Stranger

 /   /  By Emma Birches
Stone Soup Magazine
November/December 2009

Emma Dudley

What if it wasn’t like this? I thought for the trillionth time in my life. No, probably more than a trillion. Maybe the google-plexth time? Windsnap was such a bad school I didn’t even know what came after trillion. I was pretty sure that it wasn’t google-plex though. I sat on the steps leading up to the trailer I lived in and tossed a big chunk of gravel against the chain-link fence that was our backyard.

I sighed and grabbed my rusty old beach bike from where it was leaning against the dented metal of the trailer and swung my leg over the seat.

“Going out, Gram,” I yelled to my grandma. I saw her wave her hand through the screen window from where she was chopping up vegetables. I started pedaling along the gravel around our trailer, the dirt road that led from each row of trailers, and then out of the trailer park and down the beach road.

Living in a trailer park probably would be cool if you were some rich kid on summer vacation staying there for three days. Heck, a week. But not when you’ve lived there for ten years straight with no trips to break it up. And not when you’re living on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, where a hurricane could sneak up and obliterate your life. My grandma, my little sister, Tally, and I don’t have a car either. If there was a big hurricane, there would be nothing for us to do. Sure, they would evacuate everyone, but we didn’t have a car. And all of us on one bicycle was not happening. My bike is my prized possession. I found it when I was seven, six years ago. It looked as though someone had just dropped it in front of one of the spiffy beach houses along the shore and thrown a sign that said “Free” in sharpie on top of it. It was really big for me then, but I wheeled it all the way back to the trailer and showed it to Gram.

Stranger riding a bike

Living in a trailer park probably would be cool if you were some rich kid on summer vacation

“That’s real nice, Gale,” she’d said to me.

“That’s an ugly bike for an ugly big brother,” Tally had laughed.

So that was that. The bike had stayed with me, and by now it was too small. My gangly legs bent almost up to my chest when I pedaled, and I had to lean down to hold onto the handlebars. It worked though, and that was what mattered. Whenever the other teenagers on vacation stared at me, I just pretended not to notice. I must have been a sight, my white-blond hair streaming behind me, my torn-up too-small shorts and my T-shirt with the sleeves cut off.

As I rode by all the fancy beach houses, I thought it again: It didn’t always used to be like this. Come on. Why was I even thinking this still after all these years? Because you don’t want to forget. That was true. I had a great memory. Even a few years after I moved to the trailer park I could still remember my life before I was three… My parents, cool clothes, our colossal house a few feet away from the ocean with shutters for the windows (no hurricane problems!), and a nice car. My parents had left for a drive one night and never came back. I had outgrown my cool clothes. The house was sold when Tally and I moved in with Gram for money. The car was totaled along with Mom and Dad.

But for a while now, the memories had been getting blurry. Fuzzy around the edges. I was beginning to forget Life Before Trailer. What my room had been like, the clothes I had worn, the school I went to… even what my parents had been like. Tally didn’t remember at all. She had only been a year old when our lives had changed. Sometimes I envied her, sometimes I pitied her for not remembering. I tried to tell her stories, and I asked Gram to tell too, but she didn’t like to. She missed Mom and Dad as much as we did.

There was nothing to do about it, though. I could still remember a lot, and that would have to be enough. I screeched to a halt in front of the path leading to the beach. I picked up my bike and carried it across the sand before I set it down where I kicked off my flip-flops. Sand was bad for the chain, and it wasn’t like I could snap my fingers and a brand new bike would appear. I sat down in the sand and watched the families playing in the surf. I liked to watch them and pretend I was one of them. Get handed a towel by my mom, get swung around in the water by my dad…

I missed my old life, true, but I had gotten used to it just being Gram and Tally along for the ride with me. I loved them, and we got along. I went to school, had a bike, the trailer park had a pool, granted the bottom paint was peeling and the tiles around it were loose, and I lived right by the beach. But there was just something… like I didn’t belong here. If you don’t feel like you belong, then tough luck, I thought. Where else is there to belong to? This thought brought me back to the story about my name. I had always hated my name, Gale. Everyone at school had laughed when I’d told it to them. “Isn’t Gale a girl’s name?” I remember someone jeering when I was five. Girly Gale had been my nickname throughout grade school.

