The Truth Commission
A Book Riot Best Book of 2015 So Far
Four starred reviews!
“Susan Juby’s The Truth Commission knocked my socks off. You should read it!”—Gayle Forman, best-selling author of If I Stay
“Susan Juby is a marvel. Wise, witty, and full of heart, her writing draws you in and won’t let go. And just when you think it can’t get any better, it does.”—Meg Cabot
This was going to be the year Normandy Pale came into her own. The year she emerged from her older sister’s shadow—and Kiera, who became a best-selling graphic novelist before she even graduated from high school, casts a long one. But it hasn’t worked out that way, not quite. So Normandy turns to her art and writing, and the “truth commission” she and her friends have started to find out the secrets at their school. It’s a great idea, as far as it goes—until it leads straight back to Kiera, who has been hiding some pretty serious truths of her own. Susan Juby’s The Truth Commission: A story about easy truths, hard truths, and those things best left unsaid.
* “With a deft hand and an open mind, Juby presents many layers of truth. This is a sharp-edged portrait of a dysfunctional family with some thought-provoking ideas about what is real.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review
* “A surprising, witty, and compulsive read.” —School Library Journal, starred review
* “Hilarious, deliciously provocative and slyly thought-provoking.”—Kirkus Reviews, starred review
* “Juby’s bright dialogue and vivid, appealing characters draw readers along as the three young artists navigate truths both light and dark, discovering themselves in the process.”—The Horn Book, starred review
* “A smart, savvy YA novel about what constitutes the truth; its ideas will linger long after the last page.”—Shelf Awareness, starred review
“I absolutely loved The Truth Commission. Every page made me laugh aloud, while all the time the tears were creeping up on me. The characters are so real that I wouldn’t be surprised if they knocked on my door right now. I hope they do, I want to spend more time with them.”—Jaclyn Moriarty, author of The Year of Secret Assignments and A Corner of White
Excerpt from The Truth Commission
First let me say that this will not be an easy tale to tell, so I’ll warm up with an author’s note. That’s one of the great things about creative nonfiction. You can write forewords and author’s notes, prologues and prefaces before you start the actual story. They are the writing equivalent of jumping jacks and shadow boxing. Fiction writers are supposed to get right to it. Visual artists have it even worse. Most assume no one will read their artist statements before looking at their art. Michelangelo didn’t write a preface about where he got the stone for David or an author’s note about why he decided to make David’s hands so big and his . . . well, never mind.
But authors expect responsible nonfiction readers to read every word. They get to tell the reader what she’s going to read, as well as why and how it was written. So here goes:
This is my Spring Special Project for the second term of grade eleven.
The story that follows covers the period from September until November of last term. I can’t believe all this happened so recently. It feels like a thousand years have passed.
Here’s how this project is supposed to work: Each week I will write and submit chapters of my story to my excellent creative writing teacher.1 She will give me feedback on those chapters the following week. I will write as if I do not know what will happen next—as if I’m a reporter, which is a device used in classic works of creative nonfiction.2 When the whole manuscript is done, my teacher will share it with the project’s second reader, Mr. Wells, Prince Among English Teachers. When those two arbiters of taste, style, and content sign off on what I’ve written, I will have my mark for the Spring Special Project. Et voilà! as we’ve been taught to say in French class.
What else do I need to say in order to begin? This might be the time to bring up my use of footnotes.3 I know not everyone loves them. When we read that heavily footnoted David Foster Wallace essay about going on a cruise,4 students were divided. Some of us loved the footnotes because they were funny and informative and demonstrated DFW’s virtuosic vocabulary. Some of us thought they distracted from the main text and were annoying. Still others of us never do the class readings and so really shouldn’t get to have an opinion.5 I don’t want to test the reader’s patience too much, so here’s what I propose.
I will use footnotes to address my editor. I may also use them to include things that a) are interesting, and b) don’t really fit in the main text, but nevertheless seem important. I may decide to stop using them partway through the story. Who knows what will happen? My random approach to footnotes might help build tension, which is a very big deal in fiction and in nonfiction. I might also decide to add illustrations and doodles in or near the footnotes. (Readers who are not giving feedback and assigning marks to this project can skip the footnotes, but those readers will be missing interestingness, diversity, and art, and those are things no one should ever miss.)
