Wit’s World: Never Was, Chapter Five by Elizabeth Watasin
Dawn broke over a silent city where vacationing families slept and the businesses that provided for them quietly turned over from night shift to day. Within Amazing World the attractions and avenues stood still and expectant in the chill of early morning while the recorded music played. Along one of the sleeping boulevards of Silver City, a young man’s long, strong gait could be heard as he walked towards his destination.
Rif Walker was still considered “that new guy” at Silver City High School. His dad had moved him and his brother to take advantage of all the new demolition work courtesy of the Town of Tomorrow plan. The move also helped distance them from an unfortunate amateur wrestling accident that mired Rif in scandal. He was a tall, young man with rugged good looks, a wary eye, and a muscular build that provoked grudging respect. It also provoked challenge, and Rif had his fair share of fights. Things did not stay simple where girls and women were concerned. That wrestling match for one, where his old friend Pete decided it was a good opportunity to try and kill him. Rif should have never fallen for Pete’s sister, and he should have never betrayed her by also falling for her mother. He did the worst thing he could possibly do in front of Pete’s family when his friend put a hold on him that was meant to cripple. Rif ended up breaking Pete’s neck instead.
The accident had been ruled as such, but the damage had been done. Though he had been in a bad place in his life when he screwed everything up, Rif wasn’t in the habit of making excuses. Like his dad said, Walker men didn’t mean to hurt people, but they were capable of some really bad decisions. He knew Dick Walker was referring to his own failed relationship with Rif’s mom.
Fallout from the scandal had Rif ditch everything to go to Europe to find his mom. It meant getting held back in school when he returned, but finding his mom did teach him that not all his choices were bad, they just had prices. Rif made peace with his mistakes and took his fall from grace with his usual stoicism.
That day he was enjoying his walk. Rif had never been in such a strange city. It was surprisingly safe, not so seedy, although a young man of his size and attitude was usually left alone wherever he went. He was used to the unattractive side of life and to witness in this town what a friendly local had described to him as “whimsy” was still startling. There were weird, wonderful buildings everywhere. The tea house, for instance, that was shaped just like a giant tea kettle or the tackle shop whose door was the gaping mouth of a giant bass. The restaurant designed to look like a huge, pink, smiling pig complete with three piglets was called The Hog House. It was already condemned; the windows were boarded and the site was surrounded by a chain link fence. Each piglet nestled against the main Hog House was a hickory smoker. Rif walked by the fence with his dad’s company sign fixed to the links and gazed at the little piglet huts that would soon be salvaged for their smoke pits. Rif worked demolition for his dad on the weekends and he didn’t look forward to being assigned the job of breaking the piglets apart. Last weekend he had to tear down an interior wall of the Venus Grotto, his sledge hammer smashing holes in the blue and green plaster. He had watched the other workmen salvage the thick glass of the huge aquarium windows and imagined how many swimming mermaids those tanks might have held.
His dad called all these aging places useless eyesores. The Hog House was next on his dad’s list for demolition and his father was eager to have it meet his wrecking ball. Rif understood his dad’s attitude; as a tightwad who didn’t care to eat out, restaurants and coffee shops held no significance for him. Rif’s mom had married too young, barely a child herself when she was pregnant with his brother and she had made only TV dinners. Dick Walker continued to enjoy those, as a freezer full of dinner boxes attested to. If his dad liked anything historical about this town it was that the famous Witland Wally, Jr. had invented the TV tray “instant” dinner to go along with his television.
