Palo Alto Weekly 24th Annual Short Story
WHITE AS SNOW
It's raining, the cold, nasty rain of early December in Dublin, the worst time of year, too cold to be outside, but too warm for snow. I hate when it's like this, miserable, wet, and grey. Perhaps if Mr. Hartley was not droning on about the cultural importance of porcelain, or if I was not hungry for my lunch, pickles and corned beef, I would be attentive towards my lessons, more willing to listen to our dreadfully dull history lecture.
I straighten up as if shot.
"What is the answer to the question, Mr. O'Mara?" Hartley's caught me out.
"I do not know, sir."
"And why is that, Mr. O'Mara?" His voice is low and dangerously soft.
"Because I did not do the reading, sir. Nor do I care to do so in the future, sir." The last bit of defiance surprises everybody, myself included. I never speak up in class, preferring to keep my head down. It is safer.
"Get out." There's only hatred and disgust in his voice.
"You heard me. Get out of my class."
"Yes, sir. With pleasure, sir." It is as if somebody has taken over Colin O'Mara's body. I would never be this cheeky.
My class, thirty-odd boys, gapes in amazement as I stand and make a show of pulling on my old rain jacket and grabbing my books.
Hartley narrows his eye at me, but says nothing. I look at him, look out the window, and back at him. He makes no move of stopping me as I cross the room, towards the door. I leave the classroom, but not before I hear the cheer of the boys and Hartley's angry yelp. Poor lads are going to pay for what I did.
The rain has turned to sleet, cold and biting, but I do not care. This is my first, and hopefully last, time getting kicked out of class and I intend to make the most of it. It's the boys from Artane, the tough lads from outside Dublin, who skip school the most and loiter in alleys, smoking cigarettes and laughing loudly. They are the boys mothers tell their sons to avoid. A group of them watch me, the skinny kid from the Southside with his schoolbooks and nice, if slightly too large, sweater. One of them, the leader, calmly drops his cigarette on the cobblestones and puts it out with his heel.
"Hey, your ma know you skipping school? Bet she'd right cry a river if she found out her little lamb was out in the rough streets of Dublin!" The rest of the gang laughs at their leader's wit. I hunch my shoulders and turn in the opposite direction. Their taunting laughter follows me, however. At last, I turn around, and let the truth out.
"I don't have one." That shuts the boys up pretty quickly. The leader takes a step or two forward.
"Sorry, mate. Didn't know." He slings an arm around my shoulders in pity and sends a look back towards his mates, warning them.
"What's your name, friend? Don't think I caught it." His grey eyes sparkle with the laughter there earlier. I am not so quick to forgive or forget usually, but his smile cheers me up a little.
"Colin O'Mara. Yourself?"
"Aidan Delvin." The two of us shake hands, grinning. Aidan turns around to look at his gang. They've been jeering at us.
"You hungry, Colin?"
He laughs, a kind laugh, not the mocking one his friends gave me. "You're a eejit liar. Come on. I know a nice bar, warm, cheap food, all that. Best hot apple cider in this side of the Liffey. My treat."
"It's fine. Honestly." Much to my horror and relief, he refuses to take no for an answer, as he grabs me by the arm.
"If you're going to skip school, you might as well live a little, eh?"
I sigh, which makes him smile, as the two of us head down Dublin's streets.
The pub is small and smoky, full of working-class men on their lunch break. My father, if he ever does leave his office for lunch, would never come to a place like this. All the men seem to know Aidan. Most nod or grunt to him and a few call his name. One man, barely older than us, cuffs him lightly on the side of the head. By their identical grey eyes and black curls, I guess them to be related, perhaps brothers. Still gawking, I follow Aidan up to the bar.
"Hello, lad. Got a friend with you today?" A large man, with the most impressive mustache I have ever seen, looks down at the two of us.
Aidan grins and pulls a coin from his pocket. "This is Colin. He's cutting school. Two hot ciders, some bread, and cheese, Frank." The man, Frank, laughs and messes up Aidan's hair, much to his annoyance. He makes a face and jerks away. "I know a place for us to sit. It's small, but warm, and nobody will bother us." His place turns out to be the corner by the fireplace. It is smoky and cramped, but, as he promised, warm and nobody pays any mind to us. I start on my bread, starving.
"Looks like you haven't had a good meal in weeks."
"My father isn't a very good cook, nor am I."
He laughs and takes a swig of cider. "Try it. It's good." I gulp down some and instantly regret it. Not only is the stuff hot, but far stronger than I was expecting. Aidan takes another sip of his, thinks for a moment, and then laughs. "It's gone hard."
"Sort of alcoholic."
I spit out my mouthful of cider in shock. "I don't drink alcohol!"
Aidan starts to laugh, nearly upsetting his cup. "It's not alcohol, not really. It's just... hard." This time, when I take a sip, it's smaller, more controlled, and I enjoy the taste more.
