The ward of castoria, p.3
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       The Ward of Castoria, p.3

           Robin Silverglate
 

  *****

  Bryn Thorner inwardly groaned when she saw the Evil Stepsisters walking out the front door of school. Kayla, Lauren, and Mackenzie were the most popular students at Lockland Preparatory Academy. Their beautiful blonde hair would often lead people to believe they were sisters, but that was not the case. They were friends who did practically everything together. Boys were infatuated with them and teachers found their pretty Barbie-doll looks charming. Bryn, however, was not fooled by their beguiling outward appearance. She believed they were undoubtedly the meanest people she had ever met.

  These three girls never missed an opportunity to ridicule Bryn and they teased her about a variety of issues. Even though Bryn wore the same school uniform as they did, the Evil Stepsisters always found something to target with a snide comment. Sometimes Bryn’s jacket was outdated and other times her shoes were too cheap. They even found ways to criticize the light dusting of freckles on Bryn’s nose even though Lauren had a few herself. Somehow, they found out she planned on studying to become a doctor and they used that against her, as well.

  Bryn was not sure why the Evil Stepsisters had made her the target of their ridicule and bullying. Their attacks had begun during the first week of her freshman year and she did not remember ever offending them prior to that. Bryn got the impression that Kayla was the one who truly had it in for her and Mackenzie and Lauren were just the mindless drones who followed her lead. It was usually Kayla who led the verbal attacks while her two best friends laughed in agreement. However, after four years of listening to their nasty comments, Bryn found it harder and harder to stay strong against their assaults.

  “You just made me remember something,” Kayla said in a malicious voice. She continued when Bryn didn’t respond. “Your flat chest reminded me that I need to get my dress ironed for my date on Friday night.”

  Bryn rolled her eyes. She would usually ignore Kayla and walk away after a comment like that, but this time she decided to say something. “When are you going to come up with new material? I’ve heard that one at least ten times.”

  Kayla quipped back, “I have to repeat everything ten times, because I’m worried that you’re too stupid to comprehend what I am saying the first nine times.”

  Bryn sighed and said, “Whatever, Kayla. I’ve got to get to work now.”

  “Ah, yes. Off to the coffeehouse. You need to go make minimum wage so you can afford some nice clothes for yourself. I hear Payless is having a sale this weekend. Maybe you should treat yourself to something special.”

  Mackenzie laughed and said, “I wouldn’t be caught dead wearing bargain shoes.”

  Kayla placed her hand on Mackenzie’s shoulder and said, “Let’s stop wasting our time. We’ve got to get to lacrosse practice.” And with that final comment, the three of them spun away in the direction of the school’s practice field while Bryn turned and walked down the city sidewalk.

  As Bryn descended the steps into the Metro station, she tried to force their comments out of her mind. She wasn’t going to take stock in what they said about her. Even though her chest was admittedly flat, she knew she wasn’t stupid. She worked hard to keep her grades as high as possible. She had recently been accepted to Johns Hopkins University which was one of the best medical schools in the country. Of that she was immensely proud.

  Bryn luckily did not have to wait long on the platform before she saw the train enter the station. It was not very crowded at two-thirty in the afternoon and she easily found a seat to herself. Bryn felt instant relief as the doors closed and sealed her in from the cold windy tunnel. She took out a book to help pass the time, but found her mind wandering instead. Bryn counted the months she had left at Lockland Prep. It was now March and she had three months to go. She only had to endure ninety more days of the Evil Stepsisters. Then, hopefully, she would never have to see them again.

  They had made life very difficult for Bryn these past four years. The other students saw how she was treated and usually stayed out of it. She knew it was because most of them were vying for the popular blondes’ attention and did not want to risk anything that might associate them with a social outcast. As a result, Bryn ate lunch by herself at the same table every school day for the past four years and not once had anyone joined her. She told herself that it didn’t really bother her, but she was glad this phase of her life was almost over. Things would be different once she graduated.

