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       Flicker Blue 1: Plain Jane, p.4

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Chapter IV

  The Swing

  “Jane, honey, I promise you that he is fine. Just leave him to his work for a while, okay?” Angelita’s soothing words echoed what Cris had told her on the first night that Dr. Sylfaen locked himself in the library.

  “But it’s been weeks! Can’t you at least tell me what’s going on? What happened to him?”

  “Oh, well, he probably had a stomachache or something,” Angelita said, but Jane’s firm expression did not change. “Really, he’s just very busy with his work. He becomes this way sometimes, that’s all.”

  Jane recalled that Cris had something like that, too. Frantic was the word he had used. Her anxiety for her godfather increased as the days passed, so she began to seek out opportunities to spy on him whenever she got the chance. She knew that she wasn’t likely to be able to discern what he was toiling over in there, but she felt that she needed to check in on him. The problem was that he only allowed Angelita in, strictly for the purpose of bringing meals to him. By the weekend, she had memorized Angelita’s schedule and made a point of following her as far as the double doors at every mealtime. Angelita tolerated her presence that far but was not willing to allow Jane to accompany her into the room. In the brief glimpses that she caught of Dr. Sylfaen before Angelita closed the doors behind her, Jane could see that he was hard at work over endless stacks of books, always with the same worried expression furrowing his brow. Often, she overheard fragments of telephone conversations in which he seemed to be demanding answers from the person on the other end of the line. Even from the second-floor landing, Jane could perceive the heavy aura of urgency that still suffocated the library several weeks after the episode that initiated it.

  “Come on, Jane. Don’t you have homework or something?” Angelita maintained her maternal tone, but she was clearly impatient.

  Jane nodded in response and took the dishes that Angelita had retrieved from Dr. Sylfaen’s previous meal from her. They walked into the kitchen together, and Jane dropped the armload of plates into the sink. She pulled her backpack down from the hook near the kitchen door and began to set up a study area at the large kitchen table.

  Angelita seemed more relaxed now that they were downstairs. “Why don’t you take your homework out on the back porch? Cris was out there earlier, working on something.”

  “It’s pretty cold.”

  “Oh, don’t be a baby,” Angelita teased. “You could use some fresh air for a change. You spend too much time cooped up in this house. Go on, get your coat and at least go for a walk or something before it gets too dark.”

  Jane sighed, but she obediently returned to the hook near the door for her coat. As she bundled her books in her arms, she decided that, since she was being dismissed anyway, a little solitude might be a good idea. Angelita nodded approvingly as Jane exited the kitchen and made her way to the glass doors in the great room that led out onto the back porch, which stretched across the entire back wall of the mansion. On the far end of the porch hung an old swing where Jane sometimes sat when she wanted to be alone and think. Today, however, she would not be alone there; Cris had already claimed her spot. He was lounging across the entire swing, so engrossed in the book he was reading that he did not hear her approach.

  “Hey, Cris. What are you doing?”

  For an answer, he flipped the book that he read forward so that she could read the cover. The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

  “Yeah…me too.” Jane lifted her copy of the same book from the stack that she carried. “How much of it are we supposed to have read for tomorrow?”

  Cris put his book down but marked his place with one dark finger. “Five chapters—that’s the whole first part. It’s not long, though. I just got started.”

  “Well, you’re one up on me. I haven’t even opened it yet.”

  “You haven’t read it before?” He seemed surprised.

  “Nope. Not this one.”

  “You want to read it together?”

  “Um, sure. Scoot over.” Jane pushed Cris’s legs off the swing and sat down beside him. She opened her book and flipped past the title pages to the first page of text and began reading silently.

  “So—are you going to start, or should I?” Cris asked.

  “Excuse me?”

  “Do you want to read first?”

  “Oh! You meant read it together, together. Uh, I don’t care, I guess.” He wants to read it out loud? “I thought you already started it.”

  “I did, but I’m just a couple of pages in. You start,” he urged, and Jane cleared her voice nervously. Cris grinned at her. “Oh, come on. You’ve never read a book aloud?”

  “Only for classes.”

