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Grade
10

In late June Jem stopped being a little girl. She was eleven, practically an adult now, and in autumn she would watch the sun come up from the window of a sixth-grade classroom. But it was too early in the summer to think about school. Joshua sat with her on the side porch, his long figure slung across the porch swing, watching the sun set through the criss-cross of the porch posts.

She was chewing on the stick from a long-finished orange popsicle, like she always did, until it threatened to splinter in her mouth. She took it out, picked at a wood fiber beginning to tear off, and glanced at Joshua. “Are you excited for college?”

He shrugged, not looking at her. The porch light was white and harsh on his features, and she could see his frown clearly. “Not excited exactly, but I'm glad to get away.” He untangled his feet from the chains of the swing and sat up straight. “You ever feel like you just want to go somewhere? Like, not one particular place, but just leave, and not come back for a long time?”

Jem didn't. She didn't understand why anyone would want to leave the comfort of home, and she didn't understand why Joshua needed to leave their family so badly. But she nodded, because she knew Joshua wanted her to.

His eyes flicked over her quickly, appraising. “Yeah. That's how I feel. God, I wish I was already gone.”

“But,” Jem offered, “it's only a few hours away, so you'll come back on weekends, right?”

“Weekends? Maybe.” His foot nudged the ground, swinging him lazily back and forth. “I'll have homework and friends to meet.”

“Right.” She swallowed. “Of course.” It was getting dark, so that the trees were only soft, sooty outlines against the graying sky. The world seemed to close in at twilight, as the skies folded in around her, darkness draping over her shoulders like a blanket. Lightning bugs began to bob up among the tall prairie grasses of her backyard. They were living, moving stars, fallen to earth just for her.

“Don't you think they look like fairies?” Jem asked Joshua, entranced. She jumped slightly when he snorted.

“Ugh, you're being such a teenager,” he said. “Pretty soon you'll start writing sad poetry and listening to sad music.”

Jem felt that wasn't fair, because she wasn't even thirteen yet. “You're a teenager still,” she shot back. “And what do fairies have to do with sad music?”

He rolled his eyes. “They're childish and stupid. Honestly, sometimes I forget you're just eleven.” He pushed himself to his feet and took a look around the yard, calculating. “Grow up already,” he said.

He went inside, but Jem didn't follow.

She was old enough to see herself in the grand scheme of the world, but young enough that she hadn't forgotten childhood magic. Sometimes she wanted to grow up fast, and sometimes she wanted to go back to being six forever. It had occurred to her that she should just try to act her age, but what did it mean to be eleven?

Joshua wanted to leave home, the sooner the better. Jem liked to think that he would miss her, but in her heart she wasn't sure he would. She couldn't imagine wanting to live anywhere other than her house, with the creek rushing quietly under their makeshift log bridge and the hammock under the black walnut tree. Knowing he wanted so badly to leave grated on Jem's heart. She wished that he would just pretend he cared.

Truth hurts, she could imagine him saying. Her mind laced his words with bitterness that perhaps wasn't there. Then again, maybe it was. She sat there with this thought until the night grew too dark to see the trees against the sky, and only the fireflies nodded their pinprick lights among the high grasses.

 

Jem came inside, clicking the door shut quietly. “Bye, Josh,” she said, stopping inside his room at the top of the stairs to kiss his cheek. It was scratchy with stubble.

“Joshua,” he said.

“Right.” She took a deep breath. “Goodnight,” she said, and went down the hall to her room.

Jem could still see the fireflies from her window, but without the heavy night air and the crickets chirping, she decided Joshua was right. They were just bugs.

I'm eleven, she thought. Almost a middle-schooler. “Maybe I am too old for fairies.”

She turned off the light.

 

~~~

 

Three Junes and Julys melted away in the hot summer sun, and then it was August again. Jem was three years older and wiser, the pains and embarrassments of middle school behind her. “Are you excited for high school?” Joshua had asked her over the phone a few weeks previous. “It's much better than middle school.” The first day of her freshman year was only two weeks away, and she didn't feel like smiling.

The afternoon was sticky hot, and humid air draped over the landscape. Jem could feel sweat congealing on her skin, itching on her forehead, below her chin. She didn't bother to slap at the mosquito that landed on her arm. Her cell phone buzzed in the grass near her hammock, and she ignored it. She was alone, as usual, with her parents still at work and her neighbors' houses acres of land away.

A flock of birds stopped to rest in the branches of the black walnut tree, disappearing and reappearing in the thick leaves as they flitted discontentedly from branch to branch. In an instant they all flew off, one straggler hurrying to catch up.

If she screamed, she wondered, would anybody hear? With no company but the piercing trill of crickets in the long grasses near her, she felt like the only person on the face of the earth. Right now, that was more terrifying than comforting.

A rabbit scampered across the lawn in the distance, and Jem remembered suddenly days of chasing rabbits with Joshua, laughing and skinning knees and covering themselves in dirt and dust. Her skin tingled and she missed it terribly, the laughing and joking and enjoying the summer weather.

Once, they had built a fairy house out of clay and stones by the creek. They had spent weeks making tiny furniture for it and waiting for the sandy clay to dry in the sun.

Perhaps, as summer lapses into fall, the summers of her life had faded away.

Jem tumbled off the hammock and gathered up her phone, heading inside. It was too hot to be outside, anyway.

 