Finally, and even though this is an author’s note and not acknowledgments,6 I would like to take this opportunity to thank the powers that be at Green Pastures Academy of Art and Applied Design for allowing me to write a nonfiction manuscript for my Spring Special Project. I know other students here at Green Pastures are doing things like creating life-sized replicas of NASA’s Opportunity rover out of circuit boards, old washing-machine parts, and antique fish tanks, and weaving huge wall hangings featuring images of our prime minister clinging to Parliament’s Peace Tower like King Kong in a sweater vest, so a regular old written story, especially a true one, seems a little prosaic and uninspired.
My best friend Dusk is doing a tabletop installation featuring a taxidermied shrew in a shrew-sized mobile home. My other best friend, Neil, is doing uncanny paintings of beautiful women. Just when you think you understand how attractiveness works, Neil’s oil paintings will make you reconsider.
Their work is so physical and concrete. So art-y. It makes me doubt myself as I sit here at a computer, typing out words onto an electronic page. Sure, I do fine art or I wouldn’t have been admitted into this school, no matter who my sister is.7 I draw, I make stuff, and I’m a stitching fanatic (current obsession—embroideries that look like paintings), but I believe that writing is as much an art as any other. Some might fight me on this point, and they would probably win, because I’m not very tough—physically I could stand to work out more—still, I remain sort of convinced.
This story, which my creative writing teacher tells me falls into the “much maligned category of creative nonfiction,”8 is complicated but it wants to come out. It needs to come out.
Warning: Sometimes when I write, I find myself lapsing into what Mr. Wells calls “high turgid English.” That happens when I’m not quite warmed up enough. My hope is, the further I get into this story, the more I’ll move into “plain English” or, as Mr. W. styles it, “effective writing.” I’m extremely nervous about telling all this stuff. That’s the plain truth. Maybe I should write a preface or some other front matter next.9
In the beginning, I had a mother, a father, a sister, and two real friends. My friends’ names were Neil and Dusk. (Her real name is actually Dawn, but she prefers Dusk for reasons having to do with her essential nature and temperament, which is less morning, more evening.) Together, my friends and I formed the Truth Commission. We went on a search for truth and, to our surprise and my chagrin, we found it.
When all this started, the three of us had modest ambitions. We didn’t set out to change lives. You will have noticed that there is no “reconciliation” in our title, as with other, more famous and important, truth commissions.12 By the time you finish this story, you will agree that adding a bit of reconciliation to truth-seeking endeavors is a smart move. Neglecting it was an oversight on our part. A bad one.
As you know, there are several classes of truth. There are the truths that pour out on confessional blogs and YouTube channels. There are the supposed truths exposed in gossip magazines and on reality television, which everyone knows are just lies in truth clothing. Then there are the truths that show themselves only under ideal circumstances: like when you are talking deep into the night with a friend and you tell each other things you would never say if your defenses weren’t broken down by salty snacks, sugary beverages, darkness, and a flood of words. There are the truths found in books or films when some writer puts exactly the right words together and it’s like their pen turned sword and pierced you right through the heart. Truths like those are rare and getting rarer. But there are other truths lying around, half exposed in the street, like drunken cheerleaders trying to speak. For some reason, hardly anyone leans down to listen to them. Well, Neil, Dusk, and I did. And it turns out those drunken cheerleaders had some shocking things to say.
This is a story about easy truths, hard truths, and those things best left unsaid.
Tuesday, September 4
On the first day of grade eleven, Neil, Dusk, and I were sitting on the benches outside our fair institution of moderate learning, the Green Pastures Academy of Art and Applied Design13 pretending to smoke candy cigarettes and comparing our running shoes. We have this hobby where we try to see how long our shoes can hold out. In a culture that places undue emphasis on new footwear, we are passive resistors. Dusk has been wearing the hell out of her grandfather’s New Balance (size 9, extra wide) for two years. They are disgusting, and Neil and I are envious and wish our grandfathers were still alive so they could give us some old man shoes.
Neil whispered, “Sweet Mother Mary.”
“I know. I wore them all summer. I even swam in them. I think they actually rotted onto my feet. Practically had to have surgery to get them off,” said Dusk, proudly lifting a wretched shoe the shade and texture of a badly used oyster. Dusk is one of the few people on the planet who can get away with disgusting shoes, because she’s chronically attractive. When she has a blemish and hasn’t brushed her hair or teeth, she’s a fifteen out of ten. On a good day, she’s up in the twenties, looks-wise.