One afternoon after being bullied all day I came home to the trailer and shouted to Gram, “Why did I have to be named Gale? Gale is a girl’s name. I’m a boy! I am not Girly Gale!” Gram had come into the room and handed me a glass of milk and sat with me at the table.

“You were named Gale because your parents liked the name. It’s a boy’s name too, hon. Did you know that Gale means stranger?

Stranger, I had thought. I am a stranger. I’ve never really belonged. From then on I liked my name. I had never thought a name could be so dead on. I ignored the teasing and bullying, and like all teasing and bullying, when ignored it wasn’t nearly as effective.

My thoughts kept roaming wild while I sat looking at the families on the beach. Then, all of sudden, a boy who looked about my age came up to me.

“Nice bike you got there. It’s an old Roadmaster, huh? Kinda rusty, but still looks pretty good.” The kid had buzzed brown hair and black eyes. He also had a line of freckles under his eyes. He was carrying a skimboard and his swim trunks looked designer.

“Yeah, Roadmaster. Thanks.” Nobody ever seemed to pay attention to me at the beach. It was a new experience, being noticed. I kind of liked it.

“I’m Thayne.”

This was the part where I should say, “Hey, I’m Gale,” but I was reluctant. Maybe as soon as Thayne heard my strange name he would decide I was a complete loser and walk away. I couldn’t exactly say my last name… it was Monsuno. What kind of guy is named Monsuno? A weirdo guy, that’s who. No offense to any kids out there named Monsuno. Thayne was looking at me expectantly. “Gale,” I sighed.

“Well, I just moved here from Washington. Guess I’ll see you around, Gale.” He shifted his skimboard to his other arm and walked away down the beach.

Whoa. He didn’t even bat an eyelash at my name. Thayne seemed cool. He seemed like a no-nonsense kind of guy, and I liked people like that. I didn’t really have any friends, and it might make me feel better about being poor and having no parents. Maybe it would make me feel less like a stranger.

*          *          *

That night, after dinner, I lay on the top bunk of the bed Tally and I shared. I stared up at the picture I had taped right above my bed. It was a picture of the house that I used to live in, the house that I rode by every day so that I could engrave it in my memory. The house was big, with wooden stairs leading up on one side. It was painted light blue, and had a deck that went all the way around the perimeter. It was right on the beach. I had taken that picture a few years ago and had stared at it every night until I went to sleep since then. I knew every millimeter of that picture of the house. Every night I wished as I stared at that picture that one day I would be able to go inside again. See what I remembered from my past life.

I stared and stared until my eyes watered from not blinking. Soon I could hear Tally’s light snoring below me. I sighed and closed my eyes. I wanted… no I needed to see the inside of that house at least one more time.

*          *          *

The next day I sat with Tally at the card table in the kitchenette. Gram was at the convenience store where she worked. Gram loved working at the store. She had worked there and lived in the trailer park as long as I could remember. That was one of the reasons I almost never mentioned out loud how much I hated living here. I knew that sometimes she felt like Tally and I deserved better, but whenever she started to say so I waved her off. “We have a beach and a pool. What more could two kids want?” She’d ruffle my hair and give Tally a hug. Gram was the best grandma anyone could ever hope for.

“Do you want to hang out at the pool today?” Tally was eleven. She loved to swim. She had long white-blond hair like me, which she wore in a ponytail.

“Maybe. I got some stuff to do today.”

“Like what? Have you noticed it’s summer vacation, Gale? Now’s the time to have nothing to do!”

“Yeah, sure. I met this cool kid at the beach yesterday and I wanna see if I can catch him again.”

“Mmmmm,” muttered Tally, picking up the comic section in the newspaper. I rolled my eyes. Tally had a ton of friends at school.

