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By Hanna Pylväinen
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2012 Hanna Pylväinen
All rights reserved.
She should have told him already about the church but she hadn't. The warnings were all there—he could name all of her siblings, and he looked at her too deliberately, and when he hugged her she was caught too long against his chest. Every morning she decided she would tell him, but every afternoon it was too tempting to go one more day, one more minute where he found a way to hold her fingers as she passed him a note. But now she knew he was going to ruin it all and ask her to the dance, she could feel it—she avoided him carefully but fussed with her hair, nearly sick with the twin terrors of him asking her or not asking her, not sure to which end she should assign her hope.
But he found her—he knew her schedule, and he found her lagging behind after class, talking to the teacher. In the hall he pushed at her shoulder with his shoulder and they seemed alone, despite the swarm of people.
"So," he said, "are you going to the dance?" She kept walking because it was a thing to do. "With me, I mean." She found this to be charming, and against her will she was flattered through and through. She looked at him. Her ears hurt with heat. She saw it was stupid to have ever pretended, even to herself, that she could go. "Well," she said, but the word caught.
"You're coming," he said.
Her smile was more mischievous than she felt.
"Please come," he said. He nearly whispered it in her ear. She looked at him. She detected sweat where his hair began to curl. It moved her, that someone like Jude could feel nervous talking to her.
"Well," she said. She thought of the many available lies—she had to babysit, the baby was sick. There was always something, there was nothing like six younger siblings for providing an excuse. But in her mind a minister warned that she should always confess her faith, and it occurred to her, Jude watching her, that confession was what it was. And she confessed. She said things about the church, her voice shaking out of time with her knee. She listed, idly, some things she couldn't do—nail polish and movies and music with a beat.
"So you can't go to a dance?" he said. "Someone's going to what? Punish you?"
"No, I mean—if you are tempted to do something, you know, maybe it's better to just not do it. So maybe there are good movies out there but I mean there are so many bad ones, so just don't watch them."
"Just don't dance, because dancing is—"
"Man." She saw on his face that she should not have told him.
"Sorry," she said softly. She wanted him to hold her, she wanted to sit in his big arms, like stupid girls did. She would cry. Hey, he would say, it's okay. Instead he walked away without waiting to see what she would do. She watched him go, watched him walk his easy lope.
Before her last class she thought she saw him down the hall, or maybe it was someone else, tall and heavy with dark hair. She pushed into the bathroom, where girls staggered themselves around the mirror. They put on mascara, only on their top lashes, two coats, one under, one over. "Hey," someone said, "is it true you can't even go to the movies?"
"Oh, that," Brita said. "Why?"
"Oh," Brita said, "well, it's not that big of a deal." But she crept into a stall—she saw his name on the wall—and she thought about praying but it felt too vain to pray for something so small, and she didn't. She pretended to take a long time and she fished through her bag for nothing, but there was a line and she could hear the annoyance in the shuffle of feet.
She told Tiina what had happened. They were tuning their violins before orchestra. "Does everyone know?" Tiina said, a peg spinning free. "Do my friends know?" She nearly teared.
"Jeez," Brita said, "it's not that big of a deal," but she knew she was talking to herself. Still, she steeled herself, and she made it through the day, without seeing Jude again, without seeing his friends, without seeing her friends. She was almost out of the building when she heard their last name. "It's true," someone was saying, someone she didn't even know. "They're brainwashed. The whole family. They don't even have a TV."
Brita sat on the bus and pinched her thigh. She said the word to herself again and again, so it would mean less and less, and then nothing. The Rovaniemis were brainwashed. She was brainwashed. She thought about the people she thought were brainwashed, people who believed the world was ending on a specific date, people who saw aliens, people who believed meditating could make you lift off the ground. The Amish, with their claptrap horses and carts and orange reflectors to keep away motorized traffic. She felt better, thinking about people who were actually brainwashed, and she shook the word from herself, listening to the song piped through the bus, something she wasn't supposed to listen to, and she watched Tiina do her homework across the aisle, her pencil skidding across the worksheet, the answers easy and known. Tiina didn't look brainwashed—Tiina looked almost unremarkable, her hair softly brunette, to the shoulders, everything average except her eyes, hooded, heavy, hinting at Finns who had moved to America and married more Finns, and more Finns again. But otherwise she—they—looked normal, their jeans the same cut as everyone else's, only cheaper, their shirts bold and basic colors, rising to modest places, but normal. This isn't what brainwashed looks like, she told herself, and she took out her own reading.
When they got home, adding their backpacks to the pile at the door, her mother was abrasively cheerful, pinching everyone. "We found a house," her mom said. She did a jig. She said they were having pizza delivered. They never had pizza delivered.
"How many bedrooms?" Brita asked. She felt suspicious.
"Three, but, well, we can convert the basement into another. So four, maybe five."
Her mom took Tiina's hands and they jigged together.