  “Then this will be fun. And you’ll probably do better on your next test, too, because we can talk about it as we go.” The last thing Jane wanted to think about at the moment was her last test grade—she may have read the last book, but she hadn’t been prepared to answer discussion questions about it. Her new English class was hard.

  She relented. “Fine. Okay—uh, Book One. Chapter One, let’s see, The Great Hall of the Palace of Justice. On January sixth, um, fourteen eighty-two, the people of Paris were awakened….” Jane’s reading was awkward and punctuated by ums and ers and breaths in the wrong places. She tripped over names that were spelled with more letters than seemed necessary. Jane wasn’t entirely sure what the chapter was about; she just tried to focus on getting one word out, and then the next. This was nothing like reading it on her own. She had expected for Cris to follow along in his own copy, as she and her classmates always did when someone was reading out loud in class. Instead, he pulled his feet onto the swing and hugged his arms around his knees. He alternated between staring out into the open space of the lawn and watching her intently as she stumbled through the text. Mercifully, the chapter was short and ended before she died of her embarrassment.

  Jane snapped her book shut and pulled her feet up onto the swing as well.

  “Was that so bad?” Cris put one foot, and then the other, down onto the porch floor.

  “Yes. Your turn.”

  Cris grabbed Jane’s legs and pulled them over his lap, so that she was lounging across the swing as he had been before she joined him. She was startled, but she allowed it and settled back against the arm of the swing anyway. This certainly wasn’t the first time she had been surprised by how comfortable she felt around Cris. Nobody is watching, anyway. He opened the book to where his finger marked his place and flipped back a few pages. “Chapter Two, Pierre Gringoire.” Cris launched into the story, breezing through all of the French names without difficulty. As he read, he rocked the swing with one of his feet. Jane watched the ceiling of the porch sway as she listened to him read in perfect rhythm with the quiet moans of rusty hinges, and she felt herself become absorbed in the story just as fully as if she were reading it to herself—possibly more so.

  Too soon, though, Chapter Two ended, and Jane was forced to try again. She attempted to duplicate Cris’s fluid style, but she felt as lost in her recitation as before. Her one consolation was that, after listening to Cris, she did seem to have a better grasp of what was going on.

  “That was better,” Cris said when she finished. “Do you want me to keep going?”

  “Yes,” she answered a bit too eagerly, and she blushed.

  “Alright. Chapter Four….”

  After one more round of immersing herself in Cris’s reading and humiliating herself with her own, the two friends put down their books, as their assignment for the evening was complete.

  “That was…nice. Thanks, Cris.”

  “Tomorrow, then? We have to read the second part for class. I think Andersen’s going to give a quiz.”

  “Um, okay. If you can survive listening to me again.”

  Cris laughed at her. They were seated side-by-side on the swing now, rocking in unison. The daylight began to fade around them, washing the entire porch in shades of twilight gray. Cris put his arm around Jane. “You did fine. You
really don’t give yourself enough credit, you know that?”

  “Yeah, and you’re full of crap.”


  “Tomorrow,” she agreed reluctantly. “But you’re going first!”

  “That sounds fair.” They rocked a while longer in silence. The temperature dropped as the darkness descended, but neither Cris nor Jane moved. The bite of the wind compelled them closer together, until Jane was pressed against his side with half of her face warm against his shoulder.

  Abruptly, the porch lights flickered on.

  “Cris? Jane? Are either of you out here? Brrr…it’s getting cold. Cris?”

  The short silhouette of Angelita became visible as their eyes adjusted to the light. Jane pulled herself away from Cris clumsily and hoped that Angelita hadn’t spotted them yet. Cris held her back for a moment as if he didn’t want for her to move, then yielded and stood to answer his mother.

  “We’re here, Mamí.”

  Angelita looked in the direction of his voice. When she caught sight of them, she smiled. “Oh, good. Come in for dinner, you two. Gregory is already at the table.”

  “Is Uncle Mederick coming down?” Jane asked.

  “No, he isn’t.”

