Glory O'Brien's History of the Future, p.6A. S. King
“Yeah,” I said. “It’ll go away.”
It was the nineties
Ellie was not a slut. Ellie was my only friend. And I was a loser for thinking all that conflicting shit about her. She went home, Jupiterian free, and told me she’d see me at the star party the following night. I reminded her that I might be late because I had graduation.
This stopped her in midstep. She looked at me and smiled. It was a pained smile.
“I really wish I could be there,” she said. “I can’t miss your graduation. You’re my best friend.”
“It’s not a big deal. I’ll see you at the party. I know they don’t want you to—uh—you know.”
“I’ll get my dad to stick up for me.”
“Good luck with that.”
This made us laugh, but without smiling. The kind of laugh that made me realize that Ellie felt left out. That she felt like a freak again. And a slut. And the opposite of free. As I walked back to the house, I thought about what it must be like to be so controlled by Jasmine Blue.
I thought about how controlled I was by a mother who wasn’t even there.
Dad was in the kitchen heating up two microwave dinners. Mine had cobbler in the dessert tray and I added a scoop of ice cream because it was delicious. Who wouldn’t eat cobbler and ice cream every day if they could? I was no one special and I could eat cobbler and ice cream every fucking day if I wanted.
When dinner was done, we tossed our plastic trays into the recycling and Dad went back to the couch and his laptop while I made a move toward the basement door.
“Find anything interesting down there today?” Dad asked.
I wanted to tell him about Darla’s hidden sketchbook. Instead, I asked, “What did you mean when you said Ellie didn’t fall far from the tree? I take it Jasmine Blue was—uh…?”
“It was the nineties.”
“It wasn’t that different.”
“It was different when we all moved out here,” he said.
“So she was a slut, then? That’s what you said, right?”
“Jasmine Blue did her own thing. Still does.” He laughed.
“Ellie isn’t really a slut. She just had a boyfriend,” I said. “Who was a dick.”
“I’m glad it was that stuff and not a pregnancy test. For her sake, I mean.”
He worked on his computer while we talked. I don’t think I ever just saw him doing one thing. Could never slow his brain down enough to meditate, I bet. Maybe that was why he and Darla stopped hanging out at the commune.
“So? Was it good down there?” he asked again.
“I can’t wait to start working,” I said. “I have a roll of black-and-white to develop and then I’ll get some cheap paper and remember how to print. It’s been a while since Mr. Wilson’s history of photography class.”
“Ugh!” He said it with that exclamation point. Ugh! As if I’d just lanced a boil right in front of him or something.
“Don’t buy cheap paper. Leave that to me. I’ll order it online. Trust me.”
“There’s new developer and fixer already. I put it under the kitchen sink.”
“Oh.” How did he know I needed it?
“We used to spend hours in there together.”
“You must miss her,” I said. I don’t know why I said it. Except that maybe it was true. And the truth is.
He sighed. “Every single day, Cupcake. Every single day.” He smiled and looked at me and I avoided eye contact by looking at his arm. “And you’re graduating tomorrow,” he said. “And time just flew by.”
Sounds so convenient, right? Me not having a mom and my dad being all great about it and stuff. But it wasn’t like that. The air was tense. We still had no oven. My cobbler still tasted like radiation, no matter how much ice cream I piled onto it. I could feel the secrets in the soil here. The way Dad talked about Jasmine Blue and the nineties. Something was about to sprout and grow from that soil. I could feel it the same as I could see the mourning dove into infinity.
The consequence of the bat
Graduation day means you must now do something with your life. You must grow up and buy your own train tickets, accrue student debt so you can become part of the machine. You must pick a major. The light comes only after that. Sorry about saying that graduation is the light at the end of the tunnel. That was a lie.
The world is never what it seems
The day of graduation, the mourning dove didn’t sit where I could see it. I could hear it. I could always hear it. Twoooeee-toooo-tooo-tooo. But I couldn’t see it to test my magical bat powers. I was partly relieved because I didn’t really want to have magical bat powers. I was hoping all of that was left in yesterday—that sleep had cured me.
I snuck down to the darkroom first thing, while Dad was in the bathroom doing his usual morning routine. I opened Why People Take Pictures to the next random page of scribble. There weren’t many of them. Mostly, it was pictures with handwritten captions, just like my sketchbooks.
The page read:
I am tortured by the mundane. You are mundane. I am tortured by you.
I am tortured by eating, drinking, and sleeping. I am tortured by brushing my teeth. I am tortured by the dishes that are always in the sink even though I do them four times a day. I am tortured by basmati rice, by egg noodles, by goddamn boneless chicken breasts. I am tortured by beef bouillon and salt and pepper. I am tortured by lunch foods. Limited options. Ham and cheese. Peanut butter and jelly. Soup and sandwich. Salads.
Is this okay? Are you all right? Are you tortured too?
Shit. Shit. Shit.
I read it three more times. I asked myself the question. Are you tortured too?
I pulled out my own sketchbook and I wrote the answer.