"Four," Brita repeated. She went upstairs. She looked around the room she shared with her sisters, her dresser drawer askew again, her underwear hanging over the edge. She sat on the bottom bunk. She thought about the dance. She imagined what it was like to accidentally step on Jude Palmer's polished shoe, to smell his father's cologne in a darkened gym. Probably stupid, she decided, probably it was better she wasn't going anyway. It was okay, she was different. They were different. They were in the world, but not of the world. And now they were moving, to someplace where people didn't know yet that they were different. She thought of her new teachers, their faces when they would meet her parents at conferences. Seven kids? Laughs politely stopped when they realized it wasn't a joke.
* * *
The school year mercifully ended. She did not see Jude, and he did not try to see her. She took all his notes and walked them out to the recycling bin at the end of the driveway late at night, stuffing them carefully between pages of newspaper. She said good-bye to her friends, pretending sadness but feeling relief, sensing already the inevitability of growing apart. Her friends would switch from one practice boyfriend to the next and fight for midnight curfews, and she would spend her Saturday nights at some church family's house, singing the same church hymns, eating cheese and crackers, always unable to get her volleyball serve over the net. She was seeing already that everyone was right, that believing friends were better, if only because you suffered together.
When true summer came, she threw herself into helping them move—of course her family hadn't hired a real estate agent, or movers, and they collected cardboard boxes from the dumpsters behind grocery stores. And of course in the midst of this, Julia—only five, but somber in her suffering—kept getting ear infections and needed tubes put in her ears, and their van broke down again, and again her dad would come home silent, bitter about needing to buy a new van at the same time they were trying to buy a house, snapping when no one brought their dishes to the sink. "You want me to put them away, huh, me?" he said through his teeth. Worse, their new home wouldn't be ready before they moved, and they needed somewhere to live for the intervening month. Instead of going to a motel, like normal people, her mom had decided they would move into her cousin's apartment since she was gone for the summer, trying to get engaged in Finland.
When they had finally packed a storage unit with cribs and bikes and bunk beds, everything in multiples, they drove out to their cousin's apartment complex, her parents quiet, a church CD on, the windows down. They piled out of the van, hauling sleeping bags and garbage bags stuffed with clothes. A woman in heavy makeup and dyed red hair was wagging her finger, trying to count them as they marched up the back stairs. "Seven," her mom said to the woman, sharply. "No divorces. No twins." Brita slung the baby on her hip, lightly.
In the apartment she stood in the living room, which was also the dining room, and looked around herself at the miniature stove, at the couch, which did not pull out into a bed. The confines of the room packed and amplified the heat. On the kitchen table there was a note from her cousin. Eat the food, it said. Avoid the landlord, white hair, big dog—he didn't know they were there. She missed them. Love and God's Peace—these final words in Finnish.
At night the heat did not rest. Brita put her pillowcase in the freezer, but the relief was so temporary it was hardly worth the wait. One month, Brita thought, but when she woke she discovered she itched. She touched her face, the back of her neck. She looked at her arms. She looked around herself, at the waking kids and her mother, in the kitchen making puuroa, as if anyone wanted to eat something hot in this weather. She looked at Tiina, who was trying to ignore the baby climbing on her back and pulling at her hair. She saw the spots on the baby first, then on Tiina. She checked the little kids. "Mom," she said, "Mom, come look," and when her mom began to laugh, Brita could not.
"It's the chicken pox saga," her mom said as they ate a lunch of bologna-and-cheese sandwiches on the living room floor, because now the folding table was covered in calamine lotion and the diapers, and newspapers with ads for new vans circled in crayon.
"Maybe we should get a hotel," her dad said. Her mom laughed and laughed. The little kids laughed because she was laughing. Her mouth was open and Brita could see her fillings.
* * *
A week of oatmeal baths passed. The little kids rotated in and out of the tub, and by the time it was Brita's turn the water was not even lukewarm, the residual oatmeal still on her feet when she stepped out, the towel damp from the other kids, the knob turning and jostling as someone tried to come in. All day she itched, but she would not scratch. She had a vision of appearing at her new school with scars, and every day she counted the number of pockmarks on her face. There was one particular mark that, in its close proximity to the somehow sexual organ of her mouth, she desperately needed to fade away. She borrowed winter gloves from her cousin's closet, so she couldn't scratch, but at night she would wake to find the gloves strewn and her scabs bleeding.
When it grew dark her parents let her and Tiina go outside. They sat on the back stairs and sniffed at the cigarette butts. "How do I look," Tiina said, posing with a stub hanging between her lips.
"Stupid," Brita said, but she thought Tiina looked cool.
"Do you miss him?"
Brita rolled her eyes.
Otherwise they never left the apartment. "I'm being held hostage," Tiina would scream from time to time, without prompting. She taped strips of paper to the windows to look like bars.
Her parents took them out a few times, to places with airconditioning—outdoor-equipment stores, the mall—but people stared. They looked like the walking plague.
