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The Summer of Growing Up

The Summer of Growing Up
By Anne Marie Lutz

The sound of the tires on the road thrummed in Pat’s ears. She sat with her head propped on her hand, braced on the car door, and watched miles of fields and trees fly by. Dad had turned off the radio after The Captain and Tennille came on for the third time in half an hour, and Mom was reading her new book. Bobby squirmed in boredom, his knobby knees bumping over onto Pat’s side of the car.

It was the last summer trip she’d ever take with her family. She’d decided that before they left the house.

Bobby’s foot slammed into her shin.

“Hey!” Pat snapped. “Stay on your side!”

Bobby stuck out his tongue at her and went back to gazing out the window.

Pat thought she would go crazy. The road lay before them – the same road she knew from her reading was strewn with fascinating characters and adventure. Her friend Hill had come back from a trip to New York City full of talk of art and actors and weird people on the street playing cool music, wreathed in marijuana smoke. Pat knew that even at home in Ohio, and here in Kentucky, there were people with odd stories, different lives, characters she could draw on when she found the courage to get out of here and head to California.

They had passed into an area close with old trees. The wind whipped through the window and tangled her hair. It was a breath of freedom: the hot humid air, the occasional truck hauling something mysterious, the red car that passed really fast, like her Dad would never drive.

The call of the road pulled at her like a cord tied around her gut, pulling her away from her family.

They pulled into the campground. A man and woman sitting on a blanket in front of an old Scout tent stared at them as the car and trailer parked at the office. Pat leaned her elbow on the car door and stared at the yellow campground sign while Dad went in to register.

Bobby’s knees struck her in the thigh. She elbowed him back, hard.

“You two settle down!” Mom said. “We’re there, for God’s sake.”

Bobby whispered at Pat. “That old lady’s here again.”

Pat looked where Bobby was pointing. The woman who had been at last night’s state park was there again, just outside the campground entrance. She sat at her aluminum table, shelling beans into a bowl. A few bright paintings hung on the outside wall of her grayish tent. Inside, Pat saw a row of lumpy figurines on a shelf.

Pat shivered.

“Creepy,” Bobby said. “She followed us.”

“Shh.” Pat opened the door and slid out of the car.

“Pat!” Mom objected. “I don’t want you hanging out with those boys at the game room.”

“OK. I’ll find you later.”

Pat crossed the empty highway to the woman’s tent. The road surface radiated heat up through the thin soles of her sandals. The woman smiled at Pat and lifted a hand in greeting. The woman’s tight-curled hair seemed almost screwed into her scalp. Pat recognized the flowered dress; it was the same one the woman had worn the day before, at the state park in Ohio.

“Why are you here?” Pat said. It was rude, but Pat felt sort of scared. “Did you follow us?”

“I’m glad to see you again,” the woman said. “You’re an interesting character. Did your family come to see the wax museum?”

“There’s a wax museum?” Pat knew Bobby would whine until they saw it. It was the kind of thing eight-year-old boys liked. “We came to see Mammoth Cave.”

“You’ll go to the museum, though. Because you like characters too, don’t you?” There was a sharp intelligence in the woman’s eyes.

Pat nodded. Her gaze traveled to the paintings strung on the side of the tent. They were painted on velvet and tagged with prices in black marker. Further inside the tent was a shelf lined with figurines. They stood in a row, molded in bright colors. There were no price tags on the figures.

“I’ve gotta go,” Pat said. “Parents are waiting.”

The woman smiled. “You can call me Hessa. I’ll be here tonight if you want to talk.”

When Pat found the family’s trailer, the outside picnic table had already been covered with newspaper.

“Here, Patty,” Mom said. “Set the table.” She handed her paper plates and cups. Bobby was near the bathhouse, drawing potable water from the old-fashioned pump.

“Who was that woman?” Mom asked.

“She’s selling velvet paintings,” Pat said. “I saw her at the park last night.”

“In Ohio?” Mom frowned, stopping her sandwich-making. “What’s she doing here?”

Pat shrugged.

“Did you say anything about where we were going?”

“No. But she makes wax figures – has a whole shelf of them in there. Maybe she’s going to the wax museum.”

