Tuesday, August 21, 2012

"Insomnia" - A 'Who Was Veronica Dawson?' short story

This is a short story starring the characters in my YA series, "Who Was Veronica Dawson?".  The timeline of the story doesn't really matter, because it makes for a nice stand-alone.  Minor spoiler alerts, but since the series has yet to be published it doesn't really matter. :)  Enjoy!  

"Insomnia" - by Graham Patrick Smith 

Another peal of thunder echoed through my window, barely audible over the sound of the rain lashing against the hundred-year-old panes of glass.  Normally there was no more comforting sound than rain, when I was trying to sleep.  It usually felt like a second blanket, pushing me gently down into my mattress and lulling me to sleep like a mother’s quiet song.  Of course, since I’ve never known my mother, it’s probably not the most applicable analogy.  But Sister Gwen sometimes sung me to sleep at St. Ivo of Kermartin’s Home for Unwanted and Abandoned Children, and the soothing sound of rain usually had the same effect. 

That night, however, not even the rain could ease my mind into sleep.  I opened my eyes for the hundredth time and stared up at the springs and mattress over my head, indented ever so slightly from the weight of my sister, Deirdre, in her bunk.  Though we were both in high school now, she and I still insisted on sharing a bedroom, just like we had for over a decade in the orphanage, where we had grown up.  I could hear her snoring lightly, and I pictured her drooling on her pillow, like she used to when she was little.  I envied how peaceful she sounded, and briefly smirked at what the boys who threw themselves at her would say if they could see her puddle of saliva. 

I badly wanted to wake Deirdre up and talk to her about what was on my mind.  She had always been my sympathetic ear, even though she was almost two years younger than me.  But I thought better of it; she deserved a night free from my pestering, and I was getting to the age where I needed to learn to work out these inner turmoils on my own, at least once in a while.  So I placed my bare feet on the shag carpet rug and eased out of bed, trying not to make the springs squeak.  When I was sure that she was still asleep, I padded to the window and placed my fingertips on the cool glass, instantly dampening them from condensation.  The hardwood floor under my feet send a shiver up my legs that met the one from my fingers, scattering goosebumps all across my skin.  I didn’t bother rubbing them away. 

Rain rolled down the window in sheets.  Beyond the window, the only light I could make out was the wishy-washy street lamp half a block away, a melting globe of orange. My reflection blinked two big, brown eyes back at me.  The eyes were positioned over a nose that was so big it looked like it should belong on a boxer instead of a seventeen-year-old girl.  But, though it still bothered me, I felt better about it than I had years before.  Growing up had done a lot for my self-esteem, and the more I learned to accept myself, flaws and all, the more other people seemed to accept me.

Besides, he had never seemed to mind my nose.

 A flash of lightning suddenly lit the room, temporarily making my reflection disappear.  By the time the spots had stopped dancing in front of my eyes another clap of thunder, this one closer than the last, rolled through the houses and trees of my neighborhood.  My mind was firing on all cylinders; I was officially not falling asleep anytime soon. 

When I had first come to live with my five-hundred-and-something year old grandmother, I hadn’t like tea.  But every time one of us was upset, or hurting, or crying, or some combination of the three, Sylvia always fixed a kettle on her stove.  It had grown on me in the last year and a half, and now merely the thought of a cup was wearing the edges off my nerves.  With any luck it would ease me to sleep better than the thunderstorm, anyway. 

The hardwood floor of Sylvia’s old house creaked pleasantly under my feet as I tiptoed downstairs.  Being taller than ninety percent of the girls in the upcoming senior class, I carried a little more than average weight (mainly in my huge butt), and the creaking stairs tried to remind me of this.  But, like my nose, I was growing to love every part of myself.

And suddenly, barefoot and braless, in a t-shirt and my 'fat pants', without a scrap of make-up on my face, I felt very pretty.  The little flutter of happiness moved from my belly to my chest, and I instinctively wrapped my arms around my middle and shyly hid my face, even though there was no one there to see.  What’s gotten into you? I thought giddily. 