  As the weeks passed and the weather grew colder, Jane and Cris were forced to take an old blanket out to the porch swing during their reading sessions. They spent nearly every afternoon curled up together, often with their backs against the arms of the swing and their feet tangled up together in the center of the seat. In addition to their reading assignments, Cris helped Jane with her homework in other subjects, but only if she asked. The rest of the time, they worked in silence. Angelita welcomed their study sessions as an alternative to Jane sneaking behind her as she delivered meals to Dr. Sylfaen. Jane still worried about him constantly, but she convinced herself that she might as well enjoy herself with Cris while she waited for him to finally emerge from his library. She was entitled to a little happiness, after all.

  Just as Cris had assured her, Jane’s grades in their English class did improve. Her scores in her other classes had definitely shown some improvement as well, partially due to Cris’s help, but mostly because she just seemed to get the material. Even in Geometry, all of the rules and equations and proofs that had made her head swim during the first semester back at her old school suddenly began to click into place. Everything made sense—so much sense that Jane couldn’t remember why she had found her classes so difficult before. Her teachers noticed the difference, and so did her friends. The only person who hadn’t noticed the changes in Jane was old Dr. Sylfaen.

  On the Friday she received her first A on an English test, Mr. Andersen asked Jane to stay behind after class. The bell rang, and Cris, Anna, and the rest of their classmates filed out into the hallway. Jane stayed seated in her desk; Mr. Andersen sat down backwards on the desktop of the seat in front of her.

  “So, Jane. I wanted to talk to you about your last test.”


  “When you were moved to this class, I was assured that you were capable of keeping up. I guess your godfather was very…emphatic when he spoke to the front office.”

  Jane inhaled deeply. “Yeah, I can imagine he was.”

  “Well, to be honest, I was concerned after your first couple of tests. I wasn’t sure if you would be able to keep up with the class. I mean, I know that you like to read, and that’s great, but this class is a lot of work.”

  “You’ve got that right.”

  Mr. Andersen laughed. “You seem to be doing well enough now. I was really impressed by your answers to the discussion questions. Insightful. May I ask what you are doing differently?”

  Despite herself, Jane could feel heat prickling in to her cheeks. Damn it. “Um, nothing different really. I guess—well, I guess I was just having a hard time adjusting to everything….”

  “I see.” Mr. Andersen’s eyes were suddenly very sympathetic. “You have had more than your fair share to deal with in the last few months.”

  Jane immediately understood what he meant. She hadn’t meant to play that card with her teacher. She was only referring to having trouble adjusting to the class, which was a lie. Cris was the reason for her improvement, but she wasn’t about to tell Mr. Andersen as much. A disturbing thought nudged her. What if I’m not really doing better in school? Could my teachers just feel sorry for me? She tried to push the notion out of her head—she was improving, and she didn’t need to see her test grades to prove it.

  “Mr. Andersen, I promise that I’ll do better in class. I didn’t mean to make you doubt me.”

  “Oh, you’re already doing better, Jane,” Mr. Andersen replied as he hopped up to write her a late pass for her next class. “I only wanted to congratulate you, and tell you, in no uncertain terms, that I expect more of the same for the remainder of this year.”

  “Sure. Thanks, I guess.”

  He handed the slip of paper to her as the students in his next class began walking in and taking their seats around the room.

  “Get out of here, Jane. See you Monday.” He smiled, and the bell rang again, signaling that she was officially late for Biology. She bolted out of the room, hiding a secret smile behind the armful of books that she carried.

  Jane didn’t see Cris again until lunch. He was already seated at their usual table in the cafeteria, trying to strike up a conversation with Anna, who was looking down at her food and pushing her short hair behind her ears shyly. They were both smiling. Something about the scene irked Jane, though she wasn’t sure why.

  “Hey, Janie! What did Andersen want after class? Is everything okay?” Cris stood up the second he spotted Jane and motioned for her to join them.

  Jane relaxed a bit. “Uh, yeah. Everything’s fine. He wanted to talk about my A. And to tell me that I have to make A’s on all of his assignments now.” Jane dropped the books onto the table and slumped down onto the seat next to Cris.

  “Wow, Jane. Did you really ace one of Mr. Andersen’s tests?” Anna’s question contained a congratulatory air.

  “Yeah, but it’s no big deal. Cris does it all the time.” Cris shrugged and rolled his eyes, but he was obviously flattered.

