Riley in the Narrows
The Rules for Being Riley
Don’t panic—Rule #13 in Smart Things Other People Said. Short, to the point, and universally true. That’s why Riley added it to her list of non-original wisdom. Panic is never a useful emotion. It clouds your judgment and makes it at least 50% more likely you’ll pee your pants.
Riley stopped pacing and consulted her Pre-Interview Readiness Agenda for the hundredth time since they’d descended into the dingy, deserted station. Strategically timed peeing made the list at five different points throughout the morning. If she followed the schedule and avoided unplanned beverages, her pants should be safe.
That is, if the train ever arrived. Riley stared down the dark subway tunnel, willing it to appear. Being late to the most important interview of her pre-teen life was not on the Agenda. She pinched her fingers together and flicked them open. Now!
The train did not magically appear, but a rat did.
“It’s Saturday morning at seven a.m.” Riley’s right hand began to flap. “This train has officially violated the schedule! Where is it?”
Quinn adjusted her book bag and side-eyed her. “Maybe it’s still asleep. You know, like normal people who weren’t wrenched from their beds for moral support by cruel older sisters.”
She shot Riley a look that, somehow, didn’t feel like moral support.
“May-be the train’s brunching with its girlfriends.” Mom rested her arms on her daughters’ shoulders and brought them closer. “What would a saucy young train out on the town order for breakfast?”
“Trains don’t eat breakfast, Mom,” Riley said, but she didn’t pull away. “And stop trying to make me feel better!”
“Of course trains don’t eat breakfast,” Mom agreed. “That’s crazy. A ridiculous proposition, and I’m sorry I even suggested it.” She placed a hand over her heart, as though she were truly sorry for trying to distract Riley from the Great Train Crisis of ’16. “They eat brunch. Quinn, ideas?”
Riley groaned and checked the subway tunnel again. Now both her hands were flapping. Five shakes’ each, and then she’d feel better. “I’m going to miss my interview! Do either of you even care?”
Quinn tilted her head and smirked. “Since you asked—”
“Of course we care, dear,” Mom said, cutting off Quinn and giving her a look that Meant Something. She wrapped her arms around Riley. “Try to calm down. There’s plenty of time.”
Riley closed her eyes and tried to believe her.
The greasy walls began to thrum. A damp gust of wind stirred the ends of her hair and sent a chill down her spine. She opened her eyes to headlights gleaming. Finally! The train screeched around the corner, fourteen minutes late and not at all sorry about it.
“You upset my daughter.” Mom wagged her finger at the train as it hissed to a stop. “The French toast better have been magical.”
The dented steel doors of the train’s last car creaked open, and Riley rushed inside. The Fairthornes were the only people waiting on the platform, and apparently the only people on the train, too. Riley hadn’t realized Boston was so unambitious. It wasn’t that early.
Mom and Quinn plunked down on either side of Riley in the empty car, their shoulders pressing warmly against her own. Riley released a deep breath as the train rumbled into motion and began its long trip up to Cambridge. They could still make the interview; all hope was not lost. She forced herself to smile because she’d read it tricks the brain into feeling positive.
Riley turned to Quinn, almost scared to ask since it seemed like Quinn was in such a bad mood. “Can we do a round of Super Tough Question Time?”
Quinn raised an eyebrow. “Okay, but you have to stop smiling like that. You’re freaking me out.” She cleared her throat and pushed imaginary glasses up her nose. “Riley Fairthorne, I see you have a documented disability that affects your ability to function in social settings. What accommodations do you need to keep from freaking out at our camp?”
“I don’t need accommodations,” Riley snapped. She clenched her fingers and breathed through her nose. Sure, accommodations sound nice. People just want to help you, Riley. In Riley’s experience, though, accommodations always turn into someone else deciding what you can and can’t handle. Besides, all kinds of people need help doing all kinds of things. Why should Riley have to announce her needs to the world just because some adult decided she was disabled?
“Do-over?” Quinn prompted.
Riley nodded, and after a minute, started over with the answer they’d prepared. “For me, it’s about managing the questions. They build up inside of me, like what is that person doing with her face, or why is that bird flying in that pattern? There are so many things to find out that I get overwhelmed. That’s why I keep a field journal with me. It helps me keep track of the questions until I can find the answers.”
Riley squeezed her eyes shut and added, “My journal is the only accommodation I need.”
Quinn patted her on the shoulder. “Better. I still think you should request me as your social interpreter, but I get it. No dumb-ashes allowed.”
“Quinn!” Mom leaned over Riley to give Quinn the full Parent Look.
Quinn held her hands up. “Just talking about trees, Mom.” She winked at Riley.
