Suzy Vitello’s stories have won several awards, including The Atlantic Monthly’s Student Writing Award and an Oregon’s Literary Arts Fellowship. Her work has appeared in national journals and her young adult novels, Jr. Library Guild pick, The Moment Before (January, 2014), and The Empress Chronicles (September, 2014) are available in e-book and paperback from Diversion Books.
Suzy holds an MFA from Antioch Los Angeles, often teaches classes for LitReactor, and is a founding member of a critique group recently dubbed Portland’s Hottest Writers’ Group by The Oregonian. Find out more on her website.
Excerpt from The Empress Chronicles
© Suzy Vitello 2014
From Chapter Nine
Engage, Dr. Greta instructed, and I obeyed. Even though my hands didn’t touch the goat’s milk sac, I made myself stay in that pen until Dad was done with the vile chore. Now, as we walk to the barn together, I let my hands engage in the air, gloveless. My wrapped finger still stings, though maybe that’s all in my head. I have to be careful this time of day, when my pills wear off. What’s true and what’s in my imagination wiggle together. Fears and bad memories and anxiety push against the inside of my head, push it up, so I’m no longer connected to my feet the right way. Dad pulls a wagonload of covered milk containers, and I concentrate on the rhythm they make on the gravel path; I can sense my father is nervous.
“Things okay, Princess?” Dad asks.
“I’m really glad you’re here.”
“Yeah,” I say. I stop short of the obligatory “me too.”
“This Cory?” Dad says. “I guess you should know, I’m not thrilled with the timing. I met him a couple of weeks ago down in Eugene. Kid’s a handful.”
The wagon is rusty and loud, like everything on the farm, and behind us it jerks, squeaking and bouncing over the uneven ground. I set words to the rhythm of the clunky wagon: Count Sebastian. Must die. Count Sebastian. Must die.
I wonder about this count. This supposed crush of the young empress-to-be. Could the scribbling be some sort of connection? Maybe I was just obsessing. Mom had warned me about my tendency to add drama to things when there wasn’t a reason.
Out of my mouth comes, “I sort of miss Mom right now.”
Dad blurts, “Christ, she’s been gone less than a week!”
I know he feels bad about saying that as soon as the words leave his lips. He stops in his tracks, turns to me and, with his free hand, gives me a one-armed hug. My father is an excellent hugger; even with one arm, it’s warmer than Mom’s full-on embraces. I squeeze him back. “I just wish there was cell coverage up here, you know? In case she calls?”
Dad sighs. “When we go into town tomorrow, I’m sure you’ll have bunches of voicemails and texts.”
I force a smile. Even though I brought it up, it wasn’t very likely that Mom would have gotten in touch from her ship in the middle of the ocean. She already told me not to expect a call until they docked at Gibraltar—still several days from now. “I guess you two have a lot to do,” I say, pointing in the distance to The Girlfriend, who’s now carrying a camping mat toward the house. “Should I be helping with anything?”
“Nah,” Dad says. “You’ve already injured yourself once today. Why don’t you go for a walk? The fields are so nice, all that crimson. Look, I’m sorry about what I said. I’m sure you do miss your mother.”
I nod, say, “It’s okay.”
“So,” Dad says, giving me another of his famous warm hugs. “Let me clear my head, get out of this grouchy mood.”
Dad has this way of being pissed off one second and overcompensating the next. Plus, I’m pretty sure he wants me to scram so he can light up his pipe, take in a little weed. “Clear his head” is his euphemism for smoking pot.
“Okay, but holler if you need anything,” I say.
I watch Dad and the rusty wagon squeak away, and then I walk in the other direction. Away from the house. Away from the barn.
The outbuildings are surrounded by a bloody fringe of field. Crimson clover, Dad explained. It looks like Mars or something. A reddish-brown planet with alien vehicles crawling over it. Tomorrow, the behemoth tractors that are now parked in various places in the clover will be spraying. That is a bad thing, apparently. But Dad has no control, because his girlfriend leases the house and barns from a farmer who leases the property to other farmers. Non-organic farmers.
A cycle of death, she’d mentioned earlier. She made a little circle in the air, painting the space between us with her fingertip and punctuating the stops along the way to death. “Poisons kill the weeds, seep into the well, and mutate our DNA.”