  “Yeah, I know, but you—,” Anna stopped short, unable to decide how to finish her sentence without offending her friend.

  Jane laughed. “I know, I know. You don’t have to say it. I know I’m not a rocket scientist. I guess I just like the class better than I thought I was going to.”

  “I don’t know, Jane. You got a perfect grade on our last history test, too.”

  “Hey! I didn’t tell anybody about that!” Except Cris, she amended to herself.

  “Yeah…I might have peeked when Ms. Baker put your paper on your desk,” Anna said with a mischievous grin.


  “Well, you’ve been answering all of those questions in class, and I was just—I don’t know, curious.”

  “Curious about what?” Hannah Grace flitted to the table and plopped down next to Anna, across from Jane. Amazingly, the random group of students Jane had met on her first day had maintained a tenuous hold, though she doubted that Anna and Hannah Grace would ever be the best of friends. Even Josh and Brandon could usually be spotted within their little circle, joking and vying for Hannah Grace’s attention.

  Anna slid her books over to make more room for her. “We were talking about Jane turning into a genius overnight.”

  “Ha, ha. I got a couple of good grades on some tests. That hardly makes me a genius. Besides, I’ve been working really hard lately.” Jane tried not to let her eyes drift over to Cris. “I guess it’s just paying off.”

  “Well,” said Hannah Grace as she tossed her hair back over her shoulder and began twirling the spaghetti on her tray. She was ready to change the subject. “I’ve been telling Jane she’s secretly just a geek since I met her. I mean, seriously, who reads English assignments for fun?”

  Anna was embarrassed, yet again, for her friend’s
rudeness. “They were famous stories a long time before they were assignments. Anyway, I wish she would start studying with me. My mom threatened to ground me for the rest of the year if I don’t pull my grades up.”

  “Yeah, sorry about that, girls,” Cris interjected. “I suppose I’ve been keeping her to myself lately.” He threw one arm around Jane and gave her a small squeeze. Jane straightened up in her seat, Anna giggled under her breath, and Hannah Grace sighed in disgust.

  Jane squirmed away from Cris and tried to continue the conversation as if nothing had happened. What is he thinking? I mean, when it’s just the two us, I don’t mind…but in front of my friends?! She attempted a joke. “Well, maybe it’s easier now that I belong to Dr. Sylfaen. He is a genius, or so my parents used to claim. Maybe it just runs in the family.” As she spoke, an odd sensation came over her—a sharp, throbbing pain in the center of her belly. Her breath caught and she pulled both arms over her stomach. She felt suddenly dizzy, as if all of the blood had drained from her head.

  “Janie? Jane?! Are you alright?” Cris was out of his seat in less than a second. Jane slumped over, and he caught her as she began to fall backward out of her seat. The impact of falling into his arms startled her back in to consciousness, and he helped her sit back up in her chair, but he did not let her go. The whole episode was over in a matter of moments. “Jane?”

  “I—I’m fine. I’m okay.” She wasn’t lying; she felt a little hazy, but the pain had disappeared as abruptly as it struck. “I’m okay now, really.”

  Cris was far from convinced. He gave her a little more space but left one hand on her back. “What happened? You fainted, or something.”

  “I—I don’t know.” Her voice was still shaky. “I had a strange pain in my stomach, and then everything closed in—went black.” For an instant, Jane saw an obsidian spark of understanding light Cris’s dark eyes, and she felt his hand grasp a little tighter as she looked to her other friends.

  Hannah Grace and Anna were standing across the table, arms raised as if they had intended to catch her themselves. The same bewildered expression was painted across each of their faces. Hannah Grace spoke first. “Come on, Jane. I’ll take you to see the school nurse.”

  “No, I don’t think I need to go. I’m really okay now. I probably just ate something bad.”

  “No, you almost just fainted onto the cafeteria floor,” Hannah Grace insisted. “Let’s go.”

  “That’s okay. I’ll take her,” Cris offered, already helping Jane out of her seat.

  Hannah Grace was already halfway around the table. “No. I’ll take her, Cris. Just go on to class.”

  He began to argue with her, but Jane took a step closer to Hannah Grace, and then peered back to Cris. “It’s fine. I’ll go with her, okay?”