“See you,” I said, rinsing off my bowl and putting it in the sink. I picked up my bike where it was resting against the side of the trailer and rode down to the beach. Again, I carried it to my usual spot and looked around. There he was. Thayne was down by the water skimboarding. I picked up my bike again and lugged it nearer, leaving it where the dry sand stopped and the wet began. Thayne stood with his back to me, waiting for a good wave to ride.

“Hey,” I said. Thayne turned around.

“Oh, hey. What’s up?”

“Nothing much… just biked down here to hang out. You?”

“Skimboarding. It’s really fun. You want to try?” He held out the board.

I looked down. I hadn’t changed into my trunks at the trailer and still wore my jean shorts that stopped above my knees. Suddenly I was self-conscious. I probably looked like a total nerd. “OK. I’ve never really done it before though, so don’t expect anything awesome.”

“It’s cool. Just run, drop the board, run until you catch up with it, and jump on.” I nodded. I’d sat on this beach for ten summers and seen tons of skimboarders. I took the board from him.

Stranger seeing a friend's house

“Th- this is your new house?”

I waited until the wave had washed out and the sand had just a thin coating of water on it, ran, dropped the board and jumped on with both my feet. The board was fast. I rode down the beach until I got to where a huge wave was breaking. Uh-oh. A huge wave was breaking. The board ran up the wave and as it peaked, I was catapulted up into the air and belly-flopped into the surf.

I came up, spluttering and gasping for air. That was graceful. Thayne had picked up his board and was walking toward me. He held out his hand out.

“That was awesome! You got like ten feet of air!” He laughed.

I took a deep breath as he pulled me up. “Wow. That was… fun?”

Thayne laughed again. “Want to do it again?”

“Sure,” I laughed. It was fun.

After a couple of hours of swimming and boarding Thayne suggested that we go over to his house.

“It’s a pretty nice house. And I just got everything unpacked in my room. We can walk from here.”

“Sure,” I said. Thayne was nice, and my alternative was pretending to be an Olympic swimming commentator for my little sister.

We walked along the beach road, me rolling my bike next to me. “I’m soaked,” I realized. I didn’t really want to jeopardize my only friendship in my life by getting someone’s new house all wet.

“It’s cool. A beach house is going to get sandy and salty at one point or another.” He handed me his towel so that I could mop up my shaggy hair and clothes. After about five minutes of walking, Thayne stopped in front of a house.

“Th- this is your new house?” I asked.

“Yeah. What’s wrong?”

I shook my head. “Nothing.” We walked up the wooden stairs and into the house. It was big. It had a hall leading to a living room, with doors branching off into other rooms. The kitchen was pristine, the bedrooms clean, and the floors were spotless. Thayne opened a door and walked in.

“This is my room,” he said proudly. “My family moved here because of my dad’s job… the only downside is that we won’t be here for long.” All I could do was nod. “Gale? You sure you’re OK?”

My eyes were starting to get red. “I… I have to go,” I mumbled and fled out of the room. Thayne ran after me.

“Wait! Gale! Gale!” But I was already jumping on my bike and pushing off from the driveway. I wiped my eyes and pedaled as fast as I could away from the house that marked what had been.

*          *          *

I had thought I could handle it. But I hadn’t been able to. I had remembered every moment of my old life when I saw the rooms. And when I had seen Thayne’s posters and junk all over my room, that had just made it unbearable. I was mad at Thayne, but most of all I was mad at myself. Of course no one nice would ever show interest in being my friend. I was a loser. An outcast. I narrowed my eyes as I pumped down street after street, back to where I belonged.

I pulled next to our trailer and dropped my bike. “Wanna go swimming?” I yelled at Tally. She opened the screen door and looked out with wide eyes.

“Have you been crying? And why are you all wet?”

“Do you want to go swimming?” I said through my teeth.

“Uh… sure?” Tally went inside and emerged again, this time in her swimsuit. “Aren’t you going to change?”

“Already wet.” Tally raised her eyebrows but didn’t say anything, walking with me to the pool.