Mom got a worried look in her eyes. “Your father asked the campground manager about her. He said she shows up now and then, a time or two each summer, camps outside the park entrance on the state verge, and leaves before he can tell her to. Nobody knows who she is.”

“It’s okay, Mom. I promise I didn’t say anything. Do you think we can go to the wax museum?”

“Wax museum!” Bobby crowed. He carried a full pitcher. “I wanna go to the wax museum. That’s better than some dumb caves.”

* * *

They stopped at the wax museum after touring the massive caves.

Mom wasn’t interested; she stayed in the car, parked in the shade of an old tree, reading her Studs Terkel book. The rest of the family wanted to see the famous people the museum brochure had advertised. Pat’s legs ached from the day’s hiking as they paid and went into the museum.

The rooms were crowded with figures from history, stiff and staring in their costumes. As the family approached each scene a light came on, and a recorded voice told about the wax people who sat behind the Plexiglas.

“Geronimo!” Bobby yelled. The Apache leader wore a red headband that held back his hair. His face was solemn.

“Look, they did one of Jesus,” Dad said. Jesus stood looking sort of meditative in his white and red robes. Nearby were figures of Charlie Chaplin and Sammy Davis, Jr.

There were no other tourists there. It made the experience too personal. Pat looked into the almost-real wax faces and thought about being trapped in a room like this, unable to leave.

Her calves ached from the day’s climbing at Mammoth Cave. The artificial people stared at her. The air in the museum felt close.

“Can we go?” she asked.

Dad looked around with some distaste. “Yeah, I think we’ve seen enough. Tourist trap. Come along, Bobby, let’s go to the diner for supper.”

The old woman was in her grayish tent by the roadside when they returned to the trailer. After dinner, Pat wandered over to the shed where the campground had a few games. There were two boys playing pinball and smoking, and a girl of about her own age, wearing pink shorts and watching the boys. There was nothing here worth hanging around for.

She waited until two trucks had roared past on the highway and then crossed. The dusk smelled sweet, as if someone had been mowing grass nearby. A few lightning bugs were starting to wink in the weeds. Hessa sat at her table, though it was far too dusky for travellers to see her few velvet paintings for sale. Her hands worked at a lump of something, molding it.

“Come closer,” Hessa said. “I don’t bite. Did you enjoy the wax museum?”

Pat shrugged. The place had scared her. The people in the exhibits were trapped like bugs under glass.

“Where are you going next?” Hessa asked. She waited a moment, then nodded when Pat did not respond. “That’s right. Better not to share with strangers.”

Pat looked over her shoulder at her family’s trailer in the campground. Dad was sitting at the picnic table. Keeping watch over her, Pat thought. She twitched her shoulders as if shaking off his protection.

“What’s that?” She nodded at the lump of material Hessa was working.

“Just a project,” Hessa said. “I need something to keep me busy sitting here all day.”

“Do you just travel around, then? Selling your paintings?”

“I go where the road takes me. Isn’t that what you want to do?” Hessa’s eyes narrowed. Pat felt as if Hessa knew something about her, maybe something Pat didn’t even know herself.

And now the old woman was poking into something that didn’t concern her. Pat turned away. “Goodbye,” she said. “We’re leaving tomorrow morning, early. I won’t see you again.”

“Or you may,” Hessa said. “Good night, child.”

* * *

In the middle of the night, with the sound of summer bugs as rhythmic as surf in her ears, Pat decided she’d had enough.

Dad snored in the pullout bed in the front of the trailer. Bobby sprawled on top of his sleeping bag on the floor.

She couldn’t stand it anymore. She slipped out of her sleeping bag and turned on a flashlight, keeping it shielded under the fabric of her shirt so it wouldn’t wake the others. She took her purse and jammed a set of spare underclothes into a bag. She turned the metal handle and opened the door, sliding out into the cool night.

The other trailers and tents were dark. Trees loomed darker than the star-encrusted sky. Pat took a deep breath and headed for the road.

There was no traffic at all. But even though it was the wee hours of the morning, Hessa sat at her table, working something with her hands. A candle flickered in a hurricane lamp, casting shadows.