Then I noticed where I had stopped.  I was standing in front of the bedroom of Drew Devereaux.  He was the adopted son of my so-distant-we-probably-can’t-even-be-considered-relatives uncle, Charlie Devereaux.  He and his sister, Crystal, had come to live with us after Charlie had been convicted of a crime that he didn’t commit.  Drew and Crystal were two of my best friends.

Drew had a huge crush on me, and hadn’t been transparent about the fact since we had met, last summer.  And he was the reason I couldn’t sleep. 

Drew and I had gone to prom together, his senior and my junior, less than a month prior.  Before I had agreed to go with him, I had laid down the law that we were only going as friends, and for him not to read too much into it.  Drew had been true to his word, and he had been a perfect gentleman all night.  And I had the best night of my life. 

When we slow danced, I placed my head on his chest (he was one of the few guys in school taller than me), and he wrapped me ever so gently in his arms.  He embraced my waist and the small of my back just enough to hold us together.  We only danced with each other that night.  Neither of us minded. 

During the last song of the evening, as I lay my cheek against his collar bone, breathing in the scent of his cologne and feeling his embrace again, he kissed my forehead, slowly and gently.  Everything about the way he treated me that night – how he held me like I was the most beautiful girl in the world, how every time he touched me he treasured the moment like it might be his last – spoke to me.  It was like he was saying, “She is mine, even if only for tonight.”

Since school had let out and Drew had registered for his classes at the local university in the fall, I had a number of nights like this one. Of course no one had held me like that since Drew (I’d only really had one serious boyfriend, and that had ended in disaster), and no one had ever held me like that before, either.  And, no matter what I may or may not have felt for Drew … I liked the way he made me feel.  No; I loved it.

And on the nights like this one, I wanted to wake him up and ask him to hold me like that again. 

It was nothing sexual … at least, I didn’t think it was, anyway.  I mean, of course my mind wandered on the topic on occasion, but never in relation to anyone in particular, especially not Drew.  It was about feeling wanted, needed, desired; and Drew had made me feel all of those on prom night.   

I mean, I was a freak, a monster, cursed to forever walk the night as the living dead.  It’s not so hard to believe that I desired a boy treating me like I was beautiful.  But I was also notorious at being selfish without realizing it (hence the nights I had woken Deirdre for sister talk), and waking up Drew just so I could manipulate him into making me feel a certain way was probably the lowest thing I could do.  Especially since he openly had a crush on me, and I would just be playing with his feelings. 

It wouldn’t really be manipulating him if you felt the same way, something inside me said.

But I don’t, I rationalized.  It would be wrong. 

Are you sure you don’t?   

Though it hadn’t beaten in years, I would have sworn my heart was hammering in my chest.  My breath was coming in quick huffs, even though I didn’t need to breath, and a familiar, clammy sweat had broken out on my palms.  I was still staring at Drew’s door, I realized a second later, the last thought lingering on my lips like chap stick that I thought was long gone.  

I was sure.  I had to be.  Of course I didn’t have feelings for Drew. I mean, it was Drew.  After all we had been through – battles with Vates, Sleepwalker family drama, undead curses – it would be weird dating him.  He knew too much about me. 

And he likes you anyway, dummy.  Something told me.  There might be something to those feelings he gave you on the dance floor a few months ago.  There might be something to the feelings he’s giving you now. 

I forced my breathing to go back to normal, as if to show the voice in my head that it was wrong.  But I couldn’t ignore the sweaty palms and the fact that I was chewing my bottom lip, something I only did when I was really nervous. 

I needed a cup of tea very, very badly. 

Far away from everyone else’s bedrooms, I took the last flight of stairs a little more noisily, confident that the sound of the storm would drown out my footsteps.  As I descended the last step and walked toward the kitchen, I noticed a muted yellow light spilling into the hallway.  I cautiously approached the entryway, and I knocked lightly on the doorframe with my knuckles as I stuck my head inside. 

