Alice’s bright blue eyes were wide and bulging as she applied a last coat of mascara. Her makeup was too dark for her light features and had not done the job she’d hoped of making her look older. She did, however, look like she was in for trouble.
Her bedroom was dimly lit, the lamps catching the gold writing on ribbons for scholastic achievements that were mostly covered now by catching magazine ads and band posters. A bookshelf sat in the corner gathering dust with an over stock of novels and text books, her wooden secretary’s desk next to it was a throw space for dirty clothes.
She put on a hoodie, zipped down just enough to reveal that beneath was a low-cut top and beneath that was young. On her vanity was her report card, given to her earlier that week. She held a B average. Despite her efforts, she had hardly been able to make her grades drop over the last term. She vowed to stop handing in assignments.
She grabbed her purse and headed out into the hallway. Her parents bedroom door was at the far end and open. She could see the flashing light of the Television reflecting off the wall. She walked in the other direction, not working terribly hard at staying quiet.
The night was still and calm. It was late spring and the air began to carry a dew-like quality. Alice didn’t actually know where she was going on this particular evening. Her friends were all away with family for the long weekend, at cottages or visiting lame historical sights that she teased them for but secretly wished her family would go to. She had learned quickly that making something up on the first day back at school kept questions at bay and friends at a close (but not too close) distance. Over and over again, she painted a portrait of an engaging, warm family that spent quality time with one another. Those stories had finally come back to haunt her. She was unable to make anyone understand why she was so frustrated without first owning up to having spent the last 9 years lying to everyone. It was a conundrum.
She walked across the perfectly manicured lawn that was kept up by the same individual who washed out their gutters and shovelled their drive. She left an obvious foot trail behind her.
Everyone in her neighbourhood was in an unspoken competition with one another to be “naturally flawless”. The yards mirrored their masters in perfect precision. Alice was truly surprised that people didn’t have blowup family portraits attached to the front of their houses. She did wonder, though, if any of the other kids felt the same way she did. She made herself visible as she walked down the street, her blonde hair glowing each time she passed under a street lamp. It was her hope that someone might see her and think “Same”.
She figured she’d make downtown her destination. She knew some people who hung out in a diner on the weekend. They would drink milkshakes, often spiked with rum, and essentially reenact a modern day version of Grease. It wasn’t her usual go-to but would work in a pinch.
Her town was relatively small and easy to get around. She had heard her father say on many occasions that it was “just big enough to have a shitty side”. Ironically, that side was divided perfectly by a set of railroad tracks.
The businesses along the north end of the street were well kept and expensive, catching in their subtle chicness. Most had different styles of “wall-scaping”, a new green trend that was combatting the graffiti problem that had started to pour out of the south side of the divide.
Alice walked along towards the diner. It was the last property before the tracks making it the closest place the north side kids could get to being on the bad side without going fully over. The neon sign above the door lit up the sidewalk in an artificial green glow. Alice opened the door and walked in to find the spot deserted. She figured one of two things: even these guys had caring and committed families or someone had the house to themselves for the weekend and was throwing a party. She didn’t hang around this spot often enough to be kept in the loop about its social scene so she wasn’t hurt by this. But she was bummed that she was still stuck in her own silence for a while.
She sat down in a booth and pulled out a menu. A waitress with “Dorothy” on her name tag came over and took her order.
“Got anyone coming to join ya, hun?”
“No. Just… craving a shake”
Dorothy nodded, giving Alice a once-over.
“Alright then. What’ll we get you?”
“Vanilla. And a plate of fries.”
Alice put the menu back and grabbed a napkin.
Dorothy checked Alice over one more time before going to the kitchen. She was in her late fifties and looked like she’d seen a thing or two.
Alice had drawn out her shake as long as she could manage and finally stepped back into the cool night. She meandered down roadways slowly heading back in the direction of home when something in her peripherals caught her attention.
Alice stopped walking and peered into an alleyway between a few well-maintained businesses. She watched in silence as a woman in her mid-twenties stepped down from a ladder and pulled a bandana up over her nose and mouth. She leaned back and examined an outline that she’d just dotted out. She snapped a marker shut, the sound encompassing the entirety of the night’s silence, and pulled out a number of cans of spray paint from her patch and button covered bag.
The woman lined up the canisters and with quick, steady movements started to fill in space with colour. With a can in each hand, her arms moved like giant paint brushes, awaking colourful strips of life on the once-dead wall. She put the cans down and picked up two more when a sound caught her attention. She looked over towards the street and saw a half-hidden Alice. She froze.
Alice stepped into the alley, showing her full harmless self.
She stood patiently, waiting for a reply.
“I won’t tell anyone.”
The young woman nodded at this and began to pack up her cans.
“Can I help?”
Understanding that this young girl was truly no threat to her operation, she stopped packing and continued to paint.
Alice took the silent response to be a “yes” and walked over, looking up at the side of the building. On it was the image of a giant teeter-totter, one end of it sitting high in the air. The individuals on the top end looked comfortable and happy. Those on the bottom were desperate, dirty and sad. They reached out the individuals up top, stretching their arms towards the centre of the scale.
“That’s… really cool.”
Alice reached out her hand.
“I’m B.” responded the woman without offering her hand.
Alice smiled and retracted her arm.
“So, what can I help you do?”
“Talk a little quieter to start.”
She reached into her bag and pulled out a pair of gloves.
“And put these on. Paint is hard to get off your hands.”
Alice liked the sound of that.
“I don’t need them, I don’t care.”
“I do. You said you weren’t going to tell, right?’
Alice quickly considered her promise snatched up the gloves.
