Home > Eleanor & Park(4)

Eleanor & Park(4)
Author: Rainbow Rowell

He finally realized that she was staring at his lap. Not in a gross way. She was looking at his comics – he could see her eyes moving.

Park didn’t know that anyone with red hair could have brown eyes. (He didn’t know that anyone could have hair that red. Or skin that white.) The new girl’s eyes were darker than his mom’s, really dark, almost like holes in her face.

That made it sound bad, but it wasn’t. It might even be the best thing about her. It kind of reminded Park of the way artists draw Jean Grey sometimes when she’s using her telepathy, with her eyes all blacked out and alien.

Today the girl was wearing a giant men’s shirt with seashells all over it. The collar must have been really big, like disco-big, because she’d cut it, and it was fraying. She had a man’s necktie wrapped around her ponytail like a big polyester ribbon. She looked ridiculous.

And she was looking at his comics.

Park felt like he should say something to her.

He always felt like he should say something to her, even if it was just ‘hello’ or ‘excuse me.’ But he’d gone too long without saying anything since the first time he’d cursed at her, and now it was all just irrevocably weird. For an hour a day.

Thirty minutes on the way to school, thirty minutes back.

Park didn’t say anything. He just held his comics open wider and turned the pages more slowly.

Eleanor

Her mom looked tired when Eleanor got home.

Like more tired than usual. Hard and crumbling at the edges.

When the little kids stormed in after school, her mom lost her temper over something stupid –

Ben and Mouse fighting over a toy – and she pushed them all out the back door, Eleanor included.

Eleanor was so startled to be outside that she stood on the back stoop for a second, staring down at Richie’s Rottweiler. He’d named the dog Tonya after his ex-wife. She was supposed to be a real man-eater, Tonya – Tonya the dog – but Eleanor had never seen her more than half awake.

Eleanor tried knocking on the door. ‘Mom!

Let me back in. I haven’t even taken a bath yet.’

She usually took her bath right after school, before Richie got home. It took a lot of the stress out of not having a bathroom door, especially since somebody’d torn down the sheet.

Her mom ignored her.

The little kids were already out on the playground. The new house was right next door to an elementary school – the school where Ben and Mouse and Maisie went – and the playground was just beyond their backyard.

Eleanor didn’t know what else to do, so she walked out to where she could see Ben, by the swing set, and sat on one of the swings. It was finally jacket weather. Eleanor wished she had a jacket.

‘What are you supposed to do when it gets too cold to play outside?’ she asked Ben. He was taking Matchbox cars out of his pockets and lining them up in the dirt. ‘Last year,’ he said, ‘Dad made us go to bed at 7:30.’

‘God. You too? Why do you guys call him that?’ She tried not to sound angry.

Ben shrugged. ‘I guess because he’s married to Mom.’

‘Yeah, but’ – Eleanor ran her hands up and down the swing chains, then smelled them – ‘we never used to call him that. Do you feel like he’s your dad?’

‘I don’t know,’ Ben said flatly. ‘What’s that supposed to feel like?’

She didn’t answer him, so he went back to setting up his cars. He needed a haircut, his strawberry-blond hair was curling almost to his collar. He was wearing an old T-shirt of Eleanor’s and a pair of corduroy pants that their mom had cut off into shorts. He was almost too old for all this, for cars and parks – eleven. The other boys his age played basketball all night or hung out in groups at the edge of the playground.

Eleanor hoped that Ben was a late bloomer.

There was no room in that house to be a teenager.

‘He likes it when we call him Dad,’ Ben said, still lining up the cars.

Eleanor looked out at the playground. Mouse was playing with a bunch of kids who had a soc-cer ball. Maisie must have taken the baby somewhere with her friends …

It used to be Eleanor who was stuck with the baby all the time. She wouldn’t even mind watching him now, it would give her something to do – but Maisie didn’t want Eleanor’s help.

‘What was it like?’ Ben asked.

‘What was what like?’

‘Living with those people.’

The sun was a few inches above the horizon, and Eleanor looked hard at it.

‘Okay,’ she said. Terrible. Lonely. Better than here.