  The train pulled into her station five minutes before she had to be at work. She braced herself against the chilly breeze as she walked onto the open platform. Luckily, the coffeehouse was only two stores down from the station, so she was not in the cold for long. She checked in with Joan, her boss, and positioned herself behind the counter. Working the afternoon shift at a coffeehouse was relatively easy. The busiest time for the business was in the morning and she only worked mornings on weekends and school holidays. She and her best friend, Nicole, were usually the only ones needed to work during the afternoons. The two of them had been friends ever since kindergarten. Even though they went to different schools now, they still maintained their close friendship. In fact, it had been Nicole who had convinced Bryn to get the job at the Daily Grinder so they could spend more time together after school.

  Nicole slipped in the store a couple minutes late. As she passed by Bryn, she said, “Sorry. Mom needed my help with Ryan after school.”

  “That’s all right,” said Bryn, but she didn’t have time to say anything else because a customer came in right behind Nicole. She moved quickly to the register in order to take the woman’s order. When Nicole returned from checking in with their boss, Bryn asked, “How’s Ryan today?” Nicole’s brother had been sick the past few weeks and Bryn was beginning to get worried.

  Nicole smiled and said, “Better, I think. His fever seems to have broken, but Mom made an appointment to have some tests run just as a precaution.”

  “That’s good,” Bryn said as she wiped down the counter. “What day is he having the tests?”

  “This Thursday. What about you now? How were the Evil Stepsisters today?”

  Nicole was the only person she confided in about Kayla, Lauren, and Mackenzie. More and more recently, Nicole had tried to convince Bryn to tell her father about the things they were saying, but Bryn did not want to worry him.

  “Evil as ever,” Bryn informed her. She tried to smile to show they weren’t getting to her, but it was not easy to do. “They found me on the way to work in order to get their quota of nastiness in for the day.”

  “What did they say this time?”

  “Oh, you know. The same old comments about my cheap clothes and what not.”

  Nicole sighed and said, “I wish you went to MHS. We’re not as obsessed with superficial things.” Bryn was technically zoned for McKinley High School, but had chosen to attend the prestigious preparatory academy so she had a better chance to get into Johns Hopkins. Nicole liked her school and often entertained Bryn with stories about her other friends. Bryn knew if she had gone there, those people would be her friends, as well. On days when the Evil Stepsisters were especially bad, Bryn would wonder if she had made the wrong decision in going to Lockland Prep.

  “My school definitely seems to have this unofficial competition about who can flaunt their wealth the most. The girls talk about their beach houses and the boys talk about their BMWs. Kayla’s parents are sending her on a graduation trip to Paris in July and all she wants to do is go shopping and hook up with a sexy French guy. Not once have I heard her mention a desire to see the Eiffel Tower. If I were lucky enough to go to Paris, I think that would be the first thing on my to-do list.”

  Nicole smiled and said, “I don’t know about that. Shopping in Paris does sound kind of fun to me.”

  Bryn interrupted, “You know what I mean. If you and I went shopping in Paris, I’m sure we would at least visit a few famous sites afterwards. When Kayla is done shopping, she’s pr
obably going to find some unsuspecting French girl to tease mercilessly.”

  Nicole sighed and then said, “Well, in just a few more months, you’ll never have to deal with that bitch again. Ten years from now, you’re going to be a super successful doctor and Kayla is going to be as simple-minded as ever. She’ll probably have to dye her hair regularly to cover all her gray hairs and wear excessive amounts of make-up to hide the crow’s feet around her eyes.”

  Bryn scrunched up her nose and said, “Why do you think she’s going to look so old at our ten year reunion? Kayla’s only going to be twenty-eight years old then.”

  Nicole shrugged. “She made your life miserable during high school and karma is bound to catch up with her.”

  Bryn still doubted her loyal friend’s prediction. She would not be surprised if Kayla showed up to the reunion standing next to her own Prince Charming. She seemed to be able to get whatever she wanted. But Bryn knew that at least by the ten year reunion, she would have exactly what she wanted. She was going to be a doctor no matter what.