“Shhh,” said Neil. “Look.” He sounded like a bird-watcher who’d just spotted a blue-gray gnatcatcher. Gorgeous women are Neil’s subjects, which makes him sound pervy. He’s not. He’s just very interested. In his drawings and paintings, he seems to be trying to get to the heart of what draws everyone’s eye to one woman and not to another. Most of his paintings show a lone beautiful female avoiding the gaze of a crowd. Sometimes she’s slipping off the edge of the canvas. Sometimes she’s staring, exasperated, into the middle distance, as everything else in the picture seems to lean in toward her. Last summer Neil started a series of paintings of Dusk. He took Polaroids of her in various situations and then created his peculiar, uncomfortable scenarios around her. Dusk is perfect for Neil’s paintings because few people can muster such sour facial expressions while remaining devastatingly attractive. Dusk is Neil’s muse. Our instructors all think Neil has an extremely mature perspective and an “uncommonly sympathetic eye.”14
Here’s something else I can tell you about Neil: he has an adorably seedy vibe, thanks to his habit of dressing like characters from some of the grittier movies of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and thanks to his father, who leads a life of near-total leisure. For our first day of school Neil had on a too-large, formerly white, large-collared dress shirt over a V-necked T-shirt and brown polyester dress pants. This outfit was an homage to Al Pacino’s character in Dog Day Afternoon, which, according to Neil, is about an incompetent bank robber with a lot of secrets. Of course, no one picks up on the reference. They just think Neil is a super-bad dresser. Which is great.
Dusk and I followed his gaze past our candy cigarettes and spotted Aimee Danes, who’d just gotten out of her claret-colored BMW.
As we watched, Aimee stretched her nose up to catch passing scents and held out her arms to draw the sun’s rays to her chest. But what a nose! And what a chest!
Aimee had had some renovations done over the summer.
At the close of grade ten, just three months before, Aimee Danes had an insistent nose. Long and gracefully curved, it was a nose that was sure of itself and its opinions. It was a bit Meryl Streep-ish, and I was a great admirer of its confidence. Her chest never registered with me, which means that it probably wasn’t as impressive as her nose, but neither was it nonexistent, because I probably would have noticed that because I am relatively observant. Dusk, for example, is not well endowed. Neil says Dusk has a “runway bust.” She replies that it better run on back before she reports it to the authorities. Anyway, back to Aimee and the alterations. Here it was, the first day of grade eleven, and she showed up sporting a shrunken nose and a rampart of a bosom tucked into a white leather vest. You think I kid about the vest. I do not. It appeared soft and made of the rarest hide. Baby unicorn, maybe.
The vest contrasted strangely with the new nose, which appeared to be huddling on Aimee’s face, hoping not to be noticed. It was not a nose that would put up its hand and venture a guess. It was not a nose that belonged anywhere near a unicorn-hide vest.
You have to understand that G. P. Academy is not the sort of school where one expects to see plastic surgery. Maybe some of the students who are into the new primitivism have had radical and wince-inducing body modifications like forehead studs or whatever. But no one gets cosmetic procedures. We’re about self-expression here, but not that kind of self-expression.
“Last year all she got was that car,” said Dusk as we watched Aimee continue to sniff the air with her tiny nose and expose the Mariana Trench of her cleavage to the warming rays.
“Is all that new?” I whispered, making a windshield wiper gesture with my hand and wondering, as always, if I was seeing the situation clearly.
“Nose or chest?” asked Neil.
“Both, I guess. I mean, I can tell the nose is new. That’s too bad. I loved her old nose.”
“The girls,” said Neil, making a vague double-handful gesture, “are definitely new.”
“Maybe they just look really big because the nose is so small,” I suggested. “And because that vest is so . . . white.”
“So you’re saying it could be a vest-induced optical illusion?” asked Dusk.
“Maybe. We shouldn’t assume.”
“I’m pretty sure those kinds of changes are meant to be noticed,” said Neil. “They are part of Aimee’s self-presentation. My guess is that she’d be devastated if no one noticed. It’s like if you spent two days Photoshopping your Facebook profile picture and no liked it or commented on how good you look.”
“So we’re supposed to notice but not ask?” said Dusk.
By this time Aimee had begun a series of attention-getting stretches. She looked as though she’d been gardening or bricklaying for eight hard hours and had a crick in her spine.
A lot of her posturing seemed directed at us. Which made sense, because we were the only people around. We had arrived thirty minutes early because we came in my truck, which has a tendency to flood and stall, so we build extra time into every trip.