Rif had followed a strict athlete’s diet that he had to prepare himself when he was a competing wrestler but since coming to Silver City he took his construction pay to the remaining oddball restaurants and enjoyed the comforts of their home style fare. Gravy, meat and potatoes, barbeque and fried chicken, soups, chowders, and pies, fresh baked bread, butter and biscuits, slow cooked rice, beans and greens; it was adventuresome eating after being on a regimen for so long so Rif balanced it out with training. Eating out had its tactile qualities and he became aware of those, too: the thump of a hot dish laid down for him, the clink of silverware and glasses, the pouring of coffee, the scrunch sound of paper napkins pulled from the table dispenser. He ordered things he could never be too sure about but was willing to try, like “Va Va Voom Chicken,” “Cave Man Pie,” “Thunder Soup,” and “Spaghetti Space Colony.” Sometimes the food came in boats, spaceships, or in fire bowls. Some places even had shows, though the Cannibal Grove, to Rif’s disappointment, no longer hosted the famous “native girls dance number” that he had heard of. Their drum nights and fire dances, however, were still good. Rif thought when he learned to write better he might keep a journal of his dining experiences.
Besides the food he liked the old restaurant buildings, useless or not. He knew that his mom would have shared that opinion. The buildings made no provocative statement but Rif recognized the value in such simplicity; it was innocent and harmless. In their heyday, mermaids swimming in tanks and food smoked in piglets had given people something more than just a place to sit and eat. His brother preferred bars and strip clubs but Rif wanted to discover what was unique to Silver City. This was why he enjoyed the route he walked on Saturday mornings, gazing openly at all the strange structures while no one was awake in them. Someone had to build such places and he thought it would be nice for once to be that kind of person rather than the one who destroyed things.
His favorite building was the Wizard’s. It made waffles, it looked like something out of storybooks, and better yet, it had princesses.
Rif tested the gate in the alley and found it unlocked. When he slipped into the courtyard he saw Buck through the dining nook window, already downing waffles. Buck saw him, too, and made a face. Rif had been on the receiving end of that look often enough, so he paid it no heed. He wiped his work boots off on the door mat shaped like a black cat and respectfully entered. Mrs. Daring was at the other table reading the paper and Rif murmured a greeting. He received a warm smile in return. She had been a prominent athlete herself. Surprisingly, they shared a commonality in unfortunate and very public accidents and Rif was glad someone in this town had a deeper understanding of what he had gone through.
He knew not to wait for an invite to sit down and dutifully took a seat. There was already a plate for him at the table with sausage, eggs, and waffles. Here was the smell of coffee, good food, and the perfume of a kind woman and Rif liked that he could find this kind of normalcy and rightness at least one morning of the week.
Buck watched as Rif laid down his school books for his tutoring session with Em, shrugged off his jean jacket, and sat down at the nook for breakfast. Buck hated athletes. Rif was not thick or burly like the steroid users but he still had lots of muscles and that damn “V” shape, all indicative of his caveman status and lack of brains. As far as Buck was concerned, athletes were completely useless to society even if they could boast of being former amateur wrestling champions like Rif. Pip would argue that wrestling was an art form and Buck had to grudgingly agree, but to him it was just one step ahead of its poor relation, mud wrestling. Wrestlers couldn’t make rockets or fantasy parks or appreciate the importance of historical architectural heritage. Not only that, Buck knew what Rif’s dad did for a living.
Buck sat and ate his waffles and eggs, giving Rif the cold eye all the while. The ex-star wrestler with the evil father quietly downed his food and pretty much ignored him.
* * *
In the Waffle Wizard attic Pip had long been awake and fully dressed. She practiced handstands while waiting for Em to come out of the bathroom from the floor below. Hearing the familiar movements that meant Em was on her way up Pip rolled up some paper and flattened herself next to the doorway.
One of the most important things the twins learned while practicing all manner of disciplines was knowing their minds and bodies. Pip’s energy lent itself perfectly to vigor. Em’s energy radiated from a state of calm.
“Ha!” Pip cried, attempting to tag her twin with her paper weapon. The sound telegraphed Pip’s ambush. Em neatly ducked the paper as she entered the room.
“Ha! Ha! Ha!!” Pip shouted with each thrust of the rolled up paper. “Wake up!”