“The cans each have numbers on them. I’ll tell you which ones to pass me”
Alice took inventory of the cans, liking her new job.
“How old are you, if you don’t mind me asking? Five and two.”
Alice handed over the cans.
“I turn seventeen in July.”
B added to the bottom of the picture, putting the centre of the teeter-totter’s stand directly on a set of train tracks.
“And do your parents know you’re out?”
Alice looked at B, trying to get some idea of where these questions were coming from.
“I’m not going to tell. Just curious.”
Alice hesitated for a moment.
“I wish. I doubt it.”
B examined the piece and handed back one of the cans.
“I’m sorry to hear that. Four.”
B stopped and took Alice in. Her heart went out to this poor creature and the painful irony that came with being taken care of and completely ignored all at once.
“Zip your hoodie up.” She nearly barked and then catching herself, softened her tone. “Pull it over your mouth and nose.”
She turned back to her work. Alice pulled her hoodie up in front of her face, smiling. This was more direction than either of her parents had given her in years. She found herself wondering who potty-trained her. Did they have a nanny? She searched her memories and came up with nothing.
“You’re really good.”
“But you know this is just gonna get covered up with plants, right?”
B paused for a moment.
They exchanged cans.
“Then why do you do it?”
B finished up a couple of strokes and stood back, pulling her bandanna down from her face. The piece was done. Simple, stunning and to the point, it painted an interesting political dynamic of the small town the two called home. B looked over at Alice, reaching her hand out for the gloves.
“Because you do what you do to do it.”
She put away her paints and put her own gloves and bandanna into her knapsack before tossing it onto her back.
“Want a lift home?”
“Well, I’m not leaving you out here.”
“I’ll come to yours?”
“HA! Come on. And grab that step ladder.
The two sat in complete silence as B drove them through the suburbs towards Alice’s home. Alice had been tempted to give the wrong directions in order to make the car trip last longer but decided not to. The drive was coming to a close quickly and Alice found herself wishing this wasn’t the last time she’d see this mystery woman.
“So, where do you live?”
“Opposite side of town?”
“Like, south side of the tracks?”
“Is the high school there actually as stabby as people say it is?”
“Yeah, like, people get stabbed a lot.”
B laughed at this.
“I don’t know. What’s a lot?”
Alice was surprised by this answer.
“Well, any is a lot!”
“Then I guess so, yeah. It’s really stabby.”
She rustled Alice’s head, a faint smile crossing her lips.
“You’re a funny kid.”
The sun shone through Alice’s shades indicating that morning had arrived. Her clothes from the night before were strewn at the foot of her bed where an oversized cat laid napping. Alice awoke and remained motionless in her bed for some time. The night before played out in her mind like a peculiar dream. She could have convinced herself that it had been just that were it not for the buzzing sensation that her body still felt from experiencing something so vastly new.
She thought of the promise she’d made to B about keeping silent and after some justification, decided that this was too good an opportunity not to utilize in her never-ending battle to be seen in her household. She would withhold any incriminating details that would get B in trouble but reveal that she’d stayed out late and was witness to one of these vandalizations that had over come their quaint north-side community.
Alice stepped into her family kitchen to find her father furiously searching for something on the internet while her mother, already stoned on prescription pills, dizzied around the kitchen cooking breakfast and trying to dissipate some of her husband’s anger.
Her father didn’t answer but swore at the computer screen.
“Morning Ally, pour yourself some juice. And get some for your dad”
Alice filled two tall glasses with bright orange fluid and brought one to her father who pulled out his phone.
“Someone graffitied the side of the store last night.”
She had missed the big reveal, he already knew. She re-assessed, looking for her way into the conversation. She decided to keep it simple.
“Oh, yeah. I knew that, actually.”
Her father didn’t hear her comment and instead directed his immediate attention to his phone where he dialled in a number. On the computer screen sat an ad for the landscaper who built the organic vertical wall displays that had been popping up around town. He talked into the phone while Alice waited beside him, patient and keen. He hung up and started to move.
“I’ve gotta get down to the store. This person’s gonna meet me in an hour and give an estimate on the work.”
“Can I come?”
Alice’s father glanced at her quickly before chugging back his juice and getting a move on.
“Not looking like that.”
Alice had taken to not washing her face before bed so that her makeup ran down her face smudged and telling the next morning; another clue to her disobedience dropped that neither parent seemed to care to pick up. She ran up the stairs at lightning speed to clean herself up. Her father would leave without her if she took more than five minutes, he’d done it before.
They drive started in silence but unlike the night before, this one was uncomfortable and tense.
“You need a lift somewhere after?”
“No, just wanted to come with you.”
Alice picked at her nails and took a deep breath.
Her dad pressed a few buttons on his phone and connected a call through his ear piece as they drove.
“James. I’m on my way. What did the insurance guy say? Bullshit. I can’t afford this right now.”
Alice looked out the window as they turned onto the main drag. They pulled up alongside a building just as Alice’s father hung up his call and parked.
The driver’s door slammed shut cutting Alice off. She sat for a moment, defeated, before looking up with determination and unbuckling her seat belt.
She walked into the alleyway and found her dad flipping through a binder while a young woman took measurements of the wall. She looked over at Alice who walked up to the scene, her eyes going big. Alice stared back flabbergasted, her thoughts only interrupted by her father’s brash voice.
“Alice, I told you to wait in the car.”
He shook his head and looked back down at the binder.
“Nevermind. Brit, this is my daughter Alice, Alice this is Brit. She owns the landscaping company that does the walls.”
Brit stood up and reached out her hand towards Alice.
“Nice to meet you, Alice.”
Alice smiled and took B’s hand.
“Likewise. Can I help?”