“We should say something,” Dusk whispered.
“Like what?” I asked.
“Tell her she looks nice. She’s probably nervous. She’s made all these changes and we’re the first ones on-site for inspection.”
“It’s not an inspection,” I said. “It’s school.”
“Same thing,” said Dusk.
“We need to be more specific,” said Neil, ignoring me. “We should tell her we think the work is excellent. Top-notch and first-rate. Madonna-caliber work.”
“People don’t want their fakery exposed,” I said.
“I think a lot of the time, they do,” said Neil.
“We live in an age of unparalleled falseness,” said Dusk. Her voice had taken on that rebar quality it gets when she’s about to take a stand on some issue. “And I for one have had enough. I’m going to say something.” She stood, and her rotted shoes made a squelching sound.
“I don’t think this is a good idea,” I said.
Dusk repositioned the candy cigarette in the corner of her mouth.
“Dusk, you’re the wrong person for the job,” I whispered. “You’re too perfect.” My gaze slid over to Neil.
“Are you suggesting that I’m less than a total Adonis?” said Neil. Then he laughed softly to himself. Neil has longish hair that he slicks back with just a hint too much product. He’d unbuttoned his dress shirt, and the T-shirt was cut low so it showed just a touch too much chest. There are days when Neil wears a silk scarf. Neil kills me, but in a good way. He acts like he has Teflon self-esteem, even though he’s one of the most sensitive people I know. His father is a local developer with a shady reputation and a relaxed approach to everything, including parenting his only child.
The first time Dusk and I went over to his house, right after he moved to town last September, Neil greeted us at the front door in a white terry après-swim robe. He’d laid out a tray of pickled onions and pimento-stuffed olives skewered with toothpicks. He asked if we’d like gin and tonics. We said we were driving our bikes, so he gave us cucumber water instead. Neil, Dusk, and I have been inseparable ever since. It’s only been a year, but it feels comfortingly like forever. Anyway, back to that first truth telling.
“There are dynamics to consider here,” I said.
That was my role in our little threesome. Dynamics considerer. Consequence worrier. Diplomat. Dusk was in charge of our moral compass, passing snap judgments, peer pressuring, and making bold pronouncements. Neil dealt in unconditional acceptance and appreciation of everyone, as well as unpredictable areas of expertise and jokes, mostly aimed at himself.
“Fine,” said Neil, completely unflustered. “I’ll do it.”
By this point, I was no longer certain what we were doing or why, but Aimee was preening so hard that I was concerned she’d damage the vest that a unicorn baby had probably died for.
“Go!” whispered Dusk.
And so Neil got up, adjusted the enormous collar of his dress shirt, and shoved his entire candy cigarette into his mouth. We watched him stride over to Aimee. When he spoke, he was too far away for us to hear what he said.
Aimee’s head reared back. Her posture stiffened.
More words from Neil, whose hands were shoved deep in the pockets of his polyester pants. His tan was terrific, because this summer, in addition to painting a series of pictures featuring Dusk, he’d decided to revive what he called the “lost art of sunbathing.” He’s also working on what he calls a “disturbing hint of a mustache.” Disturbing on anyone else. Endearing on him.
As we watched, Aimee’s shoulders relaxed. She leaned toward Neil. Touched his shoulder. She laughed and started to talk. Words, indistinguishable words, poured out of her. At the end of the conversation, she put her hand on his shoulder again and she kissed him. I swear it’s true. Neil had confronted a girl about her new rhinoplasty and freshly installed breast implants and in return he received a kiss on the cheek.
He sauntered back, reverentially holding a hand to the cheek Aimee had kissed.
“She had the procedures done in July because it’s her dream to become a broadcast journalist on a major network. She’s always wanted a nose job, even though her mother told her that a nose job ruined someone named Jennifer Grey’s career. It took some doing for her parents to agree to the implants because there was concern her chest was still growing but she talked them into it and she feels terrific and is glad we live in a time when God’s mistakes can be fixed.”
“You’re a one-man truth commission,” said Dusk, admiring.
“The truth shall set us free,” said Neil.
“Will it?” I asked. But no one was listening.
“My refreshing directness startled her at first. But it also allowed her to talk about the most important news in her life right now. We’re going for coffee later and she’s going to give me more details.” Neil was immensely pleased with himself. “Aimee and I are now on a different plane, relationship-wise.”