[Illustration note: Riley and Quinn’s Preferred Profanity Substitutions: Ash, Schist, Shish Kabob, Hello, Damp, Bass Hole (followed by little drawings of each)].
“You’re not dumb, Quinn,” Riley said. “You just don’t have an aptitude for science.”
Quinn arched an eyebrow. “On that note, I’m going back to sleep.”
Riley put on a huge fake smile and pulled out Riley’s Rules for Being Normal When You’re Not. The thick notebook contained all of the wisdom, observations, and maxims she’d collected to make her socially acceptable to the outside world, and she had time for one final review.
Some people were social geniuses like Mom and Quinn, but Riley had to study. Since she was eight years old, she’d drafted 2,432 entries across ten notebooks on human interaction, and yet she remained an utter novice at friendship and its related skillsets, like conversations (both initiating and general participation), parties (going, and as a threshold issue, being invited), and hanging out at large. Riley could barely speak to other people. Well, except for in the classroom, the only place her skin fit.
Riley flipped the cover open and smiled harder, determined. The Young Scientists program would be different. She’d put her rules to good use, ace the interview, and finally find her tribe. Maybe she’d even publish her rulebook one day and help all the other people terrified by over-friendly cashiers.
[Illustration note: “Fig. 1a Avoiding Eye Contact Professionally” diagram of face with acceptable spots—between the eyes, the arch of the eyebrow, the corner of the eye with the caption “The lacrimal caruncle is optimal if feeling daring.”]
Reading through each rule, even though Riley knew them by heart, felt like a hug for her anxious brain. Her handwriting, loopy and childish in the early entries, graduated to the neat, angular scratch she used now. Scholarly, mature. Independent-ish. After all, one must fake it until one makes it, Rule #1 in Smart Stuff Other People Said. Riley wasn’t great at faking things, though she’d dedicated her life to trying. The best she could do was an impression of Quinn, which she slipped into when she was nervous. Riley was especially terrible at lying.
People don’t realize what an important skill lying is. Think of all the times someone asked you something that, had you answered truthfully, that someone would have punched you in the face. Or yelled at you. Or made a short bus joke. Understanding what people want to hear, and then saying that instead of whatever the uncomfortable truth was ranked #1 on Riley’s list of Skills to Make You More Likeable. Knowing when the truth was uncomfortable was #2.
Riley needed extensive work in both.
[Illustration note: How to Lie Effectively. Blend a touch of truth with the false, state with confidence, and above all, act natural. For further reference, see entry #7 on Skills to Make You More Likeable, “What is Acting Natural”]
Sighing, Riley finished Skills to Make you More Likeable, paged through Things You Didn’t Realize Were Creepy, and then settled in with the most critical section for the day—Making a Good Impression. A good chunk of her research dealt with the art of interviewing well, which she read and re-read and re-re-read as the empty train rocked back and forth.
Riley took a break from chanting her prepared introduction to massage her cheeks, sore from all the forced smiling. Quinn was dozing against her, but Mom was staring past the train’s windows into the darkness, her eyes cloudy and distant.
Riley wasn’t great at reading faces, but she knew that expression. “Thinking about a new book, Mom?”
It took a second for Mom’s attention to zoom back to the here and now. She smiled at Riley, but it didn’t reach her sad eyes. “The Land of Lost Things is always on my mind.”
Riley didn’t understand why thinking up story ideas for her fantasy series made Mom so wistful, but Riley chalked it up to a weird sort of homesickness. It was like Mom would rather live in her imaginary world where evil magicians cast sleeping spells across the land, rivers glittered, and doorways hung open in the sky. A land where the good guys used their brains to change the world, atom by atom by atom.
Riley couldn’t blame Mom for wanting to live there. The Land of Lost Things was awesome.
“It’s a ghost town in here, huh?” Mom glanced around the empty car. An older lady with a small shopping cart had boarded a few stops before, but had already exited. Nobody else had gotten on the entire half-an-hour they’d been riding, which felt too good to be true. Accidental eye contact with strangers ranked #4 on Terrible Things That You Shouldn’t Over-react About.
“What about you?” Mom nudged her. “Feeling better after your review?”
Riley nodded, then shook her head, and ended with a firm shrug.
Mom put an arm around her. “I understand completely.”
“What if they think we’re super weird?” Riley buried her face in her mother’s lucky green cardigan. It was covered in tiny embroidered unicorns, and Mom insisted it was the most professional thing she owned.
The interview panel was definitely going to think they were weird.
“Or what if they think I can’t handle the program? Because I’m… you know,” Riley faltered. She hated saying the words. The world loved assigning labels to people like her, but that didn’t mean Riley had to use them, too. She was trying to play by their rules as hard as she could. She was trying to change.
