Joyland

Toronto |

Ms. Universe

by Rebecca Rosenblum

edited by Emily M. Keeler

Baton went up into the blue sky, whipping around so fast it seemed to bend. Baton came down, the spin slowing just before seven long purple fingers grasped it twice around and pulled it to the chest of an auburn felt uniform.

“She’s good.” There was a whole team of majorettes on the field, but somehow Lydia knew exactly where I was looking. We were sitting on the hill above the field, far enough from the smoking quad that we wouldn’t be collateral damage to the usual lunch-hour fistfight, but near enough that we could hear the shouts and smacks. Deek was on the other side of Lydia. Since Deek started guarding her, Lydia always had to be in the middle.

“Think she’s the hottest one, Carmina? The Martian?”

“Her name’s 8ortia.” It was a hard name to pronounce—there was supposed to be a lilt on the i that didn’t fit Earthling tongues. 8ortia just smiled when the teachers mispronounced her name, and most kids didn’t even try. I could say it properly, even with my flat pink tongue. “Dunno. She’s pretty.” Of course she was the hottest one.

“My mom says all purple girls are gorgeous, it’s in the blood. Do you think that’s a racist thing to say?”

I just shrugged—all I knew about interplanetary immigrants was from watching 8ortia and the encyclopaedia—but Deek said, “They are, though. It’s not racist if it’s true.”

Lydia nodded. “The last, what, three Ms. Universes have all been from there.”

We all looked at her some more. 8ortia could have been Ms. Universe, in clothes not made of felt, without grass clippings on her shoes. Her jutting cheekbones and huge plate-flat ears were larger than life, earth, anything. She was tall but narrow narrow narrow, all built around that long spinal column. Her slick-looking lavender hair dripped long over the bumps of her big vertebrae.

I wanted us to stop staring at 8ortia specifically—it made me feel conspicuous and there were lots of other kids to look at. The band was marching around the edge of the field and all the skids and lameheads were chucking bits of their lunches at them, banana peels and slices of meat, never cookies, once a full can of Dr. Pepper. Every now and then someone would yell something at the majorettes and everyone would laugh like they were first ones to think of something dirty to say about a baton and a girl.

I could feel my skin starting to tingle with sunburn. I was way too sensitive to live on the third planet out, especially in a month like May. When I had come out of the dark school hallways that day, the sun was so bright I had to close my eyes and watch the red glow through my eyelids, following the sound of Lydia’s boots down the eight steps. I could manage the thirty paces across the parking lot by sound, but then I had to open my eyes at the lawn, because you can never trust grass.

I probably should never have suggested coming out here. Deek was twitching like crazy trying keep total surveillance on any guy that came near us. Ever since Lydia started getting anonymous notes about blood and tears and other fluids, Deek had been sticking to her like glue. I guess it was gallant, but awkward for me, having to hang out all three of us.

At least with the majorettes around, most guys had something to look at other than Lydia—of course, no one ever looked at me. Lydia was a hot tough girl. Everyone was taller than me, but Lydia was as tall as 8ortia, almost. Lydia had bitch boots with the big silver zippers on the sides. She had heavy blond hair down her back and she wore black eyeliner in big thick circles. She had a leather jacket with big buckles, big breasts, big hands with sword-tip nails. Once, way back in grade 9, she’d used one of those big hands to send me crashing into the paper towel dispenser in the girls’ room on the first floor. She also called me a dyke, which was just a good mean thing to call someone in grade 9. That was two years ago, before we were really mature.

“Where is Mars, anyway?” Deek asked suddenly.

“Mars is the third planet from the sun.” Lydia folded her arms confidently over her chest. “I heard that Martians have laser beams in their eyes. They can burn you clean through just by staring.”

I hated having to argue with Lydia, but I hated muddled facts even more. “We’re the third, Mars is fourth. And it’s not lasers. Martians are filled with light the way Earthlings are filled with blood, that’s all. Sometimes a little extra light escapes through their eyes, where the barrier is thinnest.”

Lydia stared at me. Even sitting, I could look straight up her nose. “Well, I know why you’re so into her, Carmina.”

I squinted up at her. This could be bad. “Why?”

“’Cause you want to go to Mars, too.” She was laughing, her electric-green eyes flashing. I didn’t know what the joke was. “’Cause everyone’s an inch taller in zero gravity. The spine decompresses. You need every inch you can get.”

We laughed, a bit—it wasn’t that funny, but at least it wasn’t mean, either. I was always a little worried with Lydia.