“You have no secrets between you,” I said, ignoring the twinge of jealousy I felt; Aimee would probably end up being his next muse. Not that I’m keen to be featured in anyone’s art. I’ve had more than enough of that.
“I want to ask someone the truth,” said Dusk. “I think truth is what has been missing in my life. Well, it’s one of the things that has been missing, along with a sense of purpose and positive self-esteem.”
Neil faced us.
“I believe this could be our new spiritual practice,” he said. “Each week, each of us will ask someone else the truth.”
“It is our destiny to bring some much-needed truth into this world of lies,” said Dusk.
And so the Truth Commission was born.
15I’m not that keen to get into it, but this story would be incomplete without one major piece of background. As many people already know, I have a sister. She’s a famous graphic novelist and, to make a long story extremely short, she made me and my parents famous without our permission. The end.
Ha. Just kidding.
My sister, Keira Pale, is one of those people who seems to exist on a different plane. Maybe it’s an artistic genius thing. G. P. Academy is full of people like Keira. People who go so deep inside themselves, especially when they’re working, that they seem like sleepwalkers when they emerge. Traces of unconsciousness seem to cling to them, lending them an otherworldly sheen.
I can’t tell you how many times I was sent to find Keira when it was time to eat/go to bed/graduate from high school only to find her deep in conversation with the neighborhood can collector, or out in the backyard staring intently at the moon at 3:30 in the morning, or watching some drama unfold between warring ants in the school parking lot twenty minutes after the bell rang. I believe the technical term is “space cadet.”
But she is the kind of space cadet many people aspire to be. My sister is fully alive to each moment and each observation.
When I was younger, living with Keira was like living with a fairy. It was never her intention to be hurtful or destructive. She was just doing what came naturally to her. Telling stories and turning the lives around her into fantastical creations. It wasn’t personal. Or so I kept telling myself, even after my sister started publishing her books.
My sister’s complicated, so I think the only way to help you understand her is through what we learned in class is called an infodump. Dear Reader: steel yourself for a taste of death by exposition.17
My sister was part of the first group of kids who went through the Green Pastures Academy of Art and Applied Design. As a tenth grader, she’d already begun to write, illustrate, and self-publish installments of her graphic novel series, the Diana Chronicles.
The first volume is called Diana: Queen of Two Worlds. Diana, the protagonist, is a suburban girl who lives with her “painfully average” family, which includes her high-strung, easily overwhelmed mother, her ineffectual father, and her dull-witted, staring lump of a sister. Diana, who looks a lot like my sister, also happens to be the queen of Vermeer, a more beautiful or at least more melodramatic alternate universe named after my sister’s favorite painter. Vermeer can only be accessed through a closet.18
In Vermeer, everything is the same as on Earth but amplified a hundredfold. In Vermeer, Diana’s mother is politically and emotionally manipulative and Game of Thrones all over the place to keep the family in power. Diana’s father is still unaccomplished, but he’s also unscrupulous and has a passion for exotic foodstuffs and inappropriate relationships with half the household staff (male and female), as well as several of his first cousins. In Vermeer, as on Earth, Diana is burdened with a flaccid and enormous blob of a sister who is the target of every villain who passes through town. The sister (Flanders) is the especial favorite of cads and rakes who want to align themselves with the House of Vermeer.
In Vermeer, Diana has to keep her family from imploding due to their own stupidity, avarice, and laziness. It’s a matter of multiverse importance. If the House of Vermeer falls, Vermeer will descend into war (always likely). Vermeer is Earth’s twin, which means that as Vermeer goes, so does the Earth. Or something. I’ve always gotten a little tripped up on that part of the story.
The Diana Chronicles are funny and complicated and ironic. Diana’s a bit of a bitch in both universes. She’s rude to her family and half checked out, partly because she’s so exhausted by the demands placed on her in Vermeer, where she spends half her time. She needs to be left alone to recuperate when she’s in the Earth realm, but her mundane Earth family keeps interrupting. They sense her specialness and want a part of it.
The first chapters of the Diana Chronicles were photocopied and sold online and stocked in a few specialty stores. It gained an instant and devoted following. The combination of extremely personal stuff about Diana’s life on Earth and the over-the-top violence and politicking in Vermeer made it hugely compelling to a lot of people. Her agent, Sylvia Kalfas, discovered her and got her a book deal with Viceroy, who put the chapters together into Volume 1. The money from that first book deal, which was serious, went into a trust administered by Sylvia and my parents until Keira turned twenty. The Los Angeles Times called the first Chronicle “groundbreaking and hilarious.” The Globe and Mail said the “combination of autobiography and fantasy make it an intoxicating entertainment.” The Guardian said it was “wildly inventive.” Readers couldn’t get enough. People mentioned Maus, which is what people always talk about when they talk about massively popular graphic novels. (The Chronicles have less than nothing to do with Maus. Just to be clear.)
