would be going. If he noticed she was no longer wearing Bug’s ring, he said nothing about the change.  In return, she said almost nothing at all.  “I’ll wait however long it takes for you to be ready,” he said.  “I will.  But we can probably both agree that this isn’t the best use of our time, so—”

“I don’t trust you.”  Lux spoke suddenly, lifting her head up and squaring her jaw in defiance.

“And I don’t expect you to right away, just like that.”  She could tell that her sudden speech had startled him.  He searched for the right words to respond to her.  “I know how hard it must be for you—”

“No.”  She let her hands rest of the table, palms down, as she sat up straighter in her chair.  “Here’s the thing, Mr. Daniels.  You don’t know.  Those are the kind of things the girls who live here hate hearing: ‘I know’ or ‘we can probably both agree,’” she lowered her voice one or two registers to mock his patronizing tone.  “You don’t know that.  You can’t know that.  If you want to keep working here and getting through to these girls, the first thing you should do is stop putting words in our mouths.  And another thing, maybe I do think this is the best use of our time.  I’m sitting here, just thinking about my life and how I wish I could do it over, which is what I would be doing anyway if you weren’t here.  And you’re getting paid to sit here with me for an hour each week, aren’t you?”  She paused, though not expecting an answer to her rhetorical question.  “Well, now you’re not even doing any work and the money’s still coming in.  Sounds like a win-win to me.”

“Lux, I don’t care about the money.”  And goddammit if he didn’t sound so sincere when he said that.  It made her want to trust him, the same way it had that hot summer morning when he had unexpectedly walked into her life as she sat on the porch drinking in the sun rays.  “And I don’t even think of it as work,” he insisted.  “Not with you, not with any of those girls.  I want to help you.”

Lux pressed her lips together so hard she was afraid they would bruise.  She didn’t know what she was trying to fend off, laughter or tears.  “You want to help me,” she repeated, nodding.  “You know, I’ve heard that a lot in my life.  It doesn’t really mean anything to me anymore.”

There was a short silence, during which she could only hear him breathing as he tapped his pen against the tabletop.  “At this point, I don’t know what to do or say that will make you believe that I mean every word I say in here,” he said finally.  “You’ve been through a lot—I get that.  But somewhere along the line you have to realize that not every new person you meet is out to hurt you.  Have a little faith in people.  Some of us just want to get to know you better.”

Lux thought back to her early years at Sunnyvale when she would get new placements at new foster homes and refuse to leave because she was forever waiting for the birth parents that never materialized.  Then she thought back to that afternoon three years ago, sitting at the kitchen table with Valerie, a pitcher of lemonade between them.  She had really and truly thought that Valerie would believe her and that things would get better, despite all the evidence to the contrary.  It wasn’t naïveté so much as it was her faith in a mother figure who had promised her a home.  She had wanted to believe in that so badly.  “The last time I had faith in someone,” she said slowly, drawing out the words and letting them fill the air, “she broke my heart.”  Lux hadn’t meant to admit that to him, but the sentence was out before she knew it.  “And now my best friend—” she exhaled, trying to regain control of her emotions, “—she’s the one you met that other time—my best friend just got a new placement, so she’s moved out of Sunnyvale and I don’t know what to do.”

“You miss her.”

“No—well, yeah of course I miss her but—it’s more than that.”  She tried to stop the words from coming out; her brain was screaming shut the fuck up, stop telling him things, but her mouth wasn’t cooperating.  “I found out where she’s staying, and I just…I don’t want her there.”

The room seemed to go still at those words.  Miraculously there was no nature soundtrack playing from the speakers in the meeting room today, just the steady rhythm of actual rain beating against the window.

When he spoke again, his voice was gentle but urgent.  “Why, Lux?”

She shook her head.  Rewind.  Rewind.  “I don’t know why I said that, I shouldn’t have said that.”  Silently, she berated herself for letting him draw the words from her throat, from deep within the place where she’d buried them.  This was not supposed to be happening

“I think you know why you said it,” he said softly.  “Lux, should I be worried?  Is your friend in trouble?”