I am tortured too. I am tortured by belly fat and magazine covers about how to please everyone but myself. I am tortured by sheep who click on anything that will guarantee a ten-pound loss in one week. Sheep who will get on their knees if it means someone will like them more.
I am tortured by my inability to want to hang out with desperate people. I am tortured by goddamned yearbooks full of bullshit. I met you when. I’ll miss the times. I’ll keep in touch. Best friends forever.
Is this okay? Are you all right? Are you tortured too?
I had to be at the school for graduation by eleven, so I didn’t have time to read or write any more. I didn’t feel like going to graduation. I didn’t feel like doing any of it. Not the cap and gown. Not the swishy tassel with the brass ’14. Not the line of congratulatory teachers. I wanted to just sit there and read Darla’s Why People Take Pictures all day.
Because I was tortured.
By questions whose answers might live inside her book.
By the elephants living all over my house. (Hint: Check the freezer.)
By lunch foods, too. I hated sandwiches and salads and everything lunchy. When I read that part, I felt like someone might finally understand me. But maybe hating lunch foods was another step toward… you know.
I turned the page and found a picture of a naked woman, the photo torn right across her shoulders. It wasn’t like the stuff Markus Glenn showed me on his laptop in seventh grade. It wasn’t like any picture Darla ever took. It was in color. It was soft focused. Warmly toned. The backdrop was wrinkled and too close to the woman. The lighting was harsh and cast deep shadows.
Above the picture Darla wrote: Why would anyone do this?
Under the picture Darla wrote: The world is never what it seems.
I turned to the next page not really prepared for what was coming.
It was a portrait of a man with no head because he had shot it off with the gun that was still lying next to him on the bed.
Above the picture Darla wrote: Why would anyone do this?
Under the picture Darla wrote: I’ve decided to name him Bill.
I stared at the picture for a long time.
“Bill” had his jaw, a tiny portion of his ear, and his beard. That was really all that was left of his head. His jaw was blown out, it was twice as wide as it should have been and the ear and the sideburn connecting the two, they were sticky and brown and swollen, as if the head was trying to make up for the lack of itself. As if it was trying to fill in the missing pieces that were scattered all over the room. His flannel shirt looked new and as if it had been ironed that morning. It was black with his blood, but I could see the flannel pattern under the wetness.
He looked like a big man. With his head, I’d say he was over six feet. Maybe six foot one or two. By his side there was a shotgun of some kind. I didn’t know guns. We were peaceful out here in nonconsumerist artist/hippie weirdo freak land. We didn’t even lock our doors.
I looked back at the picture of the naked woman with her head torn off. It had the same question as the picture of Bill. Why would anyone do this?
I braced myself for the contents of the next page, but all it was, was the chemical backstory of stop bath. Stop bath is the acid that stops a silver gelatin print from developing in developer. The order of simple printing is: Developer, stop bath, fixer, rinse. When you put an exposed piece of paper into (alkaline) developer, it will continue to develop until you put it into (acid) stop bath.
Darla’s desired working stop bath was 0.85% acetic acid.
Apparently, Darla was into the history of acetic acid. I found it boring and would be late for graduation if I didn’t get back upstairs, get showered and get dressed, so I closed the book and put it back in its hiding place. But I couldn’t get Bill out of my head. And it turned out Darla couldn’t either.
If there was a stop bath—an emotional sort of stop bath for thoughts like that—would Darla be alive today? And if so, what was that stop bath?
After a shower and some forced relaxation yoga that didn’t do much but make me feel like a failure at yoga and relaxing, I went downstairs and flopped myself next to Dad, who was working on his laptop on the couch trying to help three online chat customers at one time. I stared at the screen and avoided eye contact, which was easy from that position.
“This one doesn’t even know what the word reboot means,” he said. “There should be a test before you’re allowed to buy a computer.”
I looked at him as he typed and then clicked and then typed again. He was handsome. Rugged. Smart. So smart. Smart enough to know that he shouldn’t be on the couch dealing with people who didn’t know what reboot meant.
“Ellie called,” he said. “She’ll meet you at the school.”
“Oh,” I said. “Did you offer her a ride?”
“Yeah. She said she had one.”
I looked up at the painting on the wall. Woman. I looked at her curves, her plain face, her pale skin, her relaxed pose. I looked back at Dad typing on the couch. I thought about Darla’s pictures. The woman with no head. The man with no head. I tried to figure out what it meant. I wanted to ask Dad where Darla got the picture of the dead guy, Bill. I wanted to ask if Darla was some crime scene photographer or something. I wanted to know where she got the naked picture of the now-headless woman.
But it was graduation day. I didn’t want to ruin it. So, I said something I’d been meaning to say to Dad since the ninth grade, which was the last time I’d said it.
“Dad?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said, still typing something.
“I want you to paint again.”
“No. I mean it.”
“You going to pay the bills?” he asked.
“The trust will pay the bills and you know it.”
That was true. We owned the house. We didn’t buy much. We barely used our phones. And the trust was large last time I peeked at the bank statement that I wasn’t supposed to be peeking at.