Seated at the bar that surrounded the kitchen island was Drew, a porcelain cup in his hands.  Little curls of steam rose from the cup.  On the island’s stove was Sylvia’s teakettle.  The soft scent of lavender and chamomile, one of my grandmother’s most soothing blends, wafted through the air. 

Drew looked up at the sound of my knocking.  His eyes were heavily lidded behind his glasses and his curly brown hair hung limply over his forehead.  The corners of his mouth were turned down in either fatigue or worry, but I didn’t have time to determine which.  When his eyes rested on me the drowsiness slid from his face like a sheet of water on my window, and was replaced with a look of simple relief.  “Hey, Ronnie,” he said gently. 

I found myself smiling, too, and I shyly diverted my eyes for a second before reminding myself that it was just Drew.  “Hey, Drew,” I replied.  “What’re you doing up so late?”

The kitchen’s dark corners were briefly lit by a flash of lightning, and another clap of thunder rolled over the house a few second later.  “I couldn’t sleep,” he said.  “The thunder was keeping me awake.”

“Oh.  Me, too,” I lied. 

Drew gestured to the stool next to him with his chin.  “Want a cup of tea?  There’s still plenty.” 

I smiled and finally entered the kitchen.  The tile was cold under my feet, so I blamed the new wave of goosebumps that spread on my arms on the temperature and not sitting next to Drew.  “I’d love one.  Thanks.”

Drew stood, walked to the cabinet, and revealed another cup.  Soon I, too, had a cup of tea between my palms.  Though the kitchen was warm from the summer thunderstorm outside, the cup’s heat felt good against my palms.  I felt the goosebumps gradually begin to recede.  My eyes drifted closed and I deeply inhaled the tea’s mollifying scent.  It seemed to fill me from head to toe.  I gently took the first sip, careful not to burn my tongue.  Like all tea, the flavor was a little weaker than its aroma, but it was still perfect.

“So why’re you really awake?”  Drew asked as I set my cup upon the bartop with a small clink. 

When I looked to him, I found his brown eyes resting peacefully on me.  I was suddenly, painfully self-conscious of my lack of make-up, but he didn’t seem to mind.  “I told you,” I said.  “The thunder was keeping me awake.”

“Uh-huh,” Drew laughed skeptically.  He took a sip from his cup.  “I’ve seen you sleep like a rock through thunderstorms, Ronnie.”

“If you think you can hear me snoring over the thunder, you’re wrong,” I diverted.  “That’s totally Deirdre.” 

I couldn’t fool Drew.  When he smiled and lowered his chin, I could tell that he totally knew that I was trying to change the topic.  But, in a classic Drew fashion, he didn’t press the topic; he simply wrapped his hands around his cup and tapped thoughtfully on its rim with his fingertip. 

“The tea is really good,” I said after a few moments of silence. 

“Thanks,” he replied genuinely.  “It took three tries to get it right.  Turns out, boiling water is harder than it looks.”

I laughed even though the little self-deprecating joke wasn’t very funny.  I didn’t even realize that my hand was resting on the bartop until Drew’s suddenly rose and lay gently on top of it.  He didn’t smother my hand with his; he just laid his fingers across mine, a subtle, gentle gesture.  Just like how he had acted at prom. 

“I’m glad you came down,” he said softly.  “Drinking tea in the rain was no fun by myself.” 

My fingernails looked like crap.  I had cut them short so I could help Sylvia in the garden without getting dirt under them, and my nail polish was chipped and hideous.  Still, his hand didn’t move.  Another flash of lighting lit the kitchen, and was quickly followed by a low roar of thunder.  The scent and taste of the tea, Drew’s warm touch on my cool, undead hand, and the placid sounds of the storm had warn away the edges of my nerves.

“So am I,” I replied, meeting his eyes.