“Correct me if I’m wrong,” I asked, innocently enough I thought, “but isn’t clover a weed? If they’re spraying weed killers, why would the clover not die?”
“Selective herbicide,” she said. “The goat milk could be tainted. It’s all a big conspiracy by Monsanto to keep organic farmers on the margin.”
I knew this was only the beginning of my education on the evils of Monsanto and other big corporations, so I begged off the rest of the lecture. If today were the last day before the red fields turned toxic, I’d do my exploring sooner rather than later.
My own food phobias are less tied to chemicals and more to dirt and bacteria and bugs. The way I see it, killing microscopic vermin is preferable to finding a slug on a lettuce leaf. Hippies and naturalists begged to differ with me, and this, I knew, would unfold as a huge problem on a farm called Willow Creek.
I walk along a little spit of grass between the goats and one of the crimson fields and practice saying my father’s girlfriend’s name out loud. Will-oh. Wheel-oh. Willow. It’s hard. Really hard. Harder, I know, than it should be.
I wonder if Willow is her real name. Probably it is, especially with a brother named Coriander. But it could be a nickname. She certainly is pretty and willowy enough for it to be a nickname.
I have a nickname. And it isn’t the princess one that only Dad calls me. Even thinking about that day well over a year ago, the day the kids started calling me that name, makes my heart beat fast, and if I’m not careful, sweat beads will start forming on my palms. I practice the breathing Dr. Greta told me to do. I grab a long stick from a patch of grass and move it from hand to hand, whacking at the edge of the clover. The clover is Becket Mitchell. The clover is Jewellee King. Whack. The clover is Toni Goldstein. Kevin Heath. Gray Parker. My eighth-grade tormenters.
The beginning of the year before last, back in Alexander Hamilton Alternative Middle School (otherwise known as AHA!), my hair was long and curly, but in the rain it frizzed up, sometimes coiling out to the sides like a clown wig. It was Kevin, I think, who started it. “Hi, Frizz—I mean, Liz!” he taunted. It caught on. Frizz became my unasked-for nickname, and I hated it. I hated it so much I convinced Mom to pay the $250 it took for permanent straightening. I thought that when I got to school, the Monday after the straightening job, everything would change. Frizz would seem idiotic, given my silky new hair.
In Math Concepts, we sat two to a desk. A rectangle of scarred wood with a metal cubbyhole that smelled of eraser dust. Jewellee King sat next to me, and as we passed our homework forward, she leaned in next to my ear, too close to it, and whispered, “Nice fright wig, Frizz.”
Whack! I whip off another bunch of clover. I touch the stubble on my head that used to be hair. I can still see Jewellee’s pointy little chin. Her emerald eyes under all that heavy Amy Winehouse makeup. Her hand holding Becket’s hand as they marched down the hall, stopping here and there to double over in laughter inspired by their stupid jokes.
That day, the day Jewellee called my hair a fright wig, I just glued my eyes to the big full moon of a clock on the front wall in Math Concepts. Language Arts was still 42 minutes away. 39 minutes. 26 minutes. Ten minutes until Language Arts, where Ms. Wanda didn’t put up with the likes of Jewellee and her posse. There were sensitivity posters in her class: a photograph of a sad-looking girl, for instance, beneath the headline: Think about who you could be hurting next time you call someone a retard.
In Math Concepts, the bell rang and we all rushed out the door to our lockers. The shard of mirror pasted to the inside of my locker confirmed it. My hair did look like a wig. A plastic version of hair. But a fright wig? Really?
Jewellee and Becket followed me down the hall from my locker to Language Arts, and they were doing the loud, snide whispering thing, which wasn’t whispering at all. “Could she look any dorkier?” and, “Maybe she borrowed the grease from her dad’s hands to slick her hair down with.”
My face heated up, and a flash of fire went right down past my collarbone. I felt like I might vomit. Just five more doors, just four more doors, just three more doors.