I pointed to Mom’s pictures. “See that wall?” A series of landscapes I never really liked. They were dull. I didn’t care how long they’d last, how every zone was represented, or how meticulously she’d framed them. Who gives a shit about a tree stump and a triptych of large rocks? “I want a Roy O’Brien on that wall. Something that screams at me. I want that.” I didn’t tell him about the German expressionist oven paintings in my head.
“I have to get back to work,” he said.
Free yourself. Have the courage.
“What happened to you?” I asked Ellie. She’d been standing by herself in the school parking lot and once I parked, she came to my driver’s-side door the minute I got out of the car. She had things written up and down her forearms in black Sharpie marker. Her hair was wet with sweat, and there was some sort of debris in it.
“I don’t think I can stay,” she said, blinking a lot and looking mostly at the macadam under our feet in the school’s back parking lot.
I held my gown, sheathed in thin dry cleaner’s plastic, over my left arm, and I reached out to her with my right.
“This has been the most fucked-up day of my life,” she said.
“Are you okay? Did something happen?” I asked. She looked almost beat up.
“I’m fine,” she said.
“What’s that?” I asked, and pointed to her arms.
She ignored my question and said, “I saw so many things today, Glory. Weird things.”
“I know. I see it too, remember? It’s cool.”
“It’s not cool!” she yelled. “It’s not cool!”
“What did you see?”
“Everything. People having sex or people dying or people being born or… I don’t know. Weird things.”
“Like the future?”
“But you can’t see mine, right?”
She looked right into my eyes. “No.”
“How did you get here?” I asked.
We lived over four miles away. “You walked?”
She put her arms out in a shrug. I could read what she’d written inside her left forearm. Free yourself. Have the courage.
“I don’t know what to do with this—this stuff I’m seeing. I’m not sure what any of it means.”
“Maybe it doesn’t mean anything,” I said.
“It means something. I know it.” She looked at the message written up her arms and I had this feeling like it wasn’t a message meant for her—that maybe it was a message meant for me.
“I have to go,” I said.
“Just don’t look at people. That’s the key. We’ll talk later,” I said.
She nodded again. Quickly. Like she was high or something.
She walked away through a sea of cars. I walked toward the gym.
Transmission from Jody Heckman, lead majorette and president of the student council: Her great-grandmother was assaulted by twelve soldiers in Nazi Germany. Her great-granddaughter will suffer the same fate in the Second US Civil War.
I looked away.
Second Civil War?
I slipped on my white gown and I secured my cap with two bobby pins that I got from the giant tub of bobby pins on the front table. Then I filed into my alphabetical place between Jason Oberholtzer and Ron Oliveli and stood there looking at the linoleum tiles in a weird sort of limbo.
I thought about Darla’s darkroom. I thought about the pictures I would develop and print that summer. I thought about the way everything has stages. My relationship with Dad. My relationship with Ellie. My relationship with this day: graduation day.
It was all like developing pictures: Developer, stop bath, fixer, rinse.
There are stages.
There is a moment in every photograph’s life when it has been exposed but not developed. The light from the enlarger has shone through the negative and made its impression on the paper, but without the magic of developer, the paper will stay white and no one will ever see what that impr
Standing in the cafeteria between Jason and Ron, I felt like that piece of paper. Exposed but not developed. Potential beneath the surface. Blank.
At the same time, I knew if I looked up and met eyes with any of my classmates, I would learn more about them than any of them would ever know about themselves. I both wanted to do it and didn’t want to do it. I thought about the possibility of a second civil war and decided to browse the graduation program instead.
It wasn’t until we started to walk toward the football stadium single file that I realized that most everyone is just like me—exposed but not developed. Secretive. Scared. I decided I should dunk the audience in psychic developer and see whatever the bat wanted me to see.
Transmission from Mrs. Lingle, the school secretary: Her father used to play tennis every day until he had to get his knee replaced and now he feels useless.
Transmission from Mr. Knapp, the shop teacher: His granddaughter will play piano in Carnegie Hall. She will feel like an utter failure, regardless.
Transmission from Dad, who stood at the stairs as we descended them toward the stage that was assembled in the grass of the football field: His grandfather used to call him Roy the Boy because he was the only boy out of twenty cousins. His mother often thought being the only boy made him spoiled, so she tried to withhold any outward signs of affection for as long as she could until she finally left and never came back.
Transmission from a random parent who snapped pictures from the sidelines: Her mother is dying in a nursing home across town. Her mother was a nurse who worked to heal patients from radiation poisoning in Japan in 1945 after the US dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The bomb was named Little Boy.
I looked down.
All the way to the aisle, to my row, and then to my seat, I looked down.
Who would name a 9,700-pound bomb Little Boy, anyway?
The bat wanted me to ask that. It showed me what it wanted to show me. It showed me what it knew I wanted to see. Why did it want me to see so much pain? Why couldn’t I see anything warm and fuzzy and emotionally sweet? I wanted to see everything, now. I wanted to see everything.
Glory O'Brien's History of the Future by A. S. King / Young Adult / History & Fiction / Fantasy / Science Fiction have rating 3.6 out of 5 / Based on25 votes