Driving down from the mountains with Deon, we had so much to talk about. I tried to explain to him everything I’d learned. I couldn’t put it into words, though, so I’m sure it came out a jumbled mess. But Deon understood anyway. He’d spent his own summers living up there with Ted, so he knows all about mysteries that can’t fit into words.
We fell into silence as we came down from the foothills.
I was trying to think of how to tell Deon that I wasn’t going back to Oasis Springs. I wasn’t really sure where I’d go. I just knew I couldn’t go back there to the school where the kids called me names or ignored me and the teachers thought I was stupid. I’d never be able to bring up my grades high enough to run track when they were convinced I was dumb.
Before I figured out what to say, Deon spoke.
“So, I got another promotion,” he said. “I’m Regional Supervisor now. It’s kind of a big deal.”
“Thing is, I’m not based in Oasis Springs anymore. I’ll still get there. Just not every day. More like once or twice a month. But I’ll ask the other gardeners to look out for you.”
That was when I told him I wasn’t going back.
As soon as I said it, I knew where I wanted to go.
“I’m going to San Myshuno,” I told him. “SM High has a good sports program. Darling says they let girls compete with the boys, if they’re qualified.”
Deon went thoughtful on me. Then he said, “My new office is in San Myshuno.”
He thought some more. “We’ve got a big park there,” he said, “where my office is.” He told me all about it. It’s like a little wilderness in the middle of the city, with gardens, too, and a wedding garden. There’s a big mansion in the center. That’s where Deon’s office is, and the rest of the mansion is set up for the weddings, with a kitchen for the caterer, and a dressing room complete with a tub for the brides.
“It’s the off-season now,” Deon said. “Nobody would notice or mind if you were to use the kitchen now and then or take a soak in the tub, long as you cleaned up after yourself.”
We talked through all the details. He knew a spot in the park where no one would notice if I pitched my tent. And it was a half-hour walk to the high school. At the park entrance were food stalls, and Deon said he’d talk to the vendors and have them put my meals on his tab. With that and the kitchen, I should have an easy time getting fed. Then there was the bathtub upstairs and laundry facilities downstairs.
“It sounds perfect!” I said. I was starting to feel excited.
“It’s far from perfect,” Deon said, with a little sadness. “But it’ll work. It won’t work for the long run, but it’ll work until we find something else.”
“No foster care,” I said. “And you get in trouble for ‘contributing to delinquency’ if I stay with you.”
He shook his head. “Don’t worry, Jazzie. We’ll find something that’ll work for good, with nobody getting in trouble, and nobody going to a foster home.”
Then we started talking about the City. Deon told me everything he loves about it. We talked while we drove past the turn-off to Oasis Springs, past Willow Creek, through Magnolia Promenade, and over the bridge. And there was the City, all lit up, and we were still talking!
I had to stop talking to say, “Ah!”
Deon helped me find the hidden spot for my tent.
He asked me a million questions to find out if I knew how to get to the school, and did I want him to take me there, and did I want a few days to settle in before starting school?
School started the next day, and I didn’t want to miss the first day. I’ve been through the whole McKinney-Vento drill before. No big deal. Show up. Get in. Go to school.
I cleaned up before going to sleep. I found a pair of scissors up in the bride’s ready room, and I chopped my hair short. I look great. I’m so strong and brown from the mountains. I look really tough. Nobody’s gonna mess with me. Nobody’s gonna ask if I’m OK or think I’m weak or fragile or hurting inside. I look like I own the world. Maybe I do!
I woke up ready. I hardly slept from being excited about being in a new place, and from all the noises of the city around me, and from being excited about getting to go to Darling’s school. And I was so ready. It’s gonna be different this year. This is a year of big things and bigger dreams! I can feel it.
The first day went OK. The office manager was nice and treated me like McKinney-Vento was no big deal. “We got lots of you MV kids,” she said. She’s not supposed to say that, but I was glad she did. I like not being the only one. And I didn’t have to go see the counselor. The office manager just pointed to the counselor door and said I could stop by any time. And I didn’t get handed a bunch of pamphlets or leaflets, either. It was almost like I was a regular kid. She took a moment and put me in all the sophomore classes she thought I should have, then she printed me my schedule, and sent me to class.
I gave a slip of paper to each teacher, and at the end of class, they gave me the textbook or the pass-code for the e-book. And every teacher was nice. Each one looked at me like I was a real person. And Ms. Twilson, my English teacher, said, “Jazz, I was very inspired by your response that literature helps us to find a compass in a confusing world. I feel I’ll learn a lot from you this semester!”
OK, maybe she was a little patronizing. But she was nice. And I got a little flutter-feeling inside at her kind words.
When I got back, Deon was waiting for me outside. He was getting ready to drive over to Magnolia Promenade to walk a transect and count milkweed plants. He asked how the day went and told me he’d stocked the fridge with groceries.
While I cooked an early supper, I started planning my essay for English class. We had to elaborate on what we’d contributed to our class discussion about the meaning of literature in the lives of urban teens today.
I’m not an urban teen. Not yet. But something pulled me here, and I’m enrolled in San Myshuno High, and I’m going to be an urban teen. When I’d said that literature was a compass, I thought about the books I’d read over the summer. I read a ton of Jack London novels. That’s what Ted had on his bookshelves, that and Thoreau and John Muir. I read them, too, but with Thoreau, I sort of got stuck. John Muir was cool. He lived sort of like I did when I lived off the land. But Jack London! His novels moved me.
What I meant about literature being a compass is that sometimes we can feel really confused in life. For example, I can feel confused that a kid like me, alone, isn’t supposed to be alone, so what am I supposed to do? But when I read White Fang, I identified with the wolf dog. Sometimes, I’m alone. Sometimes, others come to treat me kindly. And I survive. Somehow, I make it and my needs are met, and I get stronger. When I read that novel, I understand that others know what it feels like to struggle, to find strength, to meet kindness, and to make it.
My teacher loved my essay.
She suggested that I read David Kaplan’s “Doe Season.”
“It’s an overlooked story,” she said. “Kaplan presents, in some ways, a much softer view of nature than London does, but I think it might have themes that appeal to you.”
I read it on my tablet that afternoon.
My other teachers are cool, too. By the end of the second week, I was getting B’s and A’s on all my tests and assignments. My grade was high enough that I could join the cross-country team.
I’m on the boys’ cross-country, but I’m not the only girl on the team. There are three of us. I’m the only one that’s non-binary, though. But the other girls are cool. And the boys are pretty OK. None of them call me names, at least, and some of them are funny and friendly.
Since I’ve been running so much this past year, in the desert and the mountains, I got pretty strong and really good at long distances.
That still doesn’t keep me from getting wiped out after a long practice, though.
But I’ve got a tub I can soak in now.
The first quarter is over, and I’m feeling good.
Deon keeps reminding me that this is just temporary.
I know everything is temporary. I don’t need reminding.
I don’t care, either. Right now, what I care about is that I’ve got a tub I can soak in when my muscles are tired.
I got a kitchen I can cook in when I’m hungry.
I got a porch I can sit at on Saturday afternoon, and when I do my geometry homework, nobody’s around to hassle me, and under the white noise of the city streets, I can hear the golden-crowned sparrow singing in the tall grass near the oak tree, and the ducks quacking from the river.
Everything’s temporary, and that’s what makes this temporary happiness all the more sweet for me.