“Riley Ophelia Fairthorne, you can handle anything. You just have to do it in your own way.” Mom lifted Riley’s chin and kissed her five times on her forehead, one of Riley’s favorite good luck charms.
“Quinnie doesn’t think so.” Riley glanced at her sister, huddled against Riley’s other side and oblivious to the conversation, the train, and all of North America. Quinn had been against the Young Scientists program from the start. Why, Riley didn’t know, but Quinn’s disapproval made her nervous. She didn’t have much practice in disagreeing with Quinn.
“Quinn’s just scared she can’t handle you leaving for six weeks,” Mom said. “But she believes in you, just like I do.”
Riley leaned her head on Mom’s shoulder. They didn’t know that Riley knew about Quinn’s acceptance letter. Riley had overheard the tearful conversation through the thin plaster walls of their Boston apartment a few weeks ago. Mom insisting they’d figure it out while Quinn insisted there was no way Riley could make it without her.
Naturally, overhearing a conversation like that called for a thorough ransacking of Quinn’s personal belongings. It didn’t take Riley long to find the letter with its gilded edges from the Boston Fine Arts Magnet Academy congratulating Quinn on her stellar audition and admission into its middle school acting program for next fall. While Riley couldn’t even tell a convincing lie, Quinn could fool a whole audience.
Quinn still had a month left to decide whether she’d accept. Riley knew she was still considering it because Quinn hadn’t thrown the acceptance form away, but she hadn’t turned it in, either. Riley waited for the day when the form would disappear from its hiding spot and what that might mean. Quinn—going to a different school? Riley could barely imagine it. Every day, they walked to school together, ate lunch together, walked home together. Even Riley’s teachers knew Quinn, laughing and returning her high fives as Quinn dropped Riley off at class and came to pick her up. Subtract Quinn from all of that, and you had nothing.
Quinn hadn’t even told Riley she was auditioning. There had been that month of Quinn reciting Shakespeare in swarthy British accents, breaking into epic rap monologues from Hamilton, and conducting dramatic readings from cereal boxes over breakfast. Riley should have realized that something was up then, but jazz hands were a daily occurrence in the Fairthorne household.
Worst part was, Quinn was totally right. Riley screwed her eyes shut. She couldn’t handle it if Quinn left her for some fancy arts school. But there was something about the weight of the letter’s heavy cardstock in her hands… She felt it long after she put it back in Quinn’s hiding spot. It pressed down on her shoulders that night, and the next day, and the next, until Riley realized she had to figure it out for Quinn’s sake. Maybe she couldn’t handle it right then, but she could prepare. She could study.
She could change.
The next day, Riley marched into the school counselor’s office and told him she wanted to apply to Harvard’s Young Scientists summer program. Riley probably should have knocked first since the counselor spilled coffee down his pants, but he didn’t seem to hold it against her. Riley had dreamed of going for years, but she’d never had the courage to apply. It was the ultimate test for both her and her rules. If Riley could leave Mom and Quinn and stay in a dormitory with other kids for six entire weeks, she could do anything. Even go to a different school than Quinn.
Now, only the interview stood between Riley and a summer spent on Harvard’s campus, conducting experiments and majoring in three scientific subjects of her choosing. She’d had no trouble picking—Physics, Chemistry, and her secret passion, Anthropology. Both Dr. Wannabaker and Dr. Landell were participating this summer, two of her idols. Field trips to archaeological digs, cosmic discussions, smelly chemicals and whirring centrifuges… heaven at just thirteen years—
Riley jolted upright, dislodging Quinn’s head and sending it flying. “Mom! The birth certificate!”
“Wha…” Quinn slumped blindly towards her again. “Hold still, Rye.”
Riley whipped around to face her mother, and Quinn fell again, muttering.
“Did you remember it? Please say you brought it. Today’s the deadline for getting in our paperwork!”
Mom raised both her hands. “Whoa! Rule #13: Think of your pants and remain calm.” She rummaged through her purse until she produced a wrinkled certificate.
It already looked wrong. Riley smoothed out the piece of notebook paper, horror erupting within her. “This is my baptismal certificate, not my birth certificate. Where’s the real one?”
“It’s against our religion to have proper documentation, our Primate Oberon Zell-Ravenheart said so.” Mom paused, finger on her mouth. “Or maybe it was the High Priestess Morning Glory… besides, why do I need a piece of paper to prove you were born?” She gestured to her. “You’re sitting right there.”
Riley covered her face with her hands. “So you want to give Harvard a homemade certificate from the cult we lived next door to in California?” She squeezed an eye open and held the crinkly certificate up to her face to see how bad it was.
