Theory of Light

In a gray city just south of the Puget Sound, a girl left school and began walking. The squeak of her rain boots was the only sound she made as she weaved through groups of teenagers. She zipped her green raincoat up to the neck and flipped the hood over her long braid, shielding her face from the incessant drizzle. She walked with her head down, moisture dripping onto the wet gray pavement. Down the sidewalk she swished, crossing at two lights and climbing a flight of stairs. She loved standing on the overpass, watching the cars scream down the highway. The gray road melded into the gray sky. The chain link fencing kept her from leaning too far over, while the rain dripped off her raincoat. She closed her eyes and listened to the rain tap her head, the sound magnified through the rubber hood. Soft flannel lining warmed her skin.

With a sigh, she continued across the overpass and down the stairs at the other side. She had another half mile to her brother’s elementary school. The girl in the green raincoat squelched across mud and wet grass through the park. Peter G. Schmidt Elementary crept into view through the trees, with a dry alcove hidden between classrooms. She dug her favorite book out of her backpack and sat with her back against the cold bricks. It didn’t faze her though. Time passed as her friends moved between the pages, the half an hour wait always went by fast while she was reading. When the bell rang, she stood and put her backpack on. Chris was always so slow leaving his third grade classroom, usually the last kid out.

“What took you so long?” She asked testily.

“I forgot my coat on the playground, so I had to go to the office to get it back.” It was always something like that.

“Well, put your coat and backpack on. You can’t walk home dragging your stuff the whole way.” She held his bag as he zipped his black raincoat up to his chin. “Come on.”

Their boots squeaked in unison through the park and onto the sidewalk. They walked in silence until her brother asked, “Cassie, what do you think we’re gonna do during spring break?”

“I don’t know; it’ll probably be just you and me because Mom and Dad have to work.”

“I know, maybe we can perfect our secret code. I got a book out of the library about secret codes. They have that one that you use, the writing backward one.”

“Yeah, okay. Maybe we can play spies with the walkie talkies, too.” Chris smiled and nodded his head. They continued in quiet until they reached their white house with hydrangeas growing on either side of the porch. One side was purple and the other was blue. They gingerly traversed the walkway so they didn’t step on a slug and hopped up the concrete steps to their front door. Cassie dug her key out of her pocket, but realized the door was unlocked when she heard her parents talking inside.

They burst through the door into the warmth of the living room. Her father was standing by the fireplace, arms folded across his chest. Her mother sat in the corner of the couch, unshed tears made her eyes look shiny. Cassie and her brother froze in the entryway, the door hanging open behind them.

“We’re moving to Yakima”, her father said.

“What? Why?” She asked, confused.

“Pater has cancer, so I requested a transfer to Yakima. We have two weeks until I report for the new job. The moving truck will be here next weekend.”

Her mother sniffed loudly from the couch and cleared her throat. “I can’t believe you didn’t say anything. What am I supposed to do about my job? Why didn’t you at least tell me your father is sick?”

“We’ll get a dog. ” He add pleadingly.

“We’re not moving again until I graduate from high school”, demanded Cassie.

Her mother and father both nodded in silence. “No more moving.” Her mother smiled wryly, “this will be our fourteenth move and Cassie will be fourteen in two months.” She let out a slightly crazy giggle. Cassie didn’t think it was funny at all, she had never been at the same school for two years in a row.

When the movers came, the house became a hollow shell. Memories circled around the emptiness, and echoed in the garden. Three strange men came to pack their clothes and toys and books. What a strange feeling to watch it happen. They packed everything–even the broken pencils and crayons that had accumulated behind the furniture. Everything was wrapped in tan paper and packed in boxes that all looked the same.

Chris did not like the process of being packed by movers or watching his things disappear into a strange truck. He was sad that he was going to miss dissecting a frog in science class. He was going to miss playing with the neighbor boy and his dog every day. Cassie reminded him that their dad had promised them a dog of their own once they moved to Yakima.

“I want a white one”, he said happily.

Cassie felt numb inside. She didn’t have very many friends at school because they had just moved to Tumwater in August. She felt like a stranger here, so how would another move make it any different? It did, somehow. The why of it evaded her, though. She pulled her rain coat tight around her as the moving truck pulled out of their cul-de-sac and headed for their new home in Yakima.