‘Were there other kids?’

‘Yeah. Really little kids. Three of them.’

‘Did you have your own room?’

‘Sort of.’ Technically, she hadn’t had to share the Hickmans’ living room with anyone else.

‘Were they nice?’ he asked.

‘Yeah … yeah. They were nice. Not as nice as you.’

The Hickmans had started out nice. But then they got tired.

Eleanor was only supposed to stay with them for a few days, maybe a week. Just until Richie cooled down and let her come home.

‘It’ll be like a slumber party,’ Mrs Hickman said to Eleanor the first night she made up the couch. Mrs Hickman – Tammy – knew Eleanor’s mom from high school. There was a photo over the TV of the Hickmans’ wedding. Eleanor’s mom was the maid of honor – in a dark green dress, with a white flower in her hair.

At first, her mom would call Eleanor at the Hickmans’ almost every day after school. After a few months, the calls stopped. It turned out that Richie hadn’t paid the phone bill, and it got dis-connected. But Eleanor didn’t know that for a while.

‘We should call the state,’ Mr Hickman kept telling his wife. They thought Eleanor couldn’t hear them, but their bedroom was right over the living room. ‘This can’t go on, Tammy.’

‘Andy, it’s not her fault.’

‘I’m not saying it’s her fault, I’m just saying we didn’t sign on for this.’

‘She’s no trouble.’

‘She’s not ours.’

Eleanor tried to be even less trouble. She practiced being in a room without leaving any clues that she’d been there. She never turned on the TV or asked to use the phone. She never asked for seconds at dinner. She never asked Tammy and Mr Hickman for anything – and they’d never had a teenager, so it didn’t occur to them that there might be anything she might need. She was glad that they didn’t know her birthday.

‘We thought you were gone,’ Ben said, pushing a car into the dirt. He looked like somebody who didn’t want to cry.

‘Oh ye of little faith,’ Eleanor said, kicking her swing into action.

She looked around again for Maisie and found her sitting over where the older boys were playing basketball. Eleanor recognized most of the boys from the bus. That stupid Asian kid was there, jumping higher than she would have guessed he could. He was wearing long black shorts and a T-shirt that said ‘Madness.’

‘I’m out of here,’ Eleanor told Ben, stepping off the swing and pushing down the top of his head. ‘But not gone or anything. Don’t get your panties in a bunch.’

She walked back into the house and rushed through the kitchen before her mom could say anything. Richie was in the living room. Eleanor walked between him and the TV, eyes straight ahead. She wished she had a jacket.

CHAPTER 9

Park

He was going to tell her that she did a good job on her poem.

That would be a giant understatement anyway. She was the only person in class who’d read her poem like it wasn’t an assignment. She re-cited it like it was a living thing. Like something she was letting out. You couldn’t look away from her as long as she was talking. (Even more than Park’s usual not being able to look away from her.) When she was done, a lot of people clapped and Mr Stessman hugged her. Which was totally against the Code of Conduct.

‘Hey. Nice job. In English.’ That’s what Park was going to say.

Or maybe, ‘I’m in your English class. That poem you read was cool.’

Or, ‘You’re in Mr Stessman’s class, right?

Yeah, I thought so.’

Park picked up his comics after taekwando Wednesday night, but he waited until Thursday morning to read them.

Eleanor

That stupid Asian kid totally knew that she was reading his comics. He even looked up at Eleanor sometimes before he turned the page, like he was that polite.

He definitely wasn’t one of them, the bus demons. He didn’t talk to anyone on the bus.

(Especially not her.) But he was in with them somehow because, when Eleanor was sitting next to him, they all left her alone. Even Tina. It made Eleanor wish she could sit next to him all day long.

This morning, when she got on the bus, it kind of felt like he was waiting for her. He was holding a comic called Watchmen, and it looked so ugly that Eleanor decided not to bother eavesdropping. Or eavesreading. Whatever.

(She liked it best when he read X-Men, even though she didn’t get everything that was going on there; X-Men was worse than General Hospital. It took Eleanor a couple weeks to figure out that Scott Summers and Cyclops were the same guy, and she still wasn’t sure what was up with Phoenix.)

