The invitation had never come, but Marcelina had expected the lack of arrival. Jory had warned her in advance. Although, she hadn’t told her parents. Instead, she’d shuffled around the house and whimpered whenever she looked at the calendar. Three hours of sighs, slammed doors, and sniffling earned her freedom.
Marcelina grabbed her bike and pedaled as fast as her recent growth spurt allowed. Every time her legs came up, her knees hit the handlebars. By the time she was halfway to the Super Funtime Land her knees were bruised. The jarring, endless loop of laughing clowns hurt her head already and she only caught the faintest whiff of noise.
How had Jory’s parents decided this was the place to bring him? He turned thirteen today, not six. Probably Charlotte’s mother’s idea. Her parents had become such good friends with his. It made her stomach flutter like the time she’d eaten bad fish when she thought of the time they spent together. Which was why, when she put her hand in her pocket, she was comforted by the crinkle of paper.
“He likes me.”
Sometimes, when she was lying in bed and she missed everyone and was frozen in fear she would say those words. Her. Not as a substitute to Zuza because he’d never known her. Not as someone second best. Her heart beat faster than the hurried bike ride would account for now. The inescapable truth was, if she had to live without Jory, she wouldn’t. How could she? It was a heavy truth to bear at thirteen, but she bore it alone.
She stashed her bike in the bushes and crept towards the parking lot. Her and Jory had been doing this for years so she sat and waited until she saw a large group leaving. Kids tore off wristbands and tossed them into the return bags near the exits. As they milled she stood and paced her steps evenly.
At the bag she glanced around and then drove her hand into it as fast as she could. A handful of wristbands came with her and she retreated to the bushes where her bike was hidden. Out of the dozen or so she’d snatched only one would work. Strapped to her wrist she dropped the others on the ground near the bag.
The group was piling into cars so she raced up to the entrance.
“Welcome to Super Funtime Land, the best place in the whole country. We give thanks to our supreme President.”
Ugh. Marcelina glanced behind her and then back at the bored looking girl in uniform.
“I’m so, so sorry! I left my inhaler inside. Please. Can I run in and get it? They’re leaving in a minute.”
The girl glanced down at Marcelina’s wristband and shrugged.
It was always this easy. Not that she blamed them. If she had to listen to the screeching of spoiled kids underwritten by maniacal, mechanical clown laughter she’d not care either. Marcelina rushed, drawing in great gulps of air as she went. The trick was to pull off the delicate balance of, “I need to breathe better” versus “I need medical attention.”
There were small signs indicating parties and after searching she found Jory’s. She couldn’t get in to the party, but she could lurk nearby. Normally, impatience would win, but this was Jory and his birthday. For him she’d do almost anything.
Did her smile seem too large? Marcelina couldn’t help it. Jory peeked out of a door marked employees only. He waved his hand and she darted over to squeeze between him and the doorframe. Despite her mother’s constant reminders, she was too young she’d begun to feel something when her and Jory touched. Not that they touch touched. Neither of them wanted that from the each other.
Even in the dim light she could see his worried expression. The grin normally ready for her was nowhere to be seen. Something was wrong. Very wrong.
Marcelina didn’t think, only moved, and Jory was in her arms and she hugged her best friend until he squeaked. It didn’t work. Until he squirmed away she made no move to let him go.
“What is it?”
“It’s my mom.”
“Is she ok?” Marcelina did not like Jory’s mom. The feeling was mutual. Although, Marcelina had cause and his mom did not.
Marcelina shook her head. No. No, no, no, no. It couldn’t be. This time he reached for her and they stood in the dim supply closet, clinging to each other, as the world moved on outside the door.
“Some government man came a couple months ago, I guess. Said they could get something if they had another kid.”
“It’s my fault.”
“What? Don’t be dumb, Marcelina.”
“It is! It’s my fault. Jory, I am so sorry. It’s my fault. All mine.”
“Ugh. Don’t be dumb, Marcelina.”
“You said that.” The words were mumbled and tear streaked, but they both managed a smile.
“It’s because of Herbert, isn’t it?”
She managed a nod. He hugged her tighter. What could she say? Marcelina rarely lost her words. Her family said she had too many. Once, when she was thought to be in bed, she heard her mother complain she had all her dziadzio’s words as well. It had made her happy to hear it.
“Marcelina, it’s ok. Just because we can be conscripted doesn’t mean we will be.”
“You don’t know.”
“That man. He said he’d come for me. I was ok with it. I mean, I’m scared. So scared. But, I thought it would just be me and so what? You’re the only one who’ll miss me.”
Jory did not, she noted, argue the point.
“I was ok. Because you would remember me. And not be with Charlotte because I would come back as an upiór and you would be miserable!”
So, she did. Marcelina had no practical knowledge of kissing. The contact of her lips against his made her palms sweaty. It could also have been nerves. Had he kissed other girls? Would he find her woefully inadequate and laugh?
She did not know the answer to the first question, but he did not laugh. Not even when her thin pressed lips pulled away from his surprised ones.
“Happy birthday,” she whispered.
“Was that my present?”
Marcelina noted how his fingers had laced with hers. Now then, was the time to do it. Either speak or be a coward. She would not be a coward. Never.
“My dziadzio met my babcia when they were thirteen. He said he knew right away. Before he even kissed her, he knew she was the one.”
Jory stared at her, but his fingers tightened in the tangled digits of their two hands.
“I love you Jory Daveth Couch. I love you and I will not let them hurt you.”
This time, he kissed her. It was still awkward so she thought he’d not much more experience than her, if any. None of that mattered.
“I love you, Marcelina Beatrycze Mencher.”