Em was definitely awake, her arm still carrying her towel as she sidestepped Pip’s attack, turning her body one way, then another, always avoiding the paper’s touch. Pip forced her back into the room. Em hopped on top of a bed in retreat. Her body discipline was an economy of style, both deliberate and effective, that Em had learned from Aunt Dawn’s stunt man boyfriend. A martial artist and stunt choreographer, he and their aunt had played a similar game themselves, much to the twins’ delight. While Pip loved learning the more vigorous tricks like how to drop down safely from a two-story window, Em eagerly emulated the elegant, defensive moves that anticipated action. The first rule was to make herself as small a target as possible. The second was to take advantage of her opponent’s movements. Sometimes Em stepped right into Pip’s space and tapped her, thus ending the game.
That day, as Pip playfully provoked her, Em didn’t bother to retaliate. She was content to react passively and see how long she could stay out of harm’s way. In short time Em ran out of room to maneuver. Pip pointed her weapon at Em’s chest.
“Yield,” she said.
Pip held up her rolled up paper in a sword salute and grinned. “I’m only keeping you on your toes. If it was up to you, you’d sleep late, paint all day, or play with your tin boxes. Keeping your skills honed is important.”
“And if it was up to you, we would be scaling buildings, swinging from vines, and swimming for our lives escaping sharks,” Em accused.
“I like that. Let’s make that an outing after my publicity stunt.” Pip looked at Em closely. “You said ‘swimming,’” she pointed out gently.
“I did,” Em said. Her eyes were wide.
They were proficient swimmers. Their mother would have seen to it but the twins’ love of water came more from admiring the St. Gold Boardwalk performers who dove into tubs.
When their Aunt Dawn drowned during a magic stunt however, Em could swim no more.
“Would you like to try it? A dip-your-toes kind of thing,” Pip suggested.
By the look in her twin’s eyes and the shortness of her breath, Pip decided Em was not yet ready to confront her crippling phobia of water.
Pip’s hands suddenly moved. In sign language she said: Look up.
Em did, her face still pale. Pip began to blink. First one eye shut briefly for a short blink then her other shut for a long blink. A series of short and long blinks ensued.
“What?” Em exclaimed. Pip repeated the sequence of blinks.
“Is that … Pip, are you blinking Morse Code?”
“Yes, and did you get the message?”
Em’s own eyes ticked slightly as she recalled the sequence.
“I’m speaking, aren’t I?” she then said in indignant response.
Pip laughed gaily. “I thought we could use that as signals during magic tricks.”
“That’s silly,” Em said. Her water fear was forgotten. Pip gave Em a quick kiss that irritated her twin and skipped to the doorway.
“I love you,” Em said.
Surprised, Pip paused. With a smile she signed “I love you” back.
When Em stopped swimming she stopped speaking, too. Pip had enticed Em out of her silence by signing to her. Fascinated by how expressive a person’s face and body could be along with the hand gestures, Em had to ask questions in order to find out what her infuriating sister was communicating and to learn the language herself. When Pip signed to her Em always responded with words, much to Pip’s secret relief.
* * *
Pip rapidly descended the steps and felt the need to expend more energy. She weighed whether she should practice aerials in the courtyard. She was both stimulated and nervous about the prospect of doing her publicity stunt. Nerves could cause her to fall on her head in the courtyard just at that crucial moment when she was upside down in the air and Buck would not forgive her for that. When she reached the kitchen Mom was already there and Pip ignored the boys in the room to give her mother a quick kiss. June held up two concert tickets.
“They were in the doorway. Are they for you?” June asked.
“Mm. Yes, they’re for Em,” Pip said, her eyes brightening when she saw who the band was. Shade could be a jerk but once in a blue moon he somehow remembered to do the right thing. Taking the tickets, she gazed intently at Rif.
He was on his second hearty helping of breakfast and was about to put some scrambled eggs in his mouth. Pip’s attention made the young man stop eating and return her gaze self-consciously. Buck noticed and looked from one to the other. She raised her chin.
“You can go up,” Pip suddenly said, as if bestowing a royal invitation. “Just don’t enter the room.”
Buck was utterly floored by the casual invite and Rif appeared to be, as well. When he eventually moved he hastily took something from the top of his books and went for the stairs. Buck swiveled his head to look at Mrs. Daring who was behind her newspaper apparently oblivious, and then back to the smiling, approaching Pip.
“How could you?!” he said. “I’m not even allowed to go up there!”
Pip shrugged and placed Shade’s tickets on the sunlit window ledge.
“He’s a killer!” Buck said. “He killed a guy while wrestling.”
“No he didn’t,” Pip said, refilling Buck’s juice glass. “He just broke his neck a little.”
“That’s a crazy thing to do, even if the other guy was going to hurt him first over some girl,” Buck said. Pip eyed him tolerantly.
“I don’t have to tell you how it happened again. I know it was ugly, but it was self defense.”
Buck glowered. “He’s still a cave man. Did you see the hair on his chest? He’s probably held back a couple of grades.”
“True. He ditched at least one school year because he went to Europe to look for his mother. And the chest hair?” Pip grinned. “I counted more than six.”
Oblivious to the conversation below, Rif climbed the stairs as gently as he could, causing the old boards to creak. The first and only time he’d gone up the steps before was because he had heard one of the girls scream. He had been alone downstairs eating, patiently waiting for his second tutoring session. To him, such a frightening scream only meant one thing. So he pounded up the narrow stairs, adrenaline pumping, only to stop right at the attic doorway.
Emma had not been dressed. At least, not fully dressed in her long black skirts and hugging black tops, the ones that accentuated her slender arms with patterns of lace. Em was wearing what Rif had to guess was a night shift; simple, sleeveless, and white. Her face had no makeup and was stunningly pure. She had something in her hands that she had apparently shown to Pip and at Rif’s sudden appearance hastily hidden behind her. She then realized her state of undress and brought her hands to her front again. Rif saw that Pip had been the one to scream, judging by how she held her mouth. She, in contrast, was fully dressed. The blonde twin then dropped her hands when she realized he was there and placed them indignantly on her hips.
“Boys aren’t allowed in our room,” she had said.
Rif thought the Darings would kick him out and never let him back into the Waffle Wizard, or near their daughters, ever again. Instead, Mrs. Daring, highly amused by the situation, caught his arm when he tried to leave in his acute embarrassment. Mr. Daring just stared at him, perplexed. When Em finally came down she was fully dressed and made up as the Dark Girl he knew. Rif tried to apologize. She only touched his hand and sat down to eat with him.
Rif still didn’t know what had made Pip scream so frighteningly that morning. All he could remember was that while standing in that small attic doorway something intriguingly beautiful and new had been shown to him, unlike anything he had seen before.
Rif crept to the attic entrance. He sat down quietly on the steps and leaned against the door frame. He looked in. Em was at the dressing table and already dressed. Rif doubted Pip would have let him come up had Em been otherwise. She was applying kohl to her eyes.
She saw him in the mirror and paused. When she turned there was a small smile on her lips that had yet to be touched by makeup.
“Boys aren’t allowed in our room,” she said lightly.
Rif slowly removed the hand that had been ready to rap on the floorboard, announcing his presence. Arm now tucked away, and with himself partially hidden, he was technically no longer in the girls’ room.
Em turned back to the mirror, smiling all the while. She continued to work on her face.
Rif watched Em slowly add beauty to her features and forgot that perhaps he should say good morning, or at least ask how she was. The girls and women he had been with had never shared this part of themselves without keeping a conversation and Rif realized that he liked Em’s silence; it gave him the opportunity to appreciate this very female ritual. Mesmerized, he watched her finish the application of kohl with the drawing of a tiny cobra underneath her left eye. Each movement of her hands for the mascara, for the powder, or for the pencil, was a soft, steady rhythm that lulled Rif into a state of hypnotized peace. He was surprised that he remained calm when she uncapped her lipstick, which that day was a deep shade of red. He liked that color very much.
A woman he had been with had looked at him through her mirror once and recognized that he was pondering her rituals. While she painted her lips she had smiled at him.
“Doing this steadies me. I feel more like me. Then I’m ready to face the world,” she had told him.
Rif watched Em carefully apply her lipstick and realized that Em needed more to face the world than Pip did.
After her lips were done, Em finally rose from the table.
“What did you bring today?” she asked. Rif remembered the book he had carried up. He placed it on the floor before Em, showing her the illustrated cover. His heart beat loudly. He belatedly realized that she was probably referring to his homework downstairs, because he’d never brought something like this to her before.
Em knelt. Warm delight was on her face as she touched the book. Rif was relieved.
“The story of Rose Red. Have you read it?”
“Yeah,” Rif said under his breath. “This is for you.” He had seen it in the window of one of the old bookstores downtown. Though he had never cared to look at such things before, the beautiful, old cover caught his eye and made him think of her. Fairy tales, of all things, were fast becoming his favorite subject to read. That had been the idea when Em made him read all the “Fey Dently, Vampyre” books. Rif had finally discovered the joy of reading.
“It’s a thank you,” he added. “For all your help.”
Em accepted his gift with a demure lowering of her dark lashes.
“We’ll keep your guitar safe,” she then said. “For as long as you need.”
Em had misunderstood the gift’s intent but her words made Rif grin. Ever since his mom ran away to pursue her passion, Rif’s dad couldn’t stand it that one of his sons wanted to play music, too. It was bad enough that Rif had been named thus because of his mother’s love of guitar players. Starting anew in Silver City however, led Rif to make a reckless purchase at the secondhand music shop. Furtively carrying his beloved new instrument to and from his tutoring lessons only gained Pip’s keen attention. His new guitar was now safely stored under the modest theater stage in the Wizard’s courtyard.
When Em went to place his gift on a table Rif noticed the camera and paper things.
“What are you working on?” he asked.
“Several projects,” Em said. “I made up a new story last night. Would you like to see?”
Rif nodded. Watching the twins tell stories was a real pleasure. It was the same kind of pleasure he experienced when he watched his mom front her band and whirl in her witch dresses on stage. “Should I get Pip?”
“She’s seen this story already.” Em retrieved a marionette hanging neatly on the wall. She slowly swept the puppet on its strings into Rif’s view. It was a female dancer, made of cloth with a delicate pretty head and tiny ballet feet. She was blindfolded. Em deftly manipulated the stick controls with one hand and the dancer began to move. It slowly danced a solitary graceful ballet.
“Once there was a blind girl, living deep in the woods, who greeted each dawn with dance and song,” Em began. “She was grateful for movement and grateful for her voice, since it was fated that she should have no eyes to view the coming of day. She felt the rising sun on her face and such glad warmth made her sing. An exiled king passing through her woods heard her once and to see such beauty brightened his dreary days. Each morning she had a secret audience.”
As the blind girl gently moved Em began to sing. The hand behind her back brought forth the second marionette, a bearded king in fine clothes. He crouched low in hiding, admiring the blind girl’s dance and song.
Rif watched the marionettes, enchanted. When he looked up to take in Em’s face, who gazed down upon her puppets as she sang, he added this moment to other memories of her beauty.
Pip, in the courtyard, cocked her head, hearing something familiar. She nodded when she recognized it and returned her attention to Buck.
“So I believe the nameplate key goes in like so,” Buck said, demonstrating with the rare “Philippa” badge in his hands. He twisted it in an imaginary gate’s turnstile post.
“Are you sure the motion is clockwise?” she asked.
“Good question. Counter-clockwise would be the Carny Man’s style. Just like the Nightmare Clock in his Dark Town. Look at this footage.” Buck gestured to his computer book. Old grainy footage played at an odd, fast speed on the screen, showing patrons from the turn of the century entering turnstiles at Wit’s World. The motions they made with their keys appeared to be as Buck had demonstrated.
“If that motion is incorrect for the Gold Gate I’ll cover up and try the other direction.” Pip, like her twin, was a consummate professional when performing. “What happens after that? A gum ball appears?”