My desk in Language Arts was in the front row. Jewellee and Becket sat in back. Ms. Wanda had art stuff waiting for us on top of our desks: a stack of colored cardstock, rubber cement with the little brush inside the lid. Safety scissors—which, even if I did love Ms. Wanda, I had to admit were stupid and ineffective. As I sat down, the tips of my ears still burned under my expensively straight hair. I imagined my head a candle, dripping wax down my scalp. Wax that was drying my hair into a stiff Barbie shape. The frizz, frizz, frizz I heard behind me was a swarm of bees. Wax, bees, frizz. Buzz. It was all closing in. But were they really taunting me here? In the classroom of political correctness? Was I imagining the wax? The taunts? I turned around and Jewellee was just sitting there, her raccoon eyes two slits of pissed off.
“Today,” Ms. Wanda said, “is favorite author day.” We were supposed to construct something. The paper, the glue, the scissors. A book we liked. An author. But I wasn’t really hearing anything but that buzz behind me. I imagined Jewellee’s painted-up eyes firing stingers out. Becket laughed. He had a nice laugh. Too nice, really. It didn’t match his bullying ways. I shook my head and my waxy hair scraped against my shoulders. I shook harder as I dabbed rubber cement on my cardstock. Emily Dickinson. I would make a tribute to Emily Dickinson poster. Hey, Frizz, I heard behind me, are you going to do your project on Bozo the Clown?
I turned around, startled, and the bottle of rubber cement toppled into my lap, spilling the sticky, viscous fluid all over. I jumped up, screamed, “No!”
“Liz, what happened?” Ms. Wanda came rushing over.
I stood up. It was all over me, the stuff. Sticky, viscous, disgusting. And laughter erupting out of snickers.
“Hey,” Becket said in a fake cough into his hand. “Liz. Frizz. Jizz.”
Then, it seemed like everyone started fake coughing. Jizz. Jizz. Jizz.
“I have to leave,” I squeaked as Ms. Wanda dabbed me with paper towels.
I ran to the girls’ room down the hall and cranked on the spigot, wetting myself down, turning the rubber cement into a sticky sludge all down the front of me. It seemed as if the stuff was coming out of me, like nectar from an overripe fig. I screamed a bunch, probably longer than I thought, because next thing I knew, the vice principal was there, leading me out of the bathroom, to the office, where my mother had just arrived to cart me—with my now sticky and ruined expensive hairdo—home to a penthouse loft, far from the taunts of Jewellee.
But now, a year and a half and a psych ward incarceration later, the memory of that day still feels like a knife in my gut. Even after both Ms. Wanda and the school counselor told me that I misheard. Nobody called me a name, they said. Nobody laughed.
My finger throbs, and thinking about nicknames and a pricked finger makes me think about my least favorite Grimm’s fairy tale, Sleeping Beauty, where yet another curse is put on yet another beautiful princess. Upon her sixteenth birthday, the story goes, she would prick her finger on a spinning wheel and fall asleep for a hundred years until a handsome prince woke her up. Why, always, the handsome prince? Why not an average-looking dude—a smart man who wants her for her skill set? Her creativity and way with words? Her wit and her charm, when she’s not preoccupied with germs and misalignment? Why can’t the princess be gifted and sensitive and have an IQ of 150?
Maybe I am the new cursed princess. There’s even a weaving loom in my room, for chrissake. And with all that weird German writing in my food journal, the cryptic reference to death, maybe I’m starring in my very own fairy tale.
When I look up, I realize I’ve walked quite a ways from the farmhouse. It’s the size of a Monopoly hotel from where I now stand. But a dilapidated version. Everything seems so foreign. My hands start to sweat. My head itches. Unwelcome thoughts arrive: ticks jumping out of the clover and burrowing under my skin. I feel the urge to vomit, and then a horse gallops through my brain. A knight on horseback with a jousting stick. Count Sebastian must die.
Tomorrow I will go back into town. I just have to get through today so I can get to Dr. Greta and tell her that engaging isn’t working. I will be swallowed up out here. She has to make Mom come back home. I need to be back in the Pearl, in a clean, sterile box. I need order. I need more Luvox. A higher dose, maybe. My hands on my legs now, on my belly, my fingers digging, digging. The gauze bandage I’ve tossed off into the weedy clover, my nails into my flesh, scratching, clawing, gouging. I won’t be cursed. I won’t fall asleep for a hundred years. I’m alive. My blood proves it.