~~~

 

“I think my sanity is vanishing faster than the temperature is falling,” now fifteen-year-old Jem told her best friend Abby in late January, their midterm study guides arranged half-heartedly among unopened textbooks. They were in her room, where they'd had countless sleepovers and study sessions since Abby had moved to her road in third grade.

“Don't you ever wish you were still a child?” Abby asked. “I wonder why we dreamed so much of being teenagers when it's all homework and drama.” Absentmindedly she picked at the eraser of her pencil.

“I guess,” Jem said. “There's no use in dreaming of it now, when we can't change it.”

Abby blinked thoughtfully. “I don't think we're all grown up yet, though. I still feel young.”

Jem glanced out the window at the thick snow, knowing all the grass and leaves and life were cold and dead, buried far below with the last of summer. What was the use of dreaming when it was all dead and gone, anyway?

Out loud, she said, “We should study,” and tugged her textbook towards her.

“Already?” Abby grimaced, opening her own practice packet. “I hate exams.”

Jem nodded, but it took her three tries to concentrate enough to read the first sentence of her notes.

 

~~~

 

“How long has it been since you've heard from your brother?”

It was March, a slushy half-warm Sunday afternoon. Jem and Abby were huddled around her laptop, watching a TV show neither of them had heard of.

In reply to the question, she shrugged. “A couple weeks. He asked about my exam grades.”

Abby set her tea mug down and flopped dramatically down on the bed. “Lucky, your grades were so good. How long till he comes back from California?”

Jem frowned. “I don't know. Why is it important?” Joshua had moved from a university a few hours away to a state on the opposite side of the country. It was much farther, but in truth he hadn't visited any more in college than he would from California.

“No reason. He's cute, I guess.”

Jem turned her mug gently in her hands, half empty and still warm. “Josh? He's gross. He leaves underwear on the bathroom floor and shaves in the sink.”

“Aren't all boys gross though?”

“Josh is like, super gross. The grossest of the gross. The ultimate disgusting.” Jem smiled in spite of herself. “The boys we know are probably much cleaner than that caveman.”

“Any boys in particular?” Jem could hear the smile in Abby's voice. “What about Michael?”

“Michael?” Jem forced her voice to be nonchalant. He was her desk partner in her advanced math class, a junior. “He's fine.”

“Just fine? Or really fine.”

“Just fine,” Jem said. “Find your own boys to romanticize, you sappy soap-opera queen.”

 

~~~

 

Messages, March 26, 2015 7:54 PM

 

To: Jem Owens

From: 410-555-0187

hey

 

To: 410-555-0187

From: Jem Owens

Who's this??

 

To: Jem Owens

From: 410-555-0187

michael! from math. this is jem right?

 

To: 410-555-0187

From: Jem Owens

Yeah, its Jem. How did you get my number?

 

To: Jem Owens

From: 410-555-0187

just asked around. do you have the answer to 23?

 

To: Michael Wigotsky

From: Jem Owens

it's 5 square root 23 over 2.

 

To: Jem Owens

From: Michael Wigotsky

cool, thanks. whatcha up to?

 

~~~

 

Messages, April 3, 2015 4:12 PM

 

To: Michael Wigotsky

From: Jem Owens

Yo, what's up?

 

To: Jem Owens

From: Michael Wigotsky

nm, just chilling. u?

 

To: Michael Wigotsky

From: Jem Owens

Same. Glad its friday haha

 

To: Jem Owens

From: Michael Wigotsky

me too

hey weird question but

is your name actually jem? or is that a nickname

 

To: Michael Wigotsky

From: Jem Owens

Didn't you hear the sub call it the other day lol

It's actually Jemima Mae and I hate it

 

To: Jem Owens

From: Michael Wigotsky

don't hate it. it's cute :D

jem?

did you leave?

 

To: Michael Wigotsky

From: Jem Owens

No, just had to take care of something. Sorry

And thanks? :)

 

To: Jem Owens

From: Michael Wigotsky

just like its owner <3

 

To: Michael Wigotsky:

From: Jem Owens

Do you believe in fairies?

 

To: Jem Owens

From: Michael Wigotsky

what?

 

To: Michael Wigotsky

From: Jem Owens

Nevermind.

 