Lydia nudged my elbow. “Whaddya think?” she said, jutting her chin towards the whipping baton. “Could you do that?”

A skinny blond earthling caught the baton in her short white fingers. That was wrong—at this point in the routine, she should have kept it twirling and tossed it back up again. I didn’t say that to Lydia—she’d have wanted to know why I’d memorized the routine. After a minute, I thought of a joke instead. “I could be the baton.”

Lydia raised an eyebrow. “Carmina.”

Deek glared at some random kids. “Lydia, let’s go inside already.”

“Small and pale, easy to toss around, get it? Just like me.”

 

After school, I was going to walk past 8ortia’s locker while she was getting her bag, but she wasn’t there yet, so I decided to do my homework behind a pillar for a while. Watching 8ortia was a bad habit that I was failing to get over. I should’ve really found something else to do after school. But I hadn’t, yet. Last night had been a new low--I’d seen her getting off the bus, and that was an impossible temptation. I went back to her neighbourhood after dark, and it only took me an hour walking around to find their place. Martians spend a lot of time outside; their skin is so hot that rain evaporates and they don’t feel cold. They were easy to find.

It was a newly built house with a big bare yard, so I could see everything quite clearly from the tree across the street. The purple glow from their skin made shadows seem lighter, less scary. 8ortia’s father was tree-tall, eight feet at least. When his hand clasped her shoulder, his fingers went way down towards her elbow like vines. They all seemed to like each other a lot, always clasping arms and waists with those long hands. There were so many brothers and sisters that I couldn’t keep them straight. I would have to bring a notebook next time. If I were ever going to do that again, which I wasn’t. Her brothers and sisters were all younger, not in our school yet. Some of them weren’t even walking upright yet, scooting around the grass like skateboards. I could hear them singing, beeps and whistles, the indigenous Martian music that we got in the multicultural unit at school. I always thought they wouldn’t really listen to that stuff, since Earthling radio waves traveled so easily through space, but even 8ortia seemed to like to hear the old-fashioned songs. They all had loud laughs. It was noisy but nice, all the kids running around, singing, yelling. I couldn't  make out any words, but I wouldn' t have understood her dialect anyway, they only taught one course in Martian languages at our school. It was more interesting than the television and silence at my place.

Watching at school wasn’t as bad as doing it at her house, I told myself, reading my trig assignment and keeping an eye on the locker. Not that bad, but when I thought I saw Deek in the crowd leaving autoshop, I went farther behind the pillar, just in case; he didn’t always talk to me, but sometimes he did. After a few minutes, I looked back at her locker, and there was a paper in the slats. I went over and took it without a second thought because I could guess easy what it was. She was a hot girl like Lydia and I recognized the thin notebook paper, the pen pressed through. When I opened the note, I recognized the F-word, the C-word, the bad spelling, the splotch of spit instead of a signature, just the same as Lydia’s. I wasn’t surprised, but still I felt sick.

People slipped past me, above me, never flickering their gazes down. Girls were smoking in the alcove, somebody was screaming down the geography hallway, “Who cares about fucking Norway?” I heard a hysterical teacher-voice bellow back, “No one! But I said colour it and you’ll damn well do it.”

I saw a flash of purple at the end of the south hall by the bio rooms. I had crumpled the note beneath my jagged fingernails. It didn’t matter; she didn’t need that note. Purple bounced closer, laughing, talking. I fisted the page as I ran towards the north door, shoved into the brightness and went out blind. I was 17 steps across the parking lot, when I heard the fight: a bunch of loud voices yelling about what you said, what you heard. Then the smack of fist on flesh, probably on face. By grade eleven at Turgrove High, you know what most punches sound like.

I could tell from the shouts that the tangle was on the far side of the quad, but I had to open my eyes when I got to the lawn anyway, to duck awkwardly through the ragged hole in the fence. The side of the school away from the parking lot and football field was town land, the tangled brambles and third-growth saplings that everyone called The Woods. A couple minutes into the brush I found Lydia and Deek making out on the patchy grass that grew in the half-light of The Woods.

I cleared my throat and they rolled lazily apart, Lydia’s breasts and Deek’s hairless chest both flashing white before Lydia pulled her shirt down and Deek tugged the sides of his closed. They didn’t look mad or embarrassed, just curious. I never came here at this hour. Everyone knew what they were doing.

But this was important. I held out the note, which was damp with sweat and crumpled. No one reached for it. “Another one of those notes.”

“Shit, Carmina.” Lydia sat up. “They’re really after us.” She yanked hard on the bottom of her shirt.

“Not to me.” I flopped down beside her. “To 8ortia.”