Keira had published three Chronicles by the time she left for college, which was the same year I entered Green Pastures. Each new Chronicle was more popular than the last.
This is probably the time to bring up the fact that Diana’s family members look a lot like me and my mother and father. They are exaggerated versions, but identifiable. Of all of us, I’m the most deformed. The sister character is called Flanders (in a not-so-subtle reference to the fact that I was named after a famous World War battleground), and nicknamed the Flounder because she looks sort of like an obese, blank-faced flounder fish. I was a chubby kid, but I’ve lost most of my baby fat. I am not enormous and I am not dull-witted, not unless I’m really tired. In other words, we are ordinary people who have been made to look extraordinary, and not in a good way.
You cannot imagine how embarrassing it is to be in those books, especially when all the Earth plotlines are taken from minor and usually un-excellent incidents in our real life. The plots hit Vermeer and go so over the top, it’s almost impossible to remember where they started.
Man, this chapter is getting long. And exhausting. Possibly also boring. But I’m not quite done.
Further background fact: I have never before spoken to anyone outside my family about how I feel about our depiction in my sister’s books. To be honest, we’ve never really discussed it inside my family, either. Breaking that long-standing silence is really taking it out of me.
My parents have always treated Keira like a rare and delicate houseplant they aren’t quite sure how to care for. There’s a good reason for that. She’s like a rare and delicate houseplant they aren’t sure how to care for.
End of backstory! Finally!
At the time I’m writing about, things had gotten strange at home. Strange is the wrong word. Bad. That’s better.
After she graduated from Green Pastures, Keira took a year and a half off to write and draw the third Chronicle and bask in her ever-growing success. Then she went off to the most prestigious art and animation school in North America, CIAD—the California Institute of Art and Design.
Meanwhile, I, Keira’s younger sister, Normandy Pale, started grade ten at G. P. on a partial scholarship. Keira had said she wanted to help out our parents by paying off the mortgage and covering some of my tuition, but things hadn’t worked out on that front so far.
When I first got to school, I was semi-famous thanks to my sister’s books. Everyone assumed that I was the staring blob from the Chronicles, the hapless target of pervs and leeches, even though I wasn’t particularly big and didn’t stare much more than anyone else.
Soon people realized I was deadly average, and I settled in and met my two friends—who just happened to be my first friends, really. With Keira away, life at home got simpler. She had always required a lot of quiet when she was working, so my parents and I had to tiptoe around. Strangers threw her off, so we didn’t invite anyone over. Now we could do potentially embarrassing things and not have them end up in a book. It was pretty much a halcyon time.
Then, without warning, Keira came home at the beginning of April, not long after she turned twenty. She arrived in her white 1987 Crown Victoria, which looks disconcertingly like an unmarked police car.
She wouldn’t tell us what happened, and when my parents asked if everything was okay, Keira got mad and said she’d leave if they asked again. So they dropped it. We’re not really discussers in my family. After all, who wants to rip open a bunch of scar tissue to expose the abscess beneath? Not that I mean to compare my sister to an abscess. She is more like an inheritance.
Imagine someone gives you an incredibly valuable and famous gem. You can’t sell it. Your only job is to look after it. Now imagine your behavior can ruin the value of that gem. If you talk too loud or watch TV, you can tarnish it or crack it. Finally, take the next step and imagine that the gem you inherited likes to tell stories about what happens in the house where you are already trying to be extra careful so you won’t wreck the gem. Okay. That’s enough. The gem analogy has officially fallen apart.
Anyway, in September, at the time our story begins, my sister was even less right than usual. She rarely left her room or our closet. When she did leave, she stayed out for days and we had no idea where she went. My mother turned nearly catatonic with concern, and my dad fussed around trying to distract himself. I concentrated on not making things worse. In other words, I made myself an extra unobtrusive presence. Caused no waves. Went to school. Did my work. When Keira was home, we tried not to upset her.
We were all just waiting for her to tell us what was wrong and what had happened at school.
