More Than Words

Page 2


The corners of his eyes tightened as he watched me, making me feel nervous again. “Don’t you like your home, Jessie?”
Jessie. My heart fluttered at the sound of this handsome boy calling me by a nickname. No one had ever called me Jessie before. I liked it. “I … not really. My mom and dad fight a lot.” I wasn’t sure why I said it, especially to a stranger, but there was something dim and dreamy about the inside of the boxcar, something that felt unreal, as if my pretend game were coming to life around me in some small way. As if what was said here couldn’t go any farther.
He sighed again, looking off behind me. “Yeah,” he said, as if he understood. I started to ask him if his mom and dad fought a lot, too, but he nodded to the book I’d placed next to me on the floor.
“What’s that?”
“King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table.”
He tilted his head. “You like fairy tales, Jessie?”
I nodded slowly. I thought about my parents, about how my mom was always dragging us to hotels and restaurants and to my dad’s office after hours, where we’d find him with his girlfriends. I thought about how my brother had been so young when we’d first started finding my father that Johnny’s eyes would always light up, and he’d say in this big, happy voice, “Hi, Daddy!” And our dad would cringe, the girlfriend of the moment would either seem to shrink or look shocked, and inside I would want to die of embarrassment. And then my mom would sob and throw a fit, and sometimes my daddy would come home with us, but mostly he would shut the door or drive away, or leave us standing there.
Johnny was nine now and had enough sense to be as embarrassed as me when we found our dad with one of his girlfriends.
My mom was always crying and wailing, and my dad was always making promises that nobody believed. Not even him, I thought. And Johnny and I just tried to disappear into the background.
Fairy tales helped me believe that not every man was like my daddy. Fairy tales helped me disappear into worlds where princes were loyal and honest and where princesses were strong and brave.
“Yes. Fairy tales, adventures. Someday I’m going to go on the grandest adventure of all—I’m going to live in Paris, have a French boyfriend who writes me the most beautiful love letters ever, and I’m going to eat French chocolate all day long.”
“Sounds like you’ll be fat.”
I shrugged. “Maybe. If I want to be.”
The boy chuckled softly, and butterflies fluttered in my tummy. He was even more handsome when he smiled. Although, really looking at him now, I saw that his clothes were worn, his sweatshirt a little too small, and the sole of one shoe was coming loose. He was obviously poor, and the knowledge made tenderness well up in my chest.
“You didn’t tell me your name,” I said softly, scooting closer.
He eyed me for a second but then shrugged. “Callen.”
“No, Callen. No v.”
I repeated it, liking the way it sounded. “Callen.” I paused. “Did you get in a fight?” I asked, my eyes moving from his cut lip to his reddened eye.
“Who’d you get in a fight with?”
He looked away for a second and then back at me. “Just a bully.”
I nodded slowly. “Oh. Well, I hope you can stay away from him from now on.”
He let out a laugh that was mostly breath. “No, Jessie, I can’t stay away from this bully, but it’s okay. I don’t mind the bruises.”
I frowned, not understanding how anyone could be okay with getting hit in the face. I opened my mouth to say something, when Callen reached forward and picked up my book, looking at the picture on the front cover. He turned it over and began reading the synopsis on the back. “You read French?” I asked, surprised.
His eyes flew to mine, and his expression did something funny. “No. I was wondering what language this is.”
I nodded, scooting even closer, leaning my back against the same wall as him. “Want me to read it to you? I can translate. I go to a French school, and we’re only supposed to read books in French.”
“A French school?”
I nodded. “Every subject is taught in French. It helps kids become fluent.”
“Huh,” he said, tilting his head, studying me. “So you can eventually move to Paris and get fat.”
I grinned. “Yup.”
He smiled back, causing those butterflies to take flight again. “Sure, Princess Jessie. Read to me.”
* * *
I walked through the neighborhoods, across the golf course and the field, and up the embankment to the train tracks every day that summer.
When Callen was there, I would read to him, or we would go on adventures together. He acted as if he were only doing it for my benefit, but he smiled more than usual when we were traveling into volcanoes in the Realm of the Merciless Vales or picking magical herbs in the Ever Fields.
“I don’t want you staying here by yourself, Jessie,” he said one afternoon when I told him I’d been there alone the day before. “You never know who else might be hanging around the train tracks.”
“I’ve never seen anyone here except you.”
“Yeah, well”—he glanced down the tracks to a turn, where the rails disappeared behind a grove of trees—“the people who hang around the railroad tracks usually stay half a mile that way because the old train cars are hidden by the trees and brush, but you never know.”
He was a head taller than I was when we were standing, and I peered up at him, noticing the bruise under his jaw. “But how will I know when you’re going to be here?”
He put his hands in his pockets and turned to me. “I’m not really someone you should be hanging around, either.”
My heart dropped, and I was suddenly scared he was going to send me away, tell me he didn’t want to meet me there anymore. “You’re wrong,” I insisted. “You’re the most wonderful person I ever met.”
“Jessie.” It was more breath than word, though I was sure I’d heard my name on his soft exhale. He met my eyes and smiled at me, softly, sweetly, and he suddenly looked younger than he was. He sighed, looking off into the distance. Maybe toward where he lived, though I couldn’t be sure. Whatever he saw in his mind’s eye made his smile slip. When his eyes moved back to mine, he asked, “Can you meet Tuesdays and Thursdays at seven o’clock?”
That was after dinner, when my dad left for an “unexpected” business meeting that we all knew was really some woman waiting in a hotel room for him and my mom opened a bottle of wine and cried now that we were too old to be dragged all over town without putting up a fight. “Yes, I can meet you then. And Saturdays at three?”
He was quiet for a moment, and then he gave me a crooked smile that made my heart do a somersault. “And Saturdays at three.”
* * *
One cold autumn day a year after we’d first met, we sat close together in the boxcar, my breath pluming in the air as I read to Callen from the French version of The Adventures of Robin Hood. I paused when he reached forward and pulled the edge of a piece of paper out of my backpack. He studied it for a moment, his gaze moving over the page before his eyes flew to mine. “What is this?”
I set the book down, tilting my head as I turned to face him. “My piano music.”
He looked back to the paper and held it toward me, pointing at the first note. “These are notes.”
“Yes,” I said, frowning. “Haven’t you ever seen music?”
“Not written out like this.” There was something odd in his voice, and he was talking fast. He pointed at the first note. “This one?”
“Um, that’s an E.”
“An E?” he asked, bunching up his brow. “The letter E?”
I shook my head. “Well, yes, like the letter, but, um, a note. A different, er … language, I guess.” I smiled, but he was still wearing an intense look of concentration as he turned back to the music, his brow smoothing after a moment. He pointed at another E and then another. “These are all Es.”