“Now you see how nutso these guys are,” Deek muttered to Lydia. “Messing with a Martian girl is risky stuff. Lasers.”

“I told you—not lasers. Just light.

“Well, if 8ortia can’t laser-beam those dicks, you got any other good ideas?” Lydia asked.

“Don’t ask me. I thought you should’ve called the cops after the first one.” Deek had thought the cops were a waste of time, that they’d never believe kids from our school, which was probably true. Turgrove didn’t have much of a rep, what with all the fights.

“Did she give you this, Carmina?”

I blushed under my sunburn. “I just…saw the note stuck in her locker and I thought it looked like the ones Lydia got, so I took it. I was right, so I brought it down to you guys. 8ortia never saw it.”

That all sounded like a perfectly plausible explanation inside my head, it being the truth and all, but when I got it out, I realized there were a few problems with it. “I, um, I could ask her. Tell her I found the note on the floor by her locker and picked it up thinking it was something of mine and say how bad it is and ask if she’s had others. Or-or-or-or something. What do you guys think?”

Lydia fiddled with her buttons. “It doesn’t matter. You can ask her…”

My mind was jumping all over the place. “Um, actually, that was a bad idea. I’ll look like some crazy stalker.” Which I was. I shouldn’t have used that word. Shit.

Everyone was silent. It was my idea, and Lydia wasn’t going to beg me. Suddenly she flushed—Lydia Valentine actually blushed and looked away and I could see she’d guessed my secret.

The inside of my head echoed like the bang of a paper towel dispenser. “But I—but I do want to help her. 8ortia’s really nice, well, she seems nice, and she’s a guest in our world and, I—”

Deek said, “You’re right. And she hasn’t got a boyfriend to look out for her, like Lydia does.”

Lydia punched him in the arm. “I’d be ok if you weren’t around.” The red had died down in her face a little.

Deek rubbed his arm. “Well, we won’t have to find out about that.” He leaned over and gave Lydia a shoulder hug. Lydia just sat still and quiet. “We won’t. I’m here for the long haul. This sort of crap—I’m your man. 100% of the time. Yeah. This is how I prove my love.” He turned towards me. “I’m taking good care of Lydia, but I don’t know if I could help another girl. But I could at least give her some pointers.” He was talking fast, like a game-show host. “I could maybe explain my surveillance tactics, how I monitor Lydia even when we’re apart…”

I glanced back at Lydia. Her eyes were huge and so glossy I thought she was going to cry. I said fast, “I’ll go give her back the note, see what she says.” I held out my palm, white and mouse-sized. Deek dropped the curl of paper into it. “Ok?” I left my eyes on Lydia.

“Say whatever you think, Carmina. I trust you.” She disentangled her arms and legs from Deek and stood up. “I’ll walk up back with you. I’ve got detention.”

Deek’s eyes got bigger. Lydia always had detention—that didn’t mean she’d go. But she started walking towards the school even as Deek said, “Hey, Lyds, maybe you two shouldn’t be heading off on your own…I’ll—” He started to stand up.

“I’ll be fine. Stay here.

“It isn’t safe, baby, you read that note.”

“It’s safe, Deek. I’m with Carmina.” She smiled at me, big and pretty but so sad, and started walking again. Deek glared at her back so hard I thought she would feel it, but she didn’t turn. After I fell into step beside her, I said, “Ok, then,” but she didn’t answer and I couldn’t think of anything else, so we walked in silence.

When we got out of the trees and onto the school lawn, Lydia looked up, but she didn’t ask what I thought she was going to ask. “Where’s Mars?”

“Um…I don’t know? And it’s day? So we couldn’t see it even if I did?

Lydia tipped her jaw back down and looked at me. “Did Deek send me those notes?”

I felt like I’d been staring at one of those Magic Eye pictures and suddenly there was the sailboat. It was always right there, just invisible, always a big shock even though it’s just a sailboat. The fight was still going on on the other side of the parking lot; there was a lot of yelling and thunks. We both turned just as a kid flipped back after a punch caught him under the jaw. Lydia sighed, disgusted—she knew how to take a punch as sure as she could lay one down.

“It sorta looks that way, doesn’t it?”

Lydia stood stiff, not a flinch. “It sorta does. Too bad, he was a nice boyfriend, otherwise. Thanks for being honest, though.”

“It’s ok. I’m sorry.” We stood still, watching the fighters shift and angle.

“I’ll be honest, too--I don’t think 8ortia likes you back.”