“No.”  She sealed her mouth in a firm line.  “It’s like you said.  I just miss her and I want her back here.  I thought maybe if we were to spray paint their house they would kick her out, but—”

“Lux,” he pressed, “if you know something about the family she’s staying with, something that the case workers don’t, then that’s not enough.  You have to talk to someone about this.”

She shook her head.  “I don’t wanna talk about it.”

“Lux, listen to me.”  He leaned in closer until she could feel his warm breath hitting her face in short, insistent puffs as he spoke.  “I can’t imagine how difficult this must be for you, though looking at the way you’re reacting right now, I would say it’s likely very difficult, and I’m sorry for that, I am, but it’s not just about you now.  And it’s not just about your friend.  You realize that, right?”

Lux felt herself shut down the moment he said your friend.  Hearing those words, it seemed, was the final straw.  She kept replaying scenes from the past in her head, but instead of seeing herself lying in the darkness, watching that strip of light under her bedroom door, she saw Tasha in her place.  It wasn’t that Lux was really worried about her; Tasha had encountered her share of sleazy foster dads in her own history and could probably hold her own, but that didn’t make it any easier to think about.  “You said we didn’t have to talk about anything I wasn’t comfortable talking about, and I said I don’t want to talk about it.”  Her voice was emotionless.

There was a long silence during which Mr. Daniels seemed to be debating whether to drop the subject or not.  She held her breath until he spoke again.  “Fine,” he said, “we’ll talk about something else then. When we first met, I asked you to tell me your life story in your own words.  Do you remember that?”

Oh, but that wasn’t the first time we met, was it, Mr. Eric Daniels?, Lux thought, but she didn’t say it out loud.  She nodded, as she knew he expected her to.

He continued, “you were telling me about the night you had your stroke and lost your vision, and you sounded really angry. And at the time, I thought it was because you were mad at yourself for tripping over your own feet like you said, for causing a freak accident that ended up having such a permanent and devastating effect on your future.  Now I’m not so sure.  Is there more to that story?  Are you mad at yourself for something else?”

She sniffed and crossed her arms over her chest.  “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

She was surprised when he let it go.  But his next words were baffling.  “Lux, have you ever read a novel called Speak?  It’s by a woman named Laurie Halse Anderson.”

The title didn’t ring a bell, though admittedly she hadn’t given it much thought.  She shook her head.  “I don’t think so.”

“They assign it for all the eighth graders at the junior high where I teach.  It’s about a fourteen year old girl who calls the cops on this end-of-the-summer party, and when schools starts back up again everyone shuns her, and she can’t bring herself to tell anyone what happened to her at that party, the real reason she dialed 911.”

“I’m sorry but I don’t see what this has to do with anything.”  She really didn’t, although she was definitely getting an uneasy feeling about the direction of this conversation.  She wished she knew what to say to steer it into a more comfortable place.

“It isn’t until the end of the book that she finally admits out loud to herself, and the people around her who really care about her, that she was raped.”  He seemed to be letting each word escape his mouth one by one, searching for an involuntary bodily reaction from her.  Well he wasn’t going to get one.

“I wasn’t raped.”  Too late, Lux realized how defensive her quick response sounded.  “I wasn’t.”  Somehow repeating it made it sound even worse.  She closed her mouth.

“I wasn’t trying to say that.”  She could tell that he was regarding her carefully.  Suddenly she was pissed off at him, even more so than before.  How dare he come here and assume he knew everything about her?  He barely knew her.  He barely knew anything about anything.

When she opened her mouth again, the words came fast.  “Well then I don’t know what you were trying to say but since we seem to be sharing our favorite works of literature and all, have you ever read this delightful rhyming book called Hunches in Bunches?  It’s by a man named Dr. Seuss, I highly recommend it.”

Outside, the rain came down harder and faster.  But she could still hear him exhale from across the table.  “You know.  How long have you known?”