But Eleanor didn’t have anything else to do, so her eyes wandered over to the ugly comic …

And then she was reading. And then they were at school. Which was totally weird because they weren’t even halfway through with it.

And which totally sucked because it meant he would read the rest of the comic during school, and have something lame like ROM out on the way home.

Except he didn’t.

When Eleanor got on the bus that afternoon, the Asian kid opened up Watchmen right where they’d left off.

They were still reading it when they got to Eleanor’s stop – there was so much going on, they both stared at every frame for, like, entire minutes – and when she got up to leave, he handed it to her.

Eleanor was so surprised, she tried to hand it back, but he’d already turned away. She shoved the comic between her books like it was something secret, then got off the bus.

She read it three more times that night, lying on the top bunk, petting the scrubby old cat. Then she put it in her grapefruit box overnight, so that nothing would happen to it.

Park

What if she didn’t give it back?

What if he didn’t get to finish the first issue of Watchmen because he’d lent it to a girl who hadn’t asked for it and probably didn’t even know who Alan Moore was.

If she didn’t give it back, they were even.

That would cancel out the whole ‘Jesus-fuck-sit-down’ scenario.

Jesus … No, it wouldn’t.

What if she did give it back? What was he supposed to say then? Thanks?

Eleanor

When she got to their seat, he was looking out the window. She handed him the comic, and he took it.

CHAPTER 10

Eleanor

The next morning, when Eleanor got on the bus, there was a stack of comics on her seat.

She picked them up and sat down. He was already reading.

Eleanor put the comics between her books and stared at the window. For some reason, she didn’t want to read in front of him. It would be like letting him watch her eat. It would be like …

admitting something.

But she thought about the comics all day, and as soon she got home, she climbed onto her bed and got them out. They were all the same title –

Swamp Thing.

Eleanor ate dinner sitting cross-legged on her bed, extra careful not to spill anything on the books because every issue was in pristine condition; there wasn’t so much as a bent corner. (Stupid, perfect Asian kid.)

That night, after her brothers and sister fell asleep, Eleanor turned the light back on so she could read. They were the loudest sleepers ever.

Ben talked in his sleep, and Maisie and the baby both snored. Mouse wet the bed – which didn’t make noise, but still disturbed the general peace.

The light didn’t seem to bother them though.

Eleanor was only distantly conscious of Richie watching TV in the next room, and she practically fell off the bed when he jerked the bedroom door open. He looked like he expected to catch some middle-of-the-night hijinks, but when he saw that it was only Eleanor and that she was just reading, he grunted and told her to turn out the light so the little kids could sleep.

After he shut the door, Eleanor got up and turned off the light. (She could just about get out of bed without stepping on somebody now, which was lucky for them because she was the first one up every morning.)

She might have gotten away with leaving the light on, but it wasn’t worth the risk. She didn’t want to have to look at Richie again.

He looked exactly like a rat. Like the human-being version of a rat. Like the villain in a Don Bluth movie. Who knew what her mom saw in him; Eleanor’s dad was messed-up-looking, too.

Every once in a while – when Richie managed to take a bath, put on decent clothes and stay sober all on the same day – Eleanor could sort of see why her mom might have thought he was handsome. Thank the Lord that didn’t happen very often. When it did, Eleanor felt like going to the bathroom and sticking a finger down her throat.

Anyway. Whatever. She could still read.

There was enough light coming in from the window.

Park

She read stuff as fast as he could give it to her.

And when she handed it back to him the next morning, she always acted as if she were handing him something fragile. Something precious. You wouldn’t even know that she touched the comics except for the smell.

Every book Park lent her came back smelling like perfume. Not like the perfume his mom wore. (Imari.) And not like the new girl; she smelled like vanilla.

But she made his comics smell like roses. A whole field of them.

She’d read all of his Alan Moore in less than three weeks. Now he was giving her X-Men comics five at a time, and he could tell that she liked them because she wrote the characters’ names on her books, in between band names and song lyrics.

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