Her words hit like a punch, and I, unlike Lydia, could never take them very well. I swayed and waited for a follow-up to knock me out so I could stop thinking.

“Actually, I don’t think she knows who you are, so you’ve still got hope.” Lydia’s gaze was still on the expanding fight—friends were getting into it, pretending to try to pull the guys back but really getting in hits of their own. “When you tell her about the note, that’s your chance to make a first impression.”

She was trying to encourage me. I started to laugh, just a couple hiccups, hehehe.

Lydia tried to elbow me in the ribs but she was so much taller she only got my shoulder. “It’s not funny. That kid with the banana lost a tooth.”

I hadn’t seen that, but from the wash of red on his chin and dripping up his nose as he struggled in an upside down headlock, it was obvious Lydia was right. “They’re both bleeding. What’s the point?”

Lydia sighed and finally turned to look at me. Her face wasn’t red and she wasn’t rolling her eyes and we were just talking, like we usually did “What’s the point in throwing a baton at the sky? What’s the point in sending your own girlfriend rape notes? People are nuts.” Her voice shook a little. I wanted to touch her elbow, her arm, something friendly. A body skidded across the gravel.

From the corner of my eye, I saw a wisp of purple step into the parking lot. Her long shimmery hair was loose on her shoulders and she had her majorette uniform draped over her arm. In a loose grey blouse and skinny dark jeans, somehow 8ortia looked even more alien, less like any other Turgrove kid ever. She was strolling slow towards a grey Jeep, all trace of the march gone from the roll of her hips. Then there was a particularly solid punch, a particularly loud shout. She turned, so tall and thin in the light filtering through the trees, it seemed she could almost disappear into them.

“8ortia,” I whispered.

“Right.” Lydia nodded, tensed up her face. “So when you find her, tell her, but say it doesn’t matter, y’know, if she’s seen other notes, they’re not about her—”

“No, over there. She’s going over to the fight.”

We both watched 8ortia hook her uniform carefully over the roll bar of her Jeep and then walk into the quad. “I never would’ve figured her for a fight-gawker. Maybe you shouldn’t bother with her after all, Carmina.”

I was a little stunned, too, but I had a lot of girl-from-Mars watching under my belt, and I didn’t think the girl who read majorette magazines and Lonely Planet Earth hanging upside down off the bleachers after school really got off much on fights. I just kept watching and put a hand on Lydia’s arm. I could feel the little hairs on her skin standing up. “Wait,” I told her.

She looked down at my mouse paw on her tanned forearm. It might have been the first time I’d touched her on purpose since she’d spun me into the paper towel dispenser.

“Knock it the fuck off.” A voice like tires on gravel reverberated through the yard. It was 8ortia yelling, her dark lips stretched around the curse. I had never really heard her speak before. I had imagined her voice different, thicker, sweeter, softer, something.

The fighting boys, on the ground now with a couple of their friends throwing in kicks, didn’t seem to hear. “What do you assholes want to do, kill each other?”

The fight-gawkers started to yell back at her. I dug my nails into Lydia’s arm. The boy on his back got a hand free to dig a couple fingers into his enemy’s left eye. I clutched Lydia harder, my belly rising, until suddenly everything was cloaked in violet light that seemed to burn right between the two boys.

Frozen, gleaming lavender, and then they rolled apart fast in a final burst of light. Between flashing sunspots, I watched them sprawl on the ground six feet apart, hair smoking, shirts scorched away from their chests and bellies, gasping and choking and bleeding. The audience was blinded silent. 8ortia was glaring at everyone.

“Maybe I should’ve let you kill each other in public, but other than the lowest common denominator—” she flashed a grim smile at the bystanders, who were fast drifting away “—no one really wants to see that.” She shrugged and turned towards her car. The boys on the ground were slowly getting up, stomachs bleeding burnt, gripping the sides of their concert t-shirts together. Only the bravest in the crowd even helped them up; everyone else faded away. 8ortia was turning on her ignition. She waved a long lavender hand, the nails painted teal, at Lydia and me as she pulled out of the drive. When I caught her eye, huge and darkest magenta with a spark still sizzling in the iris, she winked.

“That was amazing. She’s amazing. You said the laser eyes were just a rumour.”

“What do I know? I didn’t even figure it out about Deek until….” I was shaking and I wasn’t even really sure why. “Well, I’ve gotta…gotta find out if she got other notes. I’ll talk to her. Tomorrow.”

Lydia dipped her head for a moment. She still looked sad, but like I said, Lydia was tough. After minute, the quad was nearly empty and Lydia looked at me. “I guess I’m free now. What’s next?”