The next few days I forced myself to stay in the park. I would chuck pebbles at the fence, do cannonballs into the pool, ride my bike along the gravel. One night as I lay in bed I looked up at the picture as I had for so many nights. But this time I glared at it angrily and tore it down. I held it in my hand for a few seconds before tearing it up and flushing the pieces down the toilet.

I felt lonelier than ever. I didn’t have anyone to talk to about my problems; I didn’t want to worry Gram, and Tally probably wouldn’t care. A week after visiting my old house I sat on the top of the fence, facing the busy main road where cars were rushing by. All those people were going somewhere. To work. To summer camp. To the beach. To their home. Where was I going? Was I going to stay in the park my whole life? I didn’t want that. But what did I want? Did I want to be like Thayne? Not really. Where would Tally and I go when Gram was gone? So many questions, and not nearly enough answers.

“Hey.” I spun around and found myself looking down into a pair of jet-black eyes with freckles beneath them. What was he doing here? Why wasn’t he trashing my old house? When I didn’t say anything back, he looked down where he was shuffling his feet in the gravel. “Look, I know you probably want to be alone or whatever, but… Listen, I’m sorry I upset you the other day. I don’t really know what happened. Maybe… you could help me understand?”

“I don’t think you would.”

“You’ll never know if you don’t try.” He swung himself up onto the fence next to me. I didn’t know what to do. He was just waiting there, staring at me.

“First of all, how did you even know I lived here?”

Thayne smiled. “I ran after you when you took off on your bike. You were going like fifty miles per hour!” I had to laugh a little at that one. My legs were still sore. I took a deep breath and started explaining.

I told him about my parents. How I had lived in his house. What my room, now his, had looked like. How I thought my parents abandoned us. Moving in with Gram in the park. Taking the picture. Longing to go inside the house. Being bul- lied about my name, clothes, and money. And finally I told him how I was confused about everything. How I didn’t know what was going to happen to my life from here, and what I wanted to happen. When I finally stopped he was looking straight ahead at the cars honking and racing by. We were silent for a long time.

“I’m confused too,” he finally said. “Of course I don’t have it horrible,” he continued. “I have parents, a great house,” he smiled at me apologetically, “and I have a good amount of money. But my dad’s job moves around every two years. I finally get settled in a house and then it’s, “Honey, time to pack up again.” I’ve never had a best friend. I know that a lot of kids are like that but… that doesn’t make it less hard.” I nodded. Before I had met Thayne, if a rich kid had tried to compare their problems to mine I probably would have laughed so hard I fell over. But this was different. I was finally realizing that it wasn’t how your life turned out that determined who you were… it was what you did when your life spun you around and deposited you in a strange place. What you did when you were a stranger.

“I guess life just isn’t perfect,” I said.

“I guess,” agreed Thayne. “What a breakthrough!” He laughed. And the funny thing was, I found myself laughing with him. And I laughed so hard I fell off the fence. That just made him laugh harder, and he landed on the gravel next to me.

If Tally had been watching us through the trailer window, she probably would have said, “A dumbo friend for a dumbo brother.”

*          *          *

Thayne and I became inseparable after what we called our “breakthrough.” We spent every summer day together, hanging out at the trailer park, his house, or the beach, and we knew we had each finally found a best friend. Then, one day, the summer when we were both fifteen, Thayne met me at the beach at the usual time.

“So guess what,” he said, without expression. “I’m moving again.” He stared at the sand at his feet.

“Man,” was all I could think to say.

“Got an email?” he asked.

“Got a trailer address,” I said. Thayne nodded. “How long have you got?”

“Two weeks.”

I picked up some sand and threw it into the water. “Well… then let’s make the best of it,” I said, punching him lightly in the arm. He smiled.

We walked along the beach together, thinking about different things. We were going to lose each other, but not what would be left behind from us. We walked along the beach together, the waves leaving shallow holes where our footprints had been.

Stranger Emma Dudley

Emma Dudley, 13
Berkeley, California

Stranger Charlie Jones

Charlie Jones, 13
Tukwila, Washington

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