Magnificently justified, she teeters on the parapet of her limestone tower. The herd lows below, and in the autumn air all stands still except for Tom, who has spied her from a distance and now is racing to her rescue. Her foot shifts and slips a bit, sending down a pebble cascade, but her heart is strong, and she refuses to be petrified. She stares straight ahead at the hillside, where leaves fall from their trees, drifting, dropping, like children’s valentines into makeshift paper-bag mailboxes taped to her classroom wall many years before. Cards of teddy bears with hearts, Hello Kitty with hearts, blooming flowers with hearts, circus lions proclaiming, “You’re purr-fect!” Suppressing squeals, children scurry. Others’ bags fill up. In hers, not one. Eyes anchored on the hillside, all she sees is disregard. That and the teacher frowning with pity for poor Samantha San Gabriel, so shy and so odd.
Until recently, her mother had owned a ’70 Mercury Cougar, a truth upon which all other minor truths were based. Every free moment, even from the realm of dreams, she spent in its restoration, nursing it into longevity. Her father, often lonely, came to the garage to help with engine swaps but, his participation begrudged, never really shared in the labor. Her mother could see to the rest herself. Dents from hitting deer on the back roads she bitterly called narrow escapes until she corrected them and touched up the paint job of heavenly blue. The custom stereo proclaimed its presence a mile away, and blaring Led Zeppelin in an abandoned parking lot outside Lewiston, she spun her beauty on a dime. All Stopes recognized its roar down Main Street. That was Tammy Burns, now Tammy San Gabriel, still a real hellcat, even after she married that quirky foreign fellow, God knows why.
Her mother, however, found the time to mean well.
“Not everybody’s got the same hobbies, Sam,” she would say. “You just got to find that one thing you do love and chase it down.”
Samantha considered her spoon and then made the remaining Cheerios swirl circles in the milk. “I don’t know if I love anything.”
“Well, then, let’s start with like. What is it you like?”
“I like it when you take me to do wheelies.”
“You mean donuts. I know you do, honey. That’s why I take you.”
“I like to climb trees.”
“Climbing trees ain’t a thing.”
She thought and thought. She wanted to say she would like her existence acknowledged, but she decided instead to finish her cereal.
“What about reading? I see you with all those books from the library.”
“All those knights and magicians on the covers.”
She watched her mother cradle the coffee cup with both hands and chew her lower lip.
“What about what you read about? Maybe you want to be one of them?”
She felt her face flush.
“The stories are good enough.”
“Oh, you think? There’s reading and then there’s doing.”
“You want me to fight dragons? I wouldn’t know where to find any.”
“Don’t be smart. You know what I mean.”
Of course she knew the point her mother was trying to make, and she dwelt on it for months afterward. It kept putting itself in front of her, distracting her from the simplest things like the basics of algebra. She even started to upbraid herself whenever she sought out the softly lit corners among the stacks. The library quiet allowed her to dive headfirst into whatever tale she had before her, but in moments of self-awareness, she yanked herself out of make-believe and told herself she was miserable because her mother had told her she was, and that a whole world of substantial realities was just waiting for her. She approached classmates she had never spoken to before. When they returned her hello, she knew she had to say something else, but she hesitated because what she might add sounded stupid. Out of ammunition, she retreated backwards, one step, two steps, hoping something clever would flash upon her, but it never did.
She knew she did well in chorus but did not dare ask for a solo as her mother had suggested. She knew her mother heard her every Sunday in church when she became caught up in the spirit and loosed the melody from her lips. Driving home, her mother told her what a shame it was for her to hide in the blend of voices.
“You got to blow your own horn, Sam.”
On Monday in science class she suddenly laughed to herself when she realized the pun, intended or not, that blowing her own horn should come naturally to someone named San Gabriel. With her teacher busy across the room and her lab partner staring out the window, she obeyed the urging in her blood. She climbed onto her chair and then onto the large, black lab table to belt one of the melodies she knew so well from chorus. She did not get far. The teacher told her to quietly return to earth, but she refused until she had finished. When she was sent to the office, she felt like a fool, but at least she had seized everyone’s attention. The next day she overheard one of the boys.
“What she did was pretty cool.”
She approached and demanded, “Oh yeah? Cool? Why?”
“Well, brave, I guess. Mr. Bishop was pretty pissed. But it took guts. And nice voice, too.”
All of his friends standing round him agreed. She could not tell if they approved of her boldness or her perfect pitch, but her mother, nagging her for all those years, had been proven right. It felt exquisite to thrust yourself outwards and push with all you have, even if it violated the proper decorum of science teachers.