  Nicole nudged her arm. “You know what we should do?”

  Bryn sighed. She knew what was coming. “I’m not really in the mood for games.”

  “Come on,” Nicole pleaded. “It’ll be fun.”

  Bryn shook her head and then relented. “Fine. What do you want to do this time? Tic-tac-toe? Jacks?” Whenever their conversations took a more depressing turn, Nicole would make them play some game from their childhood. She had a theory that kids lived in a more optimistic world and if they played childhood games, then they would feel that same way.

  “How about hopscotch?” Nicole suggested.

  “Right here? Behind the counter?”

  “Yes, right here.” Nicole pointed to the floor and said, “See, we can pretend these tiles are the hopscotch board and we can use a coffee lid for the marker. No one hardly ever comes in here at this time of day. Even Joan stays in her office while she watches her shows.”

  Bryn shrugged and agreed. That’s one of the things she loved so much about Nicole. She was always thinking of quirky ways for them to amuse themselves at work. At school, Bryn had to be so studious and serious. But here, it was nice just to have a little teenage fun. Although, in this case, it was more like having preschooler amusement.

  They spent the next few minutes figuring out which tiles would count for the hopscotch board and going over the rules. Nicole went first and looked rather foolish as she jumped from tile to tile. Bryn soon followed, laughing as she had to bend over on one foot in order to pick up the coffee lid. The floor was also a little slippery thanks to all the coffee spilled earlier in the day, so every time Bryn balanced on one foot, she had to wave her hands in the air for extra balance. Bryn grinned as her cares floated away during the game.

  They were still laughing heartily when a customer entered the store. Since Bryn was closest to him, she moved to the register to take his order. “Good afternoon,” she said with laughter still tinting her voice. “May I help you?”

  She noted that the customer was about her age, maybe a year or two older. He was very tall and had dark brown hair. His facial features seemed as if they had been perfectly sculpted by a Greek artist. The teenage boy was definitely handsome, but something in his eyes caused her to have an unsettled feeling. His brown eyes appeared to be bordering on a shade of black and they just didn’t look right to her.

  “I am sorry to take you away from your game,” he said apologetically.

  “That’s all right. What would you like to drink today?”

  “I’ll have a coffee.”

  Bryn caught herself before she rolled her eyes. Really, some customers were dense. “What kind of coffee would you like?”

  He looked a little surprised by her question and asked, “What different kinds of coffee are there?”

  Bryn tried to keep a calm look on her face as she pointed to the back wall where there were the listings of over twenty different kinds of drinks. “Take your pick,” she said.

  He seemed overwhelmed by the sheer number of coffee styles and after a minute of deliberating asked, “Can’t I just have a cup of plain coffee?”

  “Sure. Regular or Decaf?”

  “Um...regular?” It sounded like he was asking her if that was what he should have. Bryn thought that was weird. Coffee drinkers usually knew exactly what they wanted to drink.

  She made his regular, plain cup of coffee and placed it on the counter. The guy reached into his pocket and pulled out six dollar bills and asked, “Is this enough?”

  No wallet, thought Bryn. Just another reason to add to his growing list of idiosyncrasies. She took three dollars out of the pile and got the correct change from the register. She placed the coins on the table and pushed the other three dollars back in his direction. When he looked at her with a confused expression, Bryn said, “That’s your change.”

  He put the money back into his pocket, picked up the cardboard cup, and sniffed. “It smells delicious.”

  Bryn nodded and said, “Uh huh.”

  “Do you mind if I sit over there?” he asked pointing to a table next to the window.

  She almost laughed when she said, “You can sit anywhere you like.”