"Look, Mom," a little kid said, "it's the chicken pox family."
* * *
At last her parents left them home alone. "Kids in charge," her mother said. They said they needed to run out for more calamine, but really they probably needed a break. Brita and Tiina went into the bedroom and began to go through her cousin's dresser. They examined a collection of sporty thongs. They searched for love letters, makeup, and finally found a single stick of concealer.
The boys banged on the door. Julia had run out of the apartment, they yelled. Brita left Tiina with the little kids and made her way outside, along the balcony. She was nervous because she had seen the landlord just that morning, out in the courtyard with a graying dog. She hurried down the back stairs to the lower balcony, hissing in Finnish, rounding the corner to find Julia talking shyly to a youngish guy with a thick scar, wide as a finger, that cut across his brow. The scar ruined his good looks, making him approachable. "Dad ran over the cat," Julia was saying. "The other week, before we moved. He was so mad he broke the garage door." Julia wasn't contagious anymore—none of them were—but she looked contagious, with her picked skin and her tired eyes, and her starkly blond hair caught by sweat to her neck.
"How many of you are there, anyway? I keep hearing all these feet." He was holding plastic grocery bags full of frozen lasagnas and frozen pizzas and frozen french fries.
"Seven," Julia said, before Brita could stop her.
"Your parents must be pretty busy," he said. He laughed to himself. He shifted the bags from one hand to the other.
"What's your name?" Julia asked.
"Steve," he said, smiling patiently.
"Hi," Brita interrupted apologetically. She took Julia's sweaty hand, talking in Finnish, reciting the Lord's Prayer because it was the only Finnish she could speak in full sentences. She tossed her hair over her shoulder and did not look back.
* * *
Brita looked for Steve, but she never saw him. People went outside only to walk to their cars, or to let their dogs out, and so she watched the dogs play with each other in the courtyard like children, happy to be among their own. When the landlord appeared with his army buzz cut and giant hound, the others called their dogs in, leaving the landlord's dog to nose the doorsills alone.
Things were looking up, Brita thought. She hardly ever thought about Jude. The air was cooling. By the time evening fell, half the people in the complex were out on their balconies in folding chairs, sipping iced drinks. Her mom let them take turns sitting out on the balcony. The rest sat on the couch, reading books they had already read. In the kitchen her dad made roast beef sandwiches. The baby crawled into the kitchen and her dad pointed a finger at her and crouched down and said in a pretend growl, "Who's you, who's the chunkiest chunkerton I've ever seen? It's you, champer-damper, it's you," and scooped her up. It was the same voice he had used with the cat before the cat had died. He was good, people said, with animals and children, and when Brita saw him like this she wished he would still do that with her, but she was too old now to be teased, and too young to be talked to seriously. Sometimes he said things to her about work, or even money, but not in a confiding way. "What do you think I make?" he asked once, at a store, when she said she needed socks and then appeared at the register with new packs for everyone.
Above her father's singsong came the cry of a woman outside. There was a general launch to the door, except from her parents, who looked up tiredly from the lists of vehicle sales. "What is it?" her mom said. Out the window Brita saw the landlord making his way across the grass stiffly but steadily. She saw the red-haired woman with her hand over her mouth.
"Something with a dog," Tiina said from out on the balcony. Brita looked out the door—Steve was running along the balcony toward them.
"The landlord's dog bit your little girl," he said. Her mother rose sharply.
Brita stared at the sight of him at their door. She looked at their apartment, the sleeping bags everywhere. She bet the apartment smelled of them, of too many people. She saw him notice where cereal had been sprinkled and ground into the carpet.
Julia appeared with one hand over her back, the landlord behind her like an abashed parent. "She scared him pretty bad," he said. "She just came up behind him, and he's blind in one eye, he doesn't like that. Max never bit anyone before," he said. Julia turned around and Brita saw that Julia's T-shirt was stained with small pools of blood, like spilled juice, and her mom lifted the shirt to reveal a series of puncture wounds. More people appeared at the door, the red-haired lady with her little dog, the old Chinese man who smoked on the back stairs as if he were hiding it from his wife. They all stood at the entrance to the apartment and Brita tried to think of a way to get them outside and gone and not staring, but there was nothing to be done. The ambulance had to be called and a towel had to be pressed to Julia's back and everyone had to fawn over Julia and stare around the apartment.
"She didn't even tear up," the red-haired lady said, "not one drop. Steve saw the bite."
"Brutal," Steve confirmed. He eyed Julia's bite marks warily and made noises of sympathy. Brita couldn't stop herself from toying with her hair, but soon the ambulance came and took Julia and her mom away, and the apartment emptied—she thought Steve made eye contact with her before he left—and the landlord apologized halfheartedly, stiffly, clearly at a loss as to what to do about his dog, or this gigantic family camping out in one of his own apartments.
Excerpted from We Sinners by Hanna Pylväinen. Copyright © 2012 Hanna Pylväinen. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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