The drama and debate programs of her high school, underdeveloped as they were, seemed to exist just for her, incidental arenas in which she could make her mark. Many kids around her devoted themselves to the school’s FFA chapter. She was not surprised. She was stuck, after all, in a farming community. But she felt compelled to distinguish herself from the herd, like a lion among wildebeests, so that others would think her special, especially as she set on mastering an area they could not comprehend. (Besides, cows stank.) Her mother could not comprehend it either, even though she seemed quite pleased with her daughter’s newfound self-assertion. When she secured one of the leads in the spring play her sophomore year, her mother commented that she finally “got it,” and Sam knew she was referring to a larger concept. Her father was even more impressed, mentioning that when he was her age, he had had a minor part in a production of Spoon River Anthology. Something in the genes, she reasoned, but something he had sacrificed to spend evenings tossing the football back and forth with her younger brother.
She became enamored of Internet Buddhism and embraced the concept of change for its own sake. Not content with a local spotlight, she desired attention on a national scale. Celebrity had happened for Justin Bieber, and since then for many others (whose names she had since forgotten), so why not for her? She kept her phone constantly in reach, pined for retweets and likes and comments, and when she was not blessed by the multitude, contemplated where she had gone wrong. She told herself she now had hundreds of friends, so where was their digital testimony? The high from a single like did not last long.
Dissatisfied with her mousiness and close-set eyes, she played tricks with eye shadow and mascaraed outer lashes. Her dingy hair became midnight blue, then bright auburn and playful pink, but ombre dip dye released her favorite incarnation of herself. She relied on coloring advice from a new best friend, who had been christened Alexa but told teachers she preferred to be called by the letter X. X was a large girl—Sam swore nearly twice her own size—and so simply by standing next to her, Sam calculated she could shine out like a sheet of aluminum foil. Besides, X fascinated her with provocative comments and lovely recitations of Anglo-Saxon poetry.
And there was also Tom Burgandine. Tom was one of the wildebeests, with some kind of future in welding, and so their circles did not much overlap, but she spied him throughout the day and even shared first block with him. He was tall and lean. He wore powerful boots that seemed to walk of their own accord and could kick the living hell out of things. He suffered from perpetual hat head, but his smile bewitched her. In an odd way she felt sorry for him. Although he greeted everyone with a resounding “Marnin’,” she knew that his exuberant familiarity summed up in this one outburst was all just a bluff. The rest of the day he shrank into himself. She remembered what she was like when she was young. Perhaps he was just like her.
At the end of her junior year, she nearly lost her mother. She actually witnessed the wreck from their porch as her mother sped away down the long road from their house on Derroll’s Knob. Sam was home ostensibly working on a term paper due the next day. Her mother was late for her shift at work, said goodbye to Sam and took off. A minute later, the Mustang reappeared through a gap in the tree line, turned an odd angle, and collided with a utility pole. Sam frantically dialed 911 and then ran down the road. When she arrived, she saw their neighbor yanking her mother through the driver-side window. From a safe distance and choking on billows of black and gray smoke, they helplessly watched the flames shoot from beneath the hood, the tires hiss and blow out one by one. The gas tank finally exploded just as the fire truck arrived.
Languishing on the sofa, laid up with broken ribs, her mother said she saw it too late in the middle of the road, the large rock that had sent her world sideways. She knew her mother would not be caught shedding tears but staring out the window with round and vacant eyes gave her the look of a lobotomy. She sometimes heard her mutter to no one in particular, “Don’t love it so much.” She seemed to smell acrid for weeks, as if the sponge baths could never wash away the stench of scorched pride from her skin. Sam feared defeat infected her too, took half-hour showers just in case, but when she held her hands up to her nose, she was relieved to find they still smelled clean.
Of course, she had captured the decimation of her mother’s joy on her phone and posted the video on YouTube the next day. By the summer she had been rewarded with several thousand hits.
Every autumn the nearby town of Esclow held a jousting tournament in the park staged among a curious geological formation dubbed the Esclow Towers. Men from neighboring counties brought their sturdiest horse and registered their names for a chance at a place in the record books by leveling a lance, charging at top speed, and capturing various metal rings suspended from a beam. To provide a pseudo-medieval aura for spectators, the organizers gave contestants a surcoat to wear over their T-shirt and jeans, surcoats adorned with various coats of arms that had been culled from the annals of European history. The heraldry of these noble knights was listed on the large wooden scoreboard across from the bleachers, and their bids for immortality recorded throughout the day.