Uncle Bobby had come to lend moral support; his debilitating rheumatoid arthritis prevented him fro anything else. He was a spare man; tall and lanky. His shaggy blonde hair curled thickly around his ears and his bright blue eyes were crinkled around the edges from laughter. Cassie was glad he was there, and he was happy that they were moving to Yakima. He wasn’t married and didn’t have any kids; he always said that Cassie and Chris were his “stand-ins”. They called him Homer sometimes because whenever they would call him on the telephone, deep breathing would come from the other end.

“Bobby, is that you?” they would ask.

“Nooooo, iiit’s Wheeezerrrrrr”, would be the reply. Cassie and her brother would laugh every time.

“I’m gonna ride with Uncle Bobby to Yakima”, Cassie announced to her parents as they stared glassy-eyed at the emply house. She took their mild nodding as consent.

Cassie ran back out to the front porch. “I’m going to ride with you, Uncle Bobby!”

“What about Chris? Does he want to ride with us?”

“You don’t want him in your car, he pukes.”

Uncle Bobby’s gnarled hands moved the steering wheel toward the “scenic” route to Yakima. They left on I-5 out of Olympia, going south through small towns called Centralia and Chehalis. When they came to the Cowlitz River they turned west onto Highway 12 through a town called Mossyrock. They joked about how things were named until Bobby pointed out Mt. St. Helens in the distance.

“That’s the mountain that blew up on your third birthday.”

All the way to Yakima, Cassie and Bobby played a game of “Who are they?” They took turns making up stories about everyone they saw. When the game would lull, Bobby would say “What about that guy?”

“He’s a famous painter, and now he’s driving down the highway looking for an inspirational scene to immortalize. Look, he’s turning off. Now he’s going to paint that lake by the highway.”

Bobby’s stories were long and convoluted, they branched off into other people’s lives that they saw along the way. His ideas were always silly–everyone was an undercover agent or a UFO investigator. Cassie loved Uncle Bobby’s imagination.

It rained and rained as they crossed White Pass, Uncle Bobby decided he needed a cup of coffee at the same time that Cassie decided she needed to pee. About halfway to Yakima, they stopped in a tiny town called Morton right on the Cowlitz River. Off the highway just a little way was Mt. Adams Cafe, it had coffee and a bathroom. Uncle Bobby tried to buy her something to eat, but her stomach felt like an aching knot.

“I’m so happy you guys are moving to Yakima”, his smile broke her heart a little because she was angry about it.

“Do you think Pater will be okay?” She asked hesitantly.

“Oh, yeah, he’s too ornery to die.” Chuckling quietly to himself. Cassie smiled too, because it was true.

As they came over the foothills into Yakima the clouds parted and the sun shone onto a mostly brown landscape. Cassie had visited Yakima many times, but she could never get over the pervasive color of sand.

“Isn’t it spring?” she asked.

“Yeah, it’s always sunny in Yakima.”

“No, it’s brown.”

“Oh, you’ll get used to it.”

No, she thought, I won’t. She tucked her hands inside her rain coat and missed the green they had left behind.

Their new house was so much smaller than the one they had rented in Tumwater, it was a brown ranch house with darker brown trim. No basement to hide in, no loamy garden earth to dig her toes into. No trees grew in the yard and the dirt was hard with thick dry grass. The area round the back stoop had been baked into clay where no grass grew at all. A dog would hate that yard, she thought sourly to herself. There was a patch of green a couple of blocks away called Wide Hollow Creek; she decided she would spend most of her time there.

That night she lay in bed thinking and worrying about the next day. Another new school this year. Who would be there? She hated change. What would her teachers be like? She decided her parents were gypsies. Would she like her classes? Her fears flared again and again as she wrestled for sleep.

Monday dawned bright and sunny.

“Don’t worry, everyone will just be getting back from Spring Vacation.” Her mother tried to be empathetic, not realizing that didn’t help at all.

She stood in front of her closet, wanting to wrap herself in her raincoat but knowing it would look strange in this new desert town. She fingered her soft purple hooded sweatshirt and slipped it off its hanger. As she slid her arms into the sleeves she felt like she was donning change.

She walked to school that morning under a blue sky. Her tennis shoes scuffed the pavement with every step, her braid dangling from side to side. The sunlight warmed her scalp and made her squint. Two cars passed sedately before she could cross the only street separating  her from school. As the Junior High loomed into view she thought about Uncle Bobby and decided she could be happy here surrounded by barely green foothills and family.

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About Janelle McGuire

My imaginary friends love me
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