Friday, June 27, 2014

Chapter Four: Rules of the Game (Imaginary Friends)

Imaginary Friends is a serial novel. New chapters go up every Friday. If you're new to it, you can catch up by starting from the Introduction.

If you're impatient to read more about Clay Dillon, click on "Books" above for ordering information for Nothing is Right, the prequel to this story. You an also check out Defiant, last year's serial, by searching the blog for the "Defiant" tag (until June 30--then it will be unavailable until the paperback is published).

“All right, Clay! Let's get your shoes on so we can go,” the babysitter said.

Her name was Katrina, just like Clay's mother's name. Instead of shortening it to “Kitty,” though, Katrina liked people to call her by her full name. Clay liked that about her.

“Where are we going?” he asked.

Katrina tousled his hair. She had only been alone with Clay for ten minutes, and it was the third time that had happened. Clay hated that about her, but then he corrected himself for thinking the word “hate” because it was like the word “stupid.” His mother said so.

He felt his skin turn to metal at the thought of his mother, but then Katrina's fingers in his hair turned it back to skin again.

“You're funny,” she said. “Don't you remember telling your mom that you wanted to go to the library?”

“Yes, but I'm not used to getting what I want,” Clay said.

Katrina laughed.

Clay felt himself turning to metal again, but he tried to resist it. This Katrina person was trying to give him his way, and he knew that it would be wrong to get mad at her for it, even if she was a chucklehead.

“Well? What are you waiting for?” she asked.

He wanted to tell her that he was waiting for his legs to turn back into flesh because he did not want to move while he was still metal. Unfortunately, he could feel that his tongue had also turned into metal, so anything he let it say would be sharp.

Clay said nothing. Instead, he smiled at Katrina so that she would know he was listening.

Thankfully, she did not demand that he answer her. Instead she moved on to trying to convince A.J. that he needed to wear socks.

Clay felt himself like her again, and his legs and tongue stopped being metal and became flesh. He took a deep breath, and then he put his shoes on and gathered the books that he needed to return to the library.

The five block walk was uneventful, other than the one moment when Clay was sure Mrs. Jenkins would order them back to the house. It happened just as they were turning the corner at the end of the street Clay lived on. Mrs. Jenkins came flying out of her house, holding her skirts up slightly so that she could run barefoot across her yard, and she set herself in Katrina's path and demanded to know what was happening and why Katrina had removed the boys from their house. After Katrina explained that she was taking them to the library so that A.J. would be able to listen to story time, though, Mrs. Jenkins nodded and allowed them to continue on their way. Clay wondered why she was so nosy, but he did not have time to let himself turn to metal over it. They were on their way, and a short time later, he found himself jogging the last fifty yards through the park's forested path and up to the library's back door.

The library itself was small. It had once been a one-bedroom house, but now every inch of available space was packed full of books.

Clay lost no time once they were inside—as soon as he saw that Katrina was busy talking to A.J., he slipped between the aluminum bookshelves that crowded what had probably been the sitting-room and stepped into the foyer where the new releases sat on a re-purposed hope chest.

Clay hoped to find The Joy Luck Club there. Patrick's mother had said he would need to get it from the library, after all.

It took him a little while to find it, but it was on the shelf. The library actually had three copies in stock.
Clay thought that it must be a great book if a town as small as theirs needed to stock more than one copy of it. He grabbed one of the copies from the foyer and walked back into the library proper. Clay thought about picking out another couple of books for himself, but before he had a chance to go looking, one of the librarians spotted him and walked up to chat. They always wanted to chat.

“So, did you find the book you wanted, Clay?”

He nodded.

“Which one did