Sam had always considered the Esclow Towers tournament more than a bit cornball, certainly not worth her attention, but reconsidered when she discovered the entry form in Tom’s binder. She asked about it the next day before the bell. He glanced about with circumspection and admitted since he was pretty decent at sitting a horse, he figured he would give it a go.
“Cool. I’ll come by. Cheer you on.”
“Sure. I guess that’d be okay.”
He was starting to blush.
“Just you though. Keep it to yourself.”
She read him clearly. He was afraid of what his buddies might say. Nevertheless, there was hope for this wildebeest.
She parked among the mass of cars and followed the spectators onto the field. The ground was flat, a flood plain formed by millennia eroding weaker stone, leaving seven limestone towers by the side of a tall hill. She had never bothered to visit them before and, squinting into the sun, judged the tallest of them to be more than two huge tractor trailers stacked end to end. The spectators were too far away to rely on their shadows. She would have appreciated the relief from the Indian summer heat and understood why others hauled large picnic umbrellas under which they set up their lawn chairs and coolers. She wished she had thought about it, but it was too late to drive half the county back to her house, and so she just sat on the grass hoping for a breeze.
She spotted Tom among the contestants leading their horses from their trailers to the field of battle. As she approached, he stood idly by his mount, looking self-conscious.
“Promised I’d come.”
“Yeah, I see you.”
“Your dad here?”
She knew his mother had passed when he was a child.
“Nah. Pa’s got better things to do.”
She looked at the surcoat he had been given.
“You know who you are?”
“The gold cross on the blue on the left, and on the right the fleur de lis and lions. France and England. That’s Richard I.”
“You don’t say.”
“I’m not quite dressed to be your queen, but I tried my best.”
She tugged at the peasant blouse she wore to get into the spirit of the day.
“Maybe you’ll take pity on a poor maiden.”
He looked away. He could not speak, and neither could she. She suddenly feared a relapse into timidity and became so uncomfortable that she merely wished him good luck and fled.
Tom performed well for the first couple rounds, thrusting his spear through the various rings. She stared with wonder at the lances able to penetrate so small a circumference as hooves thudded and riders jounced. Here came the lance’s point, no bigger than a pencil tip, at 30 m.p.h. and perhaps even more! That minute area, no bigger than her hand, and the microsecond the two converged, the triumphant piercing, determined the difference between success and failure. Every time a beast thundered down the track, she focused on the ring in its final seconds, as if her sight could zoom in like a camera lens, and the repetition of images, one after another, made her gasp as a sheen of fine sweat coated her brow.
Tom did not lead, but was performing well, considering it was his first time.
After the third round, she was compelled to wander down to the creek and gather a handful of wildflowers. She brought him his lady’s favor. He stammered thanks, and not knowing quite what to do with them, handed them back. On his next charge, he faltered, jammed his lance into one of the poles, and toppled from his mount. Judges disqualified him.
He would be leaving now, and she blamed herself.
She looked across the field and eyed the limestone parapets. She arced around the field of combat and ascended the hill. Nearly at the crest, she was relieved to see that one of the towers, in fact the tallest one, was accessible by a narrow and uneven bridge of rock projecting from the hillside. She ignored the sign that spelled out DANGER – DO NOT ENTER—FALL HAZARD. She took a deep breath and spread her arms like a tightrope walker. She knew not to look down. On the flat tops of the other towers, seedlings struggled to thrive isolated in the cracks of the rock, never to be touched. It took her nearly a full minute, but she achieved her tower.
She surveys her realm. Her pride soars with her new perspective. All stands still in the autumn air except for Tom. Locking the gate of his horse’s trailer, he stares in her direction and then bolts toward the towers. Her foot shifts and slips a bit, sending down a pebble cascade. Tom is racing up the hill, where the trees are shedding yellowed leaves. The herd below her takes no notice, yet in silence they send up their hearts. Such a moment of supremacy must be captured. She wiggles her phone out of her back pocket to take a selfie that deserves to go viral.
Tom arrives at the end of the bridge.
Like a flattered maid, she simpers, “Oh, you do care about me!”
“Holy shit! Are you crazy?”
“I knew you’d come.”
“What are you doing out there?”
Tom ventures onto the bridge.
“Reach out. Give me your hand. I’ll help you back.”
She feels his grip, so strong, so vital. She has him now.
“What’s wrong with you? I mean, what the hell were you thinking?”
Suddenly her voice is small and self-effacing.
“I don’t know. Maybe I just felt sick and tired of nothing but shadows.”
Her foot slips again, and she reaches for his shoulder with her other hand. She must release her phone. She hears it clatter into the anonymous depths of the abyss below.
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