  Even the way he walked over to the table seemed atypical to Bryn. The only way she could describe his movements was that he seemed to glide over to his seat. His long legs gently strolled across the sticky floor without making the usual squeaky sounds other customers made. He sat down and took a sip of coffee. His eyes widened and his face puckered. By his reaction, one would have assumed he’d just sampled the equivalent of sour milk. He placed the cup down on the table and shifted his body so he could see out the window. Bryn turned to Nicole and saw that her friend looked just as bewildered as she was. Bryn found a rag to clean up the counters to busy herself.

  Over the next half hour, a few more customers came in to buy coffee, but only the guy with the weird eyes stayed. Periodically, Bryn would peek at him and see what he was doing. Every time she looked over at him, she saw that he was in the exact same position. He sat straight up in his seat and stared out the window. That was all he did. Not once did he take another sip of coffee. It remained untouched on the table. Nor did he ever read a newspaper or take out his cell phone to play a game or even text someone. He just sat there, gazing into the city street.

  Nicole went into the back storage room in order to put away a few things and Bryn was now left alone with the strange customer. She needed to refill the condiments at the coffee station in the center of the room, so she moved from behind the counter. Bryn was busy for a few minutes cleaning and refilling the baskets with sugar packets. Out of the corner of her eye, she kept tabs on her lone customer in order to see what he was doing. He was still watching out the window and his coffee remained untouched. Bryn had seen customers nurse their java over a long period of time before, but he wasn’t even lifting the cup to his mouth. It got to the point where the neglected coffee actually aggravated her.

  She decided to ask. “Do you need some sweetener or something?”

  “Pardon me?” he asked as he turned away from his window-gazing. He was looking at her again with those queer eyes. She did not know what to make of them.

  “Some sweetener?” she asked politely. “For your coffee.”

  The customer looked at the table and asked, “Do you have some?”

  “Of course. White, Blue, Yellow, or Pink?”

  He drew in his breath. After a long awkward silence, he finally said, “Pink?”

  Bryn walked back over to the coffee station and grabbed two pink sweetener packets. She brought them to the table and held them out for him. He cautiously took them from her hand. “What do I do with these?”

  After a momentary pause, Bryn made a pouring motion with her hand and said, “You put them in your coffee.”

  The boy looked at the packets and then proceeded to dunk them in
to his coffee like a tea bag. Bryn’s eyes widened as she saw the bottom of the pink packets take on a brown tinge as they became immersed in the coffee. “What are you doing?” she blurted out in disbelief.

  He looked worried and said, “I’m putting the sugar in the coffee just as you instructed me to do.”

  “You’re supposed to tear open the packets first and then pour the sweetener into the coffee cup.” Bryn believed this was possibly the strangest person she’d ever met. She wondered if he had some sort of mental disorder. She went back to the condiment station and grabbed two more pink packets and a stirring stick. “Here, let me do it for you.” She tore the tops and poured in the fine granules of sweetener. She then took the stirring stick and mixed the coffee for him. As she did so, she noticed he was watching her closely. This unnerved her a little, so Bryn moved her hands into the pockets of her apron and said, “Try that, now.”

  He picked up the cup and took a hesitant sip. By the minute puckering of his eyes, she could instantly see that he did not like it, but he worked hard to hide it. “Mmmm,” he said with an unconvincing smile. “Much better. Thank you.”

  Bryn felt it best to end this strange conversation as soon as possible. Instead of accusing him of lying or offering him a different drink, she simply said, “You’re welcome,” and turned to go back behind the counter.

  She started to clean one of the machines that would probably not be used anymore today. A few minutes later, she heard him get up from his chair and a loud thud soon followed as his nearly full cup of coffee landed in the bottom of the trashcan. She forced on a smile and said, “Have a good night.”

  He was almost at the door when he turned and said, “Goodnight.” It looked as if he wanted to say something else, but he didn’t. In the end, he just shook his head like he was deciding against something and headed out the door.