“Of course I know!”  Once again, she was livid.  “What exactly did you think, that because I’m blind, I would never figure it out?  Guess what, I knew from the second you opened your mouth that I’d heard your voice before.  Yeah it wasn’t until you completely gave yourself away with all that ‘Lux Sucks’ bullshit that it finally hit me, but if you were hoping to keep it a secret you were doomed from the very start.  The sad thing is I trusted you the moment I met you, that was my first instinct, there was just something about you, but …”  She shook her head.  “Tell me something, Mr. Daniels.  Were you ever going to say anything?  Or were you just going to sit there, week in and week out, and pretend we’d never met, that you were somebody completely new?

“Wait, is this why you’ve been acting so strangely?”

Out of all the things to say, she couldn’t believe he’d said that.  “Is that really the best you can come up with?”

“Lux, honestly, I didn’t think it was a big deal—”

“Of course it’s a big deal!  Put yourself in my shoes.”  Lux said it with an edge to her voice, like it was a dare.  “I can’t see you, did you ever think about what that means?  I mean, really think about it?  I can’t see you.  I have no idea what you look like.  And you, like most people, can look at someone and rifle through your memory bank, just like that,” she snapped her fingers, “to figure out if you’ve met them before.  I can’t do that.  I have to rely on other means, other tricks, but sometimes it’s not enough, I doubt myself—”

“You’re right, I made a mistake introducing myself to you the way I did the first time, and I made a mistake trying to hide it instead of owning up to it,” he sighed.  “I should’ve known better, I’m sorry.”  It seemed he wanted to say more, but she listened and nothing else came.

“I don’t want your apologies,” she said with resignation.  “I just want…the truth.”

“And that’s all you’ll be getting from me from now on,” he promised.  “On one condition.  And I’m serious about this.”  His voice was stern.

“What’s that?”

“That you do me the same favor.  No more lies, no more avoiding the issue.  We all have to face our pasts, no matter how badly we want to leave them behind.  I know you can do it, Lux.”

She swallowed.  “Fine.”

“Shake on it?”  And this time he offered his hand out for her to take.  Reluctantly, she held hers out as well, until inch by inch they found each other at the center of the table.  Like the first time they had met, that very first time, she was again struck by the softness of his palm, how pristine and youthful his skin seemed.  But she knew that most scars only occur beneath the surface.  In reality, reading the texture of a person’s hands was just an old habit of hers, a triviality that in the end revealed virtually nothing.

They both held on for perhaps a second too long, not wanting to shatter the moment.

After he pulled away, he said softly, “Have you ever tried finding your birth parents, Lux?”

She shook her head.  They had abandoned her, they should be the ones to come and find her if they really wanted to.  Clearly they didn’t.  And after her thirteenth birthday?  It didn’t even matter anymore.  She didn’t want to see them.  She didn’t even want to think about them.

“I think you might benefit from talking to them,” he told her.  “Maybe not now if it’s too much, but someday.  The sooner the better.”  He paused with uncertainty.  “We’re out of time for today, and technically I’m not authorized to do this, but I have both their names and addresses from your file.  Here’s what I’m going to do: I’m jotting down their info on this slip of paper,” he said, and underneath the continuing rainstorm outside she could hear the sound of a ball-point pen scratching across the surface of the table, “and whenever you’re ready, you can come to me, or somebody you trust, and I’m sure they’ll be willing to go with you and support you, as I do.”  He slid the paper across the table in her direction, and stood to leave.  “Take care, Lux.  I hope I can earn back your trust someday.  I know it won’t be easy, but I’ll do whatever it takes.”

When he walked past her towards the door, the smell of his aftershave permeated the air around her for a fleeting moment, and she breathed it in, her fingers skimming across the paper with torn edges that he had left sitting in front of her, open and unguarded.  With his pen, he had pressed into the paper hard enough for his words to leave an impression on the page, hard enough for her to brush her fingers along the surface and read the names that were written there.

8. Today Will Be Better, I Swear

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