Read The Different Girl Online
Authors: Gordon Dahlquist
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This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2013 by Gordon Dahlquist
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Published in the United States by Dutton Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
345 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014
My name is Veronika.
We had been there for years, but I only remember things from part of that time. Living on the island was like that, because it seemed to be always bright, and always hot, and every day passed like the day before. I’m telling this from afterward, from now, but I’m telling as much as I can remember. I hope what I’m telling is what really happened, because if it isn’t—if I’ve forgotten things or lost them—then I’ve lost part of myself. I’m not sure how old I am, mainly because there are so many different ways to tell time—one way with clocks and watches and sunsets, or other ways with how many times a person laughs, or what they forget, or how they change their minds about what they care about, or why, or whom. And there are times when something happens that you don’t understand—but somehow you still know that it’s important—like walking through a door you only notice when you hear it lock behind.
• • •
I was one of four. The others were Isobel, Caroline, and Eleanor, and it was always easy to tell us apart because we each had different colored hair. Isobel’s was yellow, like lemons. Caroline’s was brown, like coconuts. Eleanor’s was black as wet tar. My hair is the color of red rust. Aside from that we were all the same size and weight and age and always seemed to be doing, and wanting to do, almost always the exact thing as one another. We were all orphans, without family or even the memories of family, because we were too young when our parents died, which had all happened in the same terrible accident. Irene explained that we were on our island because the plane had crashed on one of the bigger islands, and everyone thought it would be better for the children to be placed nearby rather than sent away on another plane. Since all we knew about planes was that they crashed and killed people, and none of us had any real memories of our parents, and we all loved the island and Irene and even Robbert, we didn’t want it any other way.
The island was small, but large enough to us. We lived in two buildings on stilts, so lizards and rats couldn’t get in, even though they did anyway. We would chase the rats, and sometimes the lizards, but Irene explained that lizards ate bugs, so we really oughtn’t chase them, but sometimes we chased them anyway, trying to make them throw their tails off. We collected tails.
We had a bedroom with cots and lockers. On the same floor was the kitchen and a room for storage. Upstairs was Irene’s room, which had a foamy bed that bounced. Where we lived on the island, it was only from her roof that you could actually see the water.
The beach went around half of the island, and where it didn’t there were steep and sharp black rocks, which were full of crabs. Also there were the woods, which is what we called a great meadow of palms and scrub and grass that grew almost as tall as us four. The woods covered most of the island except for the beach, the cleared courtyard where we lived, and the dock where the supply boat came. Neither Irene nor Robbert could swim, so none of us were taught to swim, either. We were allowed to walk on the beach, but never to go in.
Robbert’s building had our classroom. The back room was where he lived, but it was mainly full of his different machines. If we asked to go back there, he would pretend that he hadn’t heard us, especially if there was more than one of us asking. If I asked him by myself, he’d get an entirely different face on, for just a moment. Then he’d ask, “Do you know what kind of fish you find in the darkest blue water?”
When he said this—in a whisper—I would just shut up. Then he would smile. I never knew if he wanted to confuse me, or if he was waiting for me to ask again, but because I didn’t know I never did.
Irene took care of mostly everything. She was thicker and taller than we were, and she was strong. Her skin was sunburned, with a different texture, like another kind of smooth. She held her black hair back with clips. Once I pulled a white hair from her hairbrush and held it to the light. I didn’t know you could have two different colors of hair. Irene and Robbert both wore white coats over whatever else, usually shorts and a shirt with buttons. Irene wore sandals. Robbert wore sneakers without socks. His hair was black, too, but he never went into the sun, so his skin was almost like a fish, except with blue veins. We all looked the same. We wore smocks with ties up the back, which we tied for one another, or Irene tied them for us, depending on what we were learning that day. None of us wore shoes.
Irene would wake us in the morning, one at a time. I don’t remember dreams, so I would open my eyes like I had just shut them, except now it was day. The island’s morning sounds were different from the evening sounds. In the morning there were gulls and little brown birds that lived in the palms. At night there were parrots, which are very loud, and crickets, which are even louder.
Caroline sometimes did remember dreams, or that’s what Irene called them. Caroline said they were reflections or echoes, like thinking a scrap of something in the middle of forgetting it. We didn’t like forgetting, even though forgetting was always part of learning, so no one was jealous of Caroline’s dreams, or even asked about them. Caroline would sit up on her cot and blink, and then tilt her head like a bird when it listens or looks at you. Irene would see her and ask. Sometimes Irene would tell Robbert.
And all of the time there was the wind and there was the ocean. Usually you only notice their noise when everything else is still. That’s what Irene explained, though I think I heard them all the time. I paid special attention to the ocean—because of what Robbert said about fish, and because I couldn’t swim, and because it was everywhere. I wasn’t scared, though. I was never scared.
After we got dressed, we would go to the kitchen to help Irene make breakfast and boil water for her tea. She made a pot of Chinese tea first thing and then drank it over the whole day out of a white cup without a handle. She’d finish the very last of the pot before she went to bed, and, then, the next day do the same thing all over again. Since we always did the same things all the time, it was nice to see her do it, too. But for breakfast we made all kinds of things, whatever she felt like. We would mainly help with opening cans. Another thing she did in the morning was whistle. None of us could whistle, but we could sing. Irene taught us songs that we sang together, or in rounds—she liked us to sing in rounds—and often we would all sit on the porch, once breakfast had been cooked, singing just for her.
O wouldn’t it be lovely
To dream a dream with you.
O wouldn’t it be lovely
To dream a dream for two.
O won’t you make me happy.
We’d never need to part.
O you could make me happy.
I’d give you all my heart.