The afternoon of the first truth telling, I went home and found Keira in our closet. For those who follow her career, it’s true: she actually does work in a closet that we share. We each have a door to it, but she’s the only one who uses the space.
You probably want a visual of her, to help you digest all this dry, dusty exposition. So here goes:
Keira has wild, two-toned hair (dark brown and silvery blonde) and dark circles under her eyes. There are photos of her as a toddler that show that, even then, she had dark circles under her eyes. She is a wisp of a person, and after she started making money and visiting New York on publishing business, she started buying all of her clothes from a store in SoHo called 45 RPM. They specialize in handwoven fabrics cut into simple shapes that make anyone over a hundred pounds look frumpy and anyone under a hundred pounds look like she stepped out of a clamshell on an enchanted beach. Keira owns about fifteen garments in total. Her look is based on white cotton smocks and eleven-hundred-dollar jeans made from Zimbabwean cotton and hand-dyed by Japanese artisans. Her feet are almost always bare or encased in delicate ballet slippers.
These clothes are not very warm, so I often open my closet to find her wearing one of my sweaters. Sometimes two. It’s funny that she sometimes borrows my clothes, since I’m not noted for the excellence of my wardrobe.
In another story, this closet dwelling would be a heavy-handed sign that my sister has repressed sexual urges. She does not.19 She says she likes to situate herself at the “portal.” She’s turned that portal, AKA our shared closet, into a beautifully appointed art studio. She had excellent lighting installed, and she sits cross-legged on a special meditation seat, at a custom drafting lap desk she designed and built.
When she first started working in our closet, I asked if she wanted me to keep the door on my side locked, so she could have it all to herself. She said no. She said she found it comforting to have me close-by. I was ten, and my hero worship of my sister was at an all-time high. Now I’m stuck with no closet, which means that I have to keep my clothes in a cupboard in my room.
When I walked into my bedroom that afternoon, I could hear her humming as she worked. Having Keira at work in the closet meant I’d have to be very quiet all night, but having her at home meant my mom would be less worried. So that was good.
“Keira,” I said after I gently knocked, then opened the door. “How’s it going?”
“I’m fine,” she said. “Working.”
So I quietly closed the door, picked up my needlework and schoolbag, and left. I would do homework for an hour or two, followed by a little writing, and then work on my embroidery until it was time for bed. There are few arts quieter than writing and stitching.
And that, folks, is a glimpse at life with my sister.
I would end this too-long chapter there, except I can’t.
Because at midnight that same night, Keira left the closet and came into my room.
I was awoken by her soft voice.
“Normandy? Are you asleep?”
I raised my head. The room was dark. Keira had turned out the lights in the closet. She was just a shape in the darkness.
“No,” I croaked.
“Can I come up?” she said.
“Sure.” My sister hadn’t gotten into bed with me since—well, since before she published the first Chronicle.
She shuffled up onto my bed. She’d wrapped herself in a puffy sleeping bag she keeps in the closet for when the “portal gets drafty” and my sweaters aren’t protection enough. I have a queen-sized bed, which is one of the most luxurious things in my life. I got it from Neil when his dad decided to change all the mattresses in their house, which he does every two years. I sincerely hoped this mattress was Neil’s or from a guest bedroom, and not his dad’s. Anyway, there should have been plenty of room for me and my sister, but somehow it didn’t seem like enough. She lay halfway down the bed, so she was talking to my knee.
“I think it’s time for me to tell someone what happened.” Keira’s voice is soft and raspy. It goes with her haunted eyes and distracted demeanor. I used to live for the times my sister would focus her blazing attention on me. Her focus was so total, it seemed to transform the entire world. Just talking to her used to turn me into someone special. That was before I got scared of talking to her. Scared of what she would do with our conversations. With my small secrets.
The key was to let her take the lead. Not react.
I could hear my heart thud in my chest. I wanted to know what was wrong, but I also felt unqualified. What if I listened badly and made things worse?
“I need to tell someone what happened at school,” she said.
Monday, September 10
20I’m really not ready to go into what my sister said.21 I mean, the details were fuzzy and she has this way of stretching stories out in a way that’s almost painful,22 so I’ll move the narrative back to school. As we are so often reminded in creative writing class, this is referred to as a transition. These are the points in the writing that move the reader from one place and time to another. Without clear, brisk transitions, all books would be like Under the Volcano. I dare you to read twenty pages of that and tell me what happened. Nothing clear and brisk, I assure you. So, consider this your transition.