  Bryn was thoroughly baffled by him. He was so strange. She wished Nicole had seen their conversation, but unfortunately her friend had been in the back room the entire time. Bryn would have loved having a second opinion in analyzing his behavior. She deliberated going in the back room and telling Nicole about what he had done with the sugar packets. Nicole would certainly find it comical, but by the time she returned, Bryn had decided the strange customer wasn’t worth thinking about any more. That was probably the last she’d see of him since he obviously did not like coffee.

  The rest of her shift went smoothly. No more abnormal customers with a strange loathing for coffee. About ten minutes after the store closed, Bryn’s father knocked on the locked door. She waved to him and went to let him in.

  “I’m almost done, Dad. Do you mind waiting for a few more minutes?”

  “Not at all,” said her father. He sat down at a table and read a book that he had carried with him. Bryn couldn’t remember a time when her father wasn’t carrying some book or newspaper. His eyeglasses, which were meant to be only for reading, were now an almost permanent fixture on his face. She often felt that James Thorner could be the prototype for a college professor. His balding hair was in the process of officially turning grey and his tweed blazer completed the ensemble. All that was missing, Bryn thought, were the leather elbow patches sewn onto the jacket.

  The irony of it all was that Bryn knew he should have been a college professor in reality. She still remembered how, when she was a young girl, her father was often busy at school working toward obtaining a Ph.D. in History. But that dream came to an abrupt end when her mother got sick. Over the years, Bryn had tried to encourage him to go back to school to complete his degree, but he had always replied, “I’m content with teaching high school for now. Maybe sometime in the future.” Bryn knew he was not lying. He did seem to enjoy his job, but she also knew that the main reason why he did not go back to school was because it would have been too difficult for a single parent who was raising a child.

  Bryn and Nicole finished cleaning up the shop and said goodnight to Joan. She waved back without missing a beat of counting the money on her desk. Bryn’s father put a bookmark in his place and then opened the door for the girls. Outside of the store, Nicole said “Night, Bryn. I’ll text you when I get home.”

  “Goodnight,” said Bryn as she went in the other direction with her father.

  Her father turned toward her and asked, “How was your day, Brynie Bird?”

  Bryn smiled at the childhood nickname her father always used when they were alone. “Fine.” Bryn justified to herself that she wasn’t entirely lying to him. The part where she and Nicole had goofed around had been fun.

  “You got any homework to do tonight?” he asked as he usually did within five minutes of seeing her for the first time after school.

  “A little,” Bryn said. “I finished most of it in class. I just have some calculus left.”

  “Good, good,” he said as he nodded. “I have some news to share.”

  “You do?” Bryn asked with great curiosity. “What is it?”

  “The school has decided to give me an intern this semester.”

  “That’s great. You’ve been asking for one for so long that I just assumed it was never going to happen.”

  “I must admit I was thinking the same thing, as well. I can’t even remember the last time I requested having an intern. But today, after school, this young gentleman showed up in my office and told me he was my intern. Well, I immediately put him to work grading some papers. He couldn’t have come at a better time. Now, I have more time to look over the textbooks that our department wants to adopt next year.”

  Bryn was happy her father was getting some extra help. She used to assist him with the more mundane parts of his job, but now that she had a job herself and because her own school work was ten times more demanding, she could not help him anymore.

  As Bryn and her father turned the corner, Bryn subconsciously moved closer to him. This was the only section on the walk home that gave her a little bit of the creeps. Fletcher Park always looked so picturesque in the day time with its tall trees and strategically placed benches, but at night, the open space seemed spooky to her. The light from the nearby streetlamps barely infiltrated the dark interior of the park. Bryn was glad her father insisted he escort her home from work whenever her shift ended in the dark hours of the night. It made her feel a little safer as she walked past the park that closed at dusk.

  Perhaps due to the creepy feeling she got from passing the park, Bryn looked over her shoulder and thought she saw a shadowy figure paralleling them on the other side of the street. She regarded her father in order to gauge whether she should be worried, but he seemed complacent in their path. She glanced back over her shoulder and told herself that her mind must have played a trick on her. There was no one across the street. Not now.

 
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