“I thought so,” Hessa said. “You’re running away.”

Pat couldn’t believe the old woman was still sitting here. “What’s it matter to you?”

“Nothing, really. Except I told you I like to learn about characters, and you’re one. Aren’t you? Different from all the others who are afraid to do what you’re doing?”

Pat didn’t answer. She actually felt rather frightened.

“Is your family so bad?” Hessa’s hands kneaded. She was working a lump of something, maybe softened wax. A flickering flame sat under a pan, warming a glob of material on it. The small figurines on the shelf in Hessa’s tent writhed and moved with the candlelight. A figure that looked like a farmer, in bib overalls, with a beard and bags under his mournful eyes. A woman’s face, round like an apple, with her hair in a bun. A child, smirking at something. Pat hadn’t realized before how lifelike the figures were.

“My family’s not bad at all,” Pat said. She wondered what Mom would feel like when she woke to find her gone. Maybe Pat would find a pay phone and a dime and call the campground from the nearest town, just to let them know she was okay. But she couldn’t stay. Three more years until high school graduation would kill her; she had to get away.

“Not being abused by anyone? Not running from violence or poverty? Just … a little spoiled?” Hessa asked.

Pat shrugged. It sounded stupid, put like that. Hessa didn’t understand the searing desperation to get away, to do something.

“Well, if you must go,” Hessa said. Her hands worked, worked.

“That’s amazing,” Pat said, caught in spite of herself by what Hessa was doing. “I thought wax was too hard to be worked with just your hands.”

“This is special wax, my own formulation,” Hessa said. “Besides, see? I’m warming it up.”

Pat watched the woman’s hands almost caress the wax.

“I collect characters,” Hessa said. “So if you would tell me about yourself a little before you go, I’d appreciate it.”

Pat looked at the wheeling constellations above the treetops, looked at her watch by the light of Hessa’s lamp. Two a.m. She could spare half an hour. For some reason she couldn’t drag herself away from the old woman with her tight curls, her magical hands, and the row of figures writhing in the candlelight on the shelf.

“What do you mean, you collect characters?”

“I like people,” Hessa said. “I collect their stories, if you will. I’d like to hear yours, too. Try to know what you’re like. Like that book your mother is reading, that tells how people feel about their jobs. Like that.”

Mom was reading Working, by Studs Terkel. Pat had flipped through the pages. More than just the jobs, it seemed as if people had laid down a bit of themselves in that book.

“OK. Just for a few minutes.”

Hessa put her lump of modeling material on the table. It sat between them, a half-formed lump that could be a blank head, and shoulders like a bust. Or it could be two shapeless blobs.

“Tell me about yourself. Why do you think you need to run away tonight?”

Pat started talking. At first the words came slow, and sounded like she was writing a school paper. Her first name – she didn’t trust Hessa enough to give her any more. Her school, with its cliques she did not belong to. What her family did during the summer. How they traveled, stuck in the car with the trailer, and ate Mom’s sandwiches and stared out the window at countless fields and barns and little towns.

Then she glanced up at the wheeling stars and realized she would never be here again, and the words spilled out. How she felt stifled, and no one understood. All about the road, even the Tolkien poem she loved about the endless possibilities on the road. About big cities, and dreams. She heard her own voice droning on, talking in a way she never did, telling this woman about herself.

Hessa seemed to fade away, just a shadow across the table.

Pat took a breath and glanced around. The lamp burned lower. The figures on the shelves no longer moved but were just figures again, though they seemed to wait. The lump of wax before her was more detailed than she remembered – surely that was a slope of shoulder, and a fall of long hair.

“There’s so much more out there,” Pat said. “In California, I can get an acting job, I can do art. I want to paint. I want to be around people who are like me. I heard there are plenty of people out there my age.”

The lump on the table looked at Pat. It had eyes, she saw now. Large ones, as long-lashed as her own, with irises of no particular color.

She felt lightheaded. All this emotion had been coiled up inside her for so long. Letting it out – telling Hessa about her deepest dreams, made her almost weak. A chill ran through her, and she leaned hard on the table top.

“Go on,” Hessa said. Or had she spoken at all?