The two of us sit together in silence, eating and drinking. Aidan eats strangely, ripping off chunks of bread with his front teeth, chewing with the sides of his mouth slowly, and throwing his head back when he swallows. It's more dog-like than anything, but it makes me smile. By my bet, he's older than I thought, maybe sixteen to my thirteen, but looks older. I take another bite of cheese, having slowed down a little. Secretly, I wonder what Aidan thinks of me, the pale, scared, little kid who is trying to be a rebel by skipping school, when he's probably dropped out at fourteen, the legal age, and is working to feed his family. At least he probably has a mother, something I do not have. In one way, at least, he's richer than myself.
"What are you thinking about?"
I sit up and look around. Aidan takes a bite of bread and looks at me, waiting for a response. "What?"
"It looks like you're thinking."
"I'm not." It comes out more sharply than I intend.
"Sorry." He shrugs, but does not meet my eye. I nudge his arm, which makes him look up.
"It's fine." I look away. At least I speak again. "Aidan?"
"Let's go." He does not respond, but stands up. I follow, but end up tripping over my own feet and falling over. Aidan sends me a look, like one would send to a clumsy puppy or little brother.
The air is nearly cold enough for snow, not quite. I shove my hands as deep into my trouser pockets as they will go and shiver. Aidan seems unaffected by the cold, save for the fact it makes his already ruddy skin even pinker, darkening the tip of his nose and ears. Knowing my luck, my lips are probably purple, or some other unnatural color. The steam our breaths make remind me of trains, going into the station. His strides are longer than mine, so I am forced to jog in order to keep up. Aidan does not look back to see if I follow him.
"Aidan, wait up." He freezes and turns to look at me. My legs are shaking under my thin trousers and it hurts to walk.
"I'm cold and my feet hurt and I can't feel my nose or my fingers and..." I'm ranting and whining, my worst habits.
"Let's sit down and warm up. We can go into the church." He points at St. Patrick's, my church. I nod, numbly, too cold to pay attention.
"Do you like stories?"
It was a funny question, but I smile all the same. "Of course. I'm Irish!"
Aidan laughs at me, a kind laugh, like that of an older brother. "My ma tells my little brothers and sisters that if they ever are cold, just to think of the longest saint story or best history they can and it'll get better, because stories can change anything."
"So you're saying we tell each other stories?"
"I know a pretty good one. How about I tell it and then we go? Do you know what time it is?"
I peel back my sweater to see my watch, a birthday present from my father. "Thirty minutes to three."
"Hell. It's a good length story and Ma expects me home in half an hour, to look after the little ones. You?"
"My father doesn't come home until five, but I should get going as well."
"Fine then. Get comfortable." Aidan lights himself a cigarette, peels off his coat, closes his eyes, and begins to speak.
A bell rings three times. I rub my eyes. Most likely a mixture of the warm church, his soothing voice, and my own exhaustion had lulled me to sleep. Aidan is gone. Only a smoldering cigarette left on the stone floor proves he was ever here. I sit up and stomp it out, tears starting in my eyes. For the first time in my life, I met somebody I liked, somebody extraordinary, and now he was gone. It was hardly fair. Perhaps he walked out because I had fallen asleep, but he had probably grown bored of me, his little shadow.
I stand and leave the church. Outside, the air is even more bitter than before, freezing my tears to my cheeks. Hands deep in pockets, head hung low, I start to walk back to my house, on the opposite side of the city. Everything is miserable, the grey sky, my icy tears, the ugly city, the dirt even more visible. Something cold strikes the back of my neck. I ignore it. Another cold thing hits my ear and melts. Slowly, I look up. Snow, fat, lazy flakes, fall from the sky and hit the ground. Finally, it is starting to snow. At first, the flakes barely seem to stick before melting, but a few manage to hold. Those few become a thin layer, which starts to thicken. Down the street I see small child dressed in a too big jacket, sticks its tongue out to taste a flake.
"Kieran, come on. Ma's got sugar syrup at home. We can make candy with that and the snow." I recognize the voice and look up to see Aidan taking the child by the hand and leading it into the crowd.
"Aidan! Wait up! Stop!" Either he cannot hear me, or he chooses to ignore me. The snow makes everything quiet. I still run, until I lose him. Tears spring to my eyes, but maybe it's just the cold. A clock rings half past three. Father will be home in an hour and a half and it will be back to my usual life of school and silence. My throat and legs burn as I walk back along the way I came.
The snow is deeper now, deep enough to hide the city's dirt and make everything seem softer. I walk back home, snow falling peacefully over my shoulders, laughter ringing in my head.
This young writer accomplishes so much in this story! He (or she) captures the gloom of a winter day in Dublin, the angst of the young narrator, and an encounter with another boy that might alter his life. I bet we'll be reading more from this talented writer.
Registration now open
The Palo Alto Weekly Moonight Run & Walk is happening September 16 at the Palo Alto Baylands.