  Cris looked like he was going to argue for a moment. The bell rang, and the sound of dozens of students simultaneously shuffling out of the cafeteria filled the air. He relented. “Okay.” He watched as Hannah Grace conducted Jane into the throng of students, anxiety evident on his face.

  Anna stepped up to him and leaned close to his ear so that he could hear her over the cacophony of footsteps and random conversations. “I’m sure she’ll be fine.”

  “Yeah…you’re probably right.” He shrugged and smiled appreciatively at Anna. “Where are you going next?”


  “Come on. I’ll walk you to class.” Anna blushed furiously beneath her glasses as Cris swept her books out of her arms and led her out of the cafeteria.

  After an indifferent evaluation, the school nurse told Jane to call home. She wondered for one terrifying minute whether Dr. Sylfaen would answer the telephone, but it was Angelita who picked up. Within twenty minutes, Gregory was standing in the doorway of the nurse’s office.

  “Hiya, kiddo. I didn’t take you for the swooning type.”

  Jane jolted upright from the cot where she had been lying with an icepack on her forehead. “I didn’t swoon! I’m just not feeling great, that’s all.”

  “Huh. That’s not what Cris said.”


  “Yeah. He called right after you did,” Gregory said.

  Jane groaned and collapsed back down on the cot. That figures.

  “Oh, come on, girlie. You had to see that coming.”

  “Is he back in class now?”

  “Nope. He’s waiting for us out in the car. He faked a headache or something, I don’t know. You must have made quite a scene for him to be this worked up about you. I mean, we both know he’s crazy about you, but I’ve never heard of him missing a class since he and Ange moved in.”

  “I didn’t make a scene, and he isn’t crazy about me. He’s just worried that I’m sick—probably worried that he’s going to get sick now.”

  “Uh-huh. Well, let’s get out of here then. I’m curious to see how not crazy about you he acts on the way home.”

  Jane was far from amused. “You’re a real piece of work, you know that?”

  “Yeah, and you look terrible. Come on.” He followed her out of the building and into the parking lot, not exactly hovering, but poised to catch her if she repeated her episode in the cafeteria. As they walked, Jane considered what she had said about Cris being worried about getting sick, too. Could I be sick with something contagious? That hadn’t occurred to her until she’d said it out loud to Gregory. Maybe I have whatever it was that Uncle Mederick had that night in the library. Well, at least I’ll live…even Cris wouldn’t object to an illness that makes me want to spend every day doing research. As she thought, she began to consider the idea that whatever was wrong with her was the same thing that was wrong with Dr. Sylfaen. The more she thought about it, the more it made sense. If he knew that he was sick with something, he might avoid me in order to keep me from catching it, right? That didn’t account for his hours in the library, though, unless he was trying to research a cure or something. Maybe it’s something serious. Jane shuddered. She was making herself more and more tense with every step she took.

  Cris was standing by the car, ready to open Jane’s door for her. He smiled warily, searching her face for some indication that she was feeling better. “Are you alright?”

  “I told you earlier, Cris. I’m fine.” She slipped through the open door and slid onto the leather backseat. Cris lingered, his hands not quite touching her but guiding her safely into the seat. “Seriously? You wanna buckle my seatbelt, too?” She caught a glimpse of Gregory snickering in the front seat.

  He blinked, then rubbed his fingers over the top of his head. With a sheepish grin, he slammed her door shut and walked around the back of the car. He opened the other back door and sat down next to her. “Sorry, Janie. I just wanted to make sure that you’re okay. You really scared me today.” His voice was too soft.

  “Whatever. I’m fine.” The entire ride home was quiet except for Gregory whistling the tune “Crazy” as he drove the car through town and into the neighborhood of mansions. Jane could feel her anxiety heighten as they turned down the tree-lined driveway and pulled around to the side of the house, near the kitchen door.

  “Um, Jane?” Cris asked as Jane yanked open her car door at the precise moment that the car came to a stop.


  “Do you want to read? I got all of your assignments for you.”

  “No.” She didn’t mean for her voice to be so harsh, but she was upset. “I have all weekend to worry about my homework. Right now, I’m going to talk to Uncle Mederick.”

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