Blazoned beneath the insignia for the Church of All Worlds, a hand-drawn sphinx covered in eyeballs announced in a cartoon speech bubble:
This here babe, Riley Ophelia Fairthorne,
was borne to her mother Laeliana,
both made in the image of the Wandering Woman.
On this third anniversary of Riley’s entry to our realm,
we annoynt her with the oily gifts of the Faeries and cover her forehead with rotten leaves so she, too, may sprout the horn of the Third Eye and Change the world!
O-yay, House Gryffindor!
Okay, so very bad.
“First of all, they misspelled anoint,” Riley said slowly, trying not to hurt her mother’s feelings. “Then, they made a reference to a popular fiction series. This doesn’t comply with Rule #1 in Making a Good Impression: Maintain a professional image.”
“Don’t be ashamed of your religion, dear,” Mom said. “They were good neighbors. Watched you and Quinn everyday while I aspired towards writing excellent nonfiction.”
“But, your name isn’t even Laeliana, Mom.” Riley tried to make her Mom understand how weird this was. “The Admissions Office won’t accept this, and—”
“They’ll take it, don’t worry,” Mom interrupted. “Mine has gotten me credit cards. O-yay House Gryffindor!”
Riley returned Mom’s high five weakly and took five deep breaths as she slipped her rulebook and evidence that her family had, at one point, belonged to a cult, into her messenger bag. Stuff like this drove her crazy. Why couldn’t she just have a normal mother with a normal job who kept normal documents like birth certificates? Someone who would at least try to follow the rules? Half the time Mom didn’t even know what the rules were.
A sharp clink sounded behind her head, pulling her out of her nervous thoughts. Riley turned, but the subway tunnel encasing them was dark. A second later, another ping. Riley shifted around and pressed her knees into the back of the orange plastic seat. A small rock clattered against the window and fell away as the train heaved along.
The lights flickered. Mom frowned and glanced over her shoulder. “Is someone out there throwing rocks?”
Riley cupped her hands around her eyes and pressed them against the glass. All she saw were dirty tile walls and blinking service lights. There couldn’t be anyone out there. There wasn’t room.
A bigger rock hit the window this time, and Riley flinched backwards. Rocks pelted the glass. The lights flickered again, then went out. Mom grabbed for Riley, and Riley grabbed for Quinn.
“Uh, what’s going on?” Quinn lifted her head. “And what happened to the lights?!”
“It’s okay,” Mom said, her voice as tight as her grip. “They’ll come back on in a second.”
Riley begged the train not to stop as their car pitched back and forth between darkness and red flashes from the tunnel’s service lights. There were horror stories of trains stopped for hours in the Boston underground, trapping riders with no cell service and no way out until service crews could arrive and get the train working again. If they couldn’t even call the interview panel to explain…
Panic climbed up from the pit of her stomach. Riley pressed her face against the glass again, squinting into the darkness for an explanation. Rocks clattered like hail against the train in the darkness. Was the tunnel caving in? An earthquake? Boston was prone to tremors.
[Illustration note: Boston’s position on North American plate and fault line with scribbles about the 1755 Cape Ann earthquakes and impending doom clock]
Riley was still thinking about the unrelenting pressure exerted by shifting tectonic plates when the window illuminated. A hand outlined in rocks struck the window. She gasped and scrambled backwards out of her seat into the aisle. The train squealed to a sudden halt, and Riley flailed for the center pole.
“Did you guys see that?!”
The lights flickered again, then came on full blast brighter than before. Riley’s eyes watered from the shock of light, but she didn’t dare blink. The window was empty, the rocks gone. A loud crunch sounded to the left.
The doors vaulted open, revealing the insides of the dark tunnel.
“This isn’t a real stop, girls.” Mom pulled Riley back to her seat. “There’s something wrong with the train.”
Seconds ticked by under the fizzing, whining hum of fluorescent lights. They were louder than before, and the sound grated against Riley’s ears, making her hands flap. Riley, Quinn, and Mom all watched the doorway, as though someone, something, might crawl onboard from below.
“This is super freakshow,” Quinn whispered.
The doors slammed shut, making them all jump. A tinny voice rang out from the train’s crackling speakers.
“Sorry about that, folks! The computer system – ou—at and--- can’t expl—okay! Please take your se---nd---hold on—”
The train lurched forward again, and Riley released a deep breath. They were moving.
While Mom and Quinn were busy comparing the scene to their favorite horror movies, Riley noticed something small rolling towards her across the floor. It ping-ponged against the train’s walls in long, meandering arcs until it slowly came to rest against her foot. She leaned over to get a closer look.
Round and plump, the detached eyeball stared up at her, the large black pupil dilating as it took her in.
To read more, well, you're just going to have to wait until some publisher snaps it up, now aren't you.