“I have big dreams,” Pat said. “But everybody’s always trying to control me, force me to go to school. There’s no one else like me.”

Dizziness washed through her. Pat blinked, coming to herself for a brief moment to wonder why she felt so awful now. She leaned on the table. She was perspiring in spite of the cool humid night. Her legs felt rubbery beneath her. She frowned and looked around her. How long had it been since she started talking? And why was the blob of wax on the table looking at her now, with the beginning of high cheekbones, and actual color in the eyes that looked so much like Pat’s own?

She pushed back hard from the table. Her chair wobbled. Pat fell, slamming onto her back. She twisted to the side, sprawling in the damp grass. Then she jumped to her feet in spite of the gray haze dropping over her vision.

“Let me help you.” Hessa heaved to her feet.

“No!” Pat scrambled for the table and grabbed the wax figure. Her fingers slipped as she swiped it. Something moved under her fingers – an eyelid, twitching – and she yelped as she backed away.

“Come back!” Hessa commanded. “Give it to me.”

“It’s mine,” Pat mumbled. “I know it’s mine.” She shoved the thing under her shirt, against the warmth of her body. She stumbled away sideways, half-seeing the wax figures on the shelves in the tent, all of them looking at her.

Something wobbled under her foot, and she fell again.

She rolled onto the highway shoulder. Gravel scraped her arms. She clutched the wax figure under her shirt, got to her knees. Something like a hand clutched at her ankle, dragging her back into the grass. She screamed and her voice dropped into the night as if into a well, silenced.

Hessa was behind her, reaching. Pat kicked out hard and felt her shoe strike something soft, maybe Hessa’s belly. The woman grunted and let go. Out of the corner of her eye Pat thought she saw the wax figures on the shelf moving, watching.

I collect characters.

She ran then, feet dragging through the grass until she hit the pavement. She ran across the road without looking for traffic, her mind spinning. The thing next to her skin grew soft. She hauled it out when she was near the sole lamppost in the campground. It still had features, but they were blurring, vanishing with Pat’s body heat. It was just a lump of wax, and—how had she thought it had eyes? It had no eyes, just little indentations.

The odd fog that had seeped into her mind was clearing. Her legs moved again, swift as she jumped over small obstructions, a fallen deck chair, the ash of an abandoned campfire. A dog howled in the distance, someone’s pet perhaps, chained in the yard. It was the first sound other than her own voice and Hessa’s voice that Pat had heard for a long time.

She seized the metal handle of the trailer’s door and yanked it open, heedless of noise. It swung outward, and Pat’s father said, “Who’s there?” in a sleepy, alarmed voice.

“It’s me,” she said, desperate for recognition by someone she loved. “It’s Patty.”

She looked behind her at the sweep of gray road, grass mounding down to the shoulder. The gray tent was gone, and the old pin-curled woman with it. Within the grasp of her hot hands, all semblance of realism had faded from the lump of wax. She could tell it wasn’t … whoever it had been trying to become.

The blood thrummed in her veins; fear shook her hands. Her mind was clear and she knew exactly who she was. She flung herself into her Dad’s arms.

Mom sat up next to Dad, her voice worried, “Patty, what’s wrong?”

“I’m back,” Pat said, “I want to go home. Right now.”

“There, there,” Dad said.

Bobby still slept sprawled in his sleeping bag, unaware of the commotion. Pat felt vaguely comforted by this – all as it should be, with her family around her.

She glanced out the trailer door before pulling it shut behind her. The road beckoned, a thin silver strip leading away from the campground. It pulled at her heart. But her family, shuffling around in the cramped trailer trying to comfort her, pulled too. Mom started warming some milk to help Pat get back to sleep.

The road would still be there next summer.

* * *

Anne Marie Lutz is the author of two fantasy novels, Color Mage and the sequel, Sword of Jashan. Her short stories have appeared in two anthologies.

What do you think is the attraction of the fantasy genre?

I think there will be some kind of fantasy as long as there are human beings. Fantasy takes us out of the confines of the real world, to a place where there’s wonder and possibility on every page. I think we love reading the stories of power and magic and great battles that the fantasy genre is so good at telling.