“No. The magic gears in the gates should move.”
“To the oohs and ahs of the crowd.”
“And then trigger to slide open. You go through the gold turnstile and wave to us from the other side.”
“And if the gears happen to need a magic oil can after all this time?” Pip asked, holding her hand out to retrieve the precious nameplate. While Buck stood in a fluster at the thought of Pip walking into a shut gate, Pip took the badge.
The nameplate sent a thrill through her arm, surprising her. She felt that energy run over her skin and envelope her entire body. Once she felt it reach her head and toes the sensation was gone. Pip looked at the metal in her hand and thought that for a split second, the nameplate had glowed.
She dismissed the odd moment and secured the nameplate to her top.
“Dutch assured us that the Gold Gate is in complete working order,” Buck said.
“How does he know that?” She experimented with a presentation gesture and mimed her approach to an imaginary gate and the insertion of her key.
“I don’t know, but he does know things. He’s like a brick to talk to, but when he says it’s so, it actually is. He worked for Amazing at one time so I’m not going to doubt him. Should we practice this with me doing my speech?”
“Absolutely. Do I get any lines?”
Buck shook his head.
“We can’t even risk your saying Sun’s slogan.”
“AD ASTRA,” Pip proclaimed, sweeping a hand to the sky.
“Yeah. Don’t do that. Ever. Amazing will slap fines on any unofficial Tomorrow Maidens who say that slogan without permission.”
“Spoil my fun.” Pip pouted. “It’s Latin. Anyone should be able to say, ‘To the stars!’“ She gestured to the sky once more.
“Well, not in front of Amazing. Are we going to practice?”
“Yes. Let’s hear your speech so I can pick the right time to do the stunt.”
Buck’s oratory could be heard in the courtyard as he puffed his chest and threw out a hand at certain moments. Pip moved behind him with a serene smile, posing in the imaginary guise of Wit, Sr.’s Tomorrow Maiden. While they rehearsed in the courtyard Em finally descended the stairs. Daniel, making his breakfast at the stove, did a double take upon seeing Rif follow behind his daughter. His wife rose from the smaller table and merely squeezed her husband’s arm reassuringly in passing.
“Rif, after your tutoring you’re welcome to practice your music in the courtyard,” she said. She smiled at Rif’s self-consciously murmured thank you. Rehearsing familiar, athletic moves with an aim for excellence was one thing, June knew; expressing oneself artistically was another thing entirely, and sometimes scarily so. Even her daughters, and Daniel for that matter, had their moments of feat or fail. Though June never had the desire to be an artist herself she easily recognized when a creative passion needed encouragement.
As her daughter sat down with the new boy June went to the alcove window and bit her lip in thought. Buck was working out the phrasing of one of his speech points. Pip took that moment to skip forward and threw her upper body down towards the ground just as her legs kicked back and up into the air. The momentum sent her entire body spinning with her arms at her sides. Pip landed, having executed a perfect aerial. She then reached back with one arm and arched her body backwards. She performed two leisurely one-armed back flips to reach her previous position behind Buck.
Passions, June reflected as she watched Pip deal with her apparent nervousness, also came with their unpredictable outcomes. She felt Em reach out to touch her arm.
“Mama,” Em said, realizing that perhaps she should explain what Pip planned to do. Both her parents would be with the lawyer today. Her mother continued to watch her other daughter outside and sighed.
“Is this something that will get her into trouble?” June asked.
Em paused, choosing her words carefully.
“Worse case, she can get arrested, but more likely she’ll just be detained. And they will know she is a Daring.”
“Well. At this point any sensational attention won’t do harm. Your great grand-maman didn’t go over Niagara Falls in a barrel for nothing,” her mother said. “Her stunt saved the family from the poor house.” She leaned forward and gave Em a kiss.
“Just be safe.”
“Yes, Mama,” Em said.
(end Chapter Five)
Wit’s World: Never Was ©Elizabeth Watasin 2011
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