~~~

 

Messages, May 27, 2015 5:15 PM

 

To: Jem Owens

From: Michael Wigotsky

jem im sorry please don't ignore me

I didn't know you didn't like me like that

we can make up

 

To: Michael Wigotsky

From: Jem Owens

Stop texting me. I don't want to date or kiss and I don't want to talk.

Also I don't smoke.

I'm blocking your number bye

 

(!) Message not delivered to Jem OwensThis number is unavailable for messaging.

 

~~~

 

The bus was stuffy, and Jem felt dizzy from the vibration of the window against her temple. Exams were over and summer was here, again. She had a weird feeling of lightness, a sort of distance from reality. She used to always be excited for the last day of school. Now, she wasn't exactly unhappy about summer, but she wasn't thrilled. All that she really felt was mentally exhausted. The screen of her phone lit up again and again as her friends told her of planned beach trips and vacations to Mexico.

Her phone buzzed again.

 

To: Jem Owens

From: Mom

You're finally done!! :) How do you feel, Miss Sophmore?

 

To: Mom

From: Jem Owens

tired

 

To: Jem Owens

From: Mom

You'll feel better once you've caught up on your sleep.

 

To: Mom

From: Jem Owens

 

Yeah, I guess :)

 

Jem wasn't smiling when she sent it. That's the dangerous thing about texting, she thought. It's hard to tell how much of it they really mean. It's too calculated.

 

She turned off her phone to the waves of messages, watching the screen light fade out and die. Jem closed her eyes and wished she were home.

 

 

~~~

 

June crawled by, followed by July and most of August. Jem found that long afternoons with no deadlines sapped her ability to accomplish much of anything. I'm useless, she thought. She didn't practice for her music lessons, she forgot to eat lunch half the time, and she showered twice a day to scrub the sweat off her skin.

Isn't it nice to be lazy for once? Her friend texted her, and she typed back, Yeah.

No, she thought. It's horrid.

But at least there was no more Michael. The thought of him made her skin crawl. She was thankful her mom knew and had her back when she needed it. Jem had resolved not to mess with flirting and dating for a long time.

A stuffy Wednesday afternoon crawled across the sky, so hot that the air shimmered in the distance. Her house wasn’t air-conditioned; and her clunky box fan that she had to drag by the handle through the house behind her only blew hot air back in her face.

It’s actually cooler outside, she realized as she wrenched open a window. For a long second she looked out at the breezy afternoon. Clouds stretched in wispy layers across an impossibly blue sky.

Jem left her phone on the table and slipped out the door into the waiting world.

The paths through the woods behind her house were still there, overgrown with wild grass and weeds. Bushes rustled near her feet as an animal fled. Plants scratched at her bare calves, and dirt settled brown-black on her feet beneath her sandal straps. Along one path, she found the old hollow tree trunk, just big enough to climb into, that had once been a spaceship, a prison, an airplane, a fortress to her. It had rotted through sometime in the past few years, and collapsed on itself. Jem was surprised to realize that this disappointed her.

She kept walking. The creek trickled by, the log-bridge half sunk in the mud. Jem pulled it out and set it across again, mud smearing wet on her hands. She tried walking over it and stumbled. After a second, she regained her balance and crossed.

Jem took a right turn, and stopped. Shielded underneath a boulder, her unfinished fairy house still stood, two pebble-clay walls surrounding furniture of stones and long-decayed moss. Her knees pressed into the dirt when she knelt, examining the tiny details. In her imagination, the hard-packed dirt floor had been blocks of marble and the walls of pillars trimmed in gold in true fashion of royalty. It had been, to her, a house of magic, a home to real fairies.

With a sudden pang, she felt sun hot on the backs of her shoulders and realized that she was burnt. She had been outside for longer than she had thought. Jem thought for a minute, then picked one of the little purple flowers that grew close to the forest floor, and laid it next to where the little doorway would have been.

 

~~~

 

Jem went inside through the back door, her feet soft against the porch steps. She was young enough to dream of herself as part of the grand scheme of the world, but old enough that she had forgotten childhood magic.

“Where were you all afternoon?” her mom asked. “Goodness! You’re a mess!”

“I was just outside,” Jem said.

“Playing with the fairies again?” Her mom smiled knowingly.

“No,” Jem said slowly. “I’m too old for fairies.” Bits of clay fell from the bottom of her right sandal to the rug, and she ground them into the fabric with her heel. If she turned her head, she could see the only darkness through the glass-paneled door.

Behind her, the fireflies began to blink out. It was late in the season, and they were rarer and rarer. Fireflies were meant to roam, though, not fade to death in a jar. They could never be kept.

In the late evening, it began to drizzle. Somewhere down by the creek, ruined clay and stones washed back into the ground. The air was getting chilly without the warmth of the sun.

 

Summer was over. The last firefly dimmed, then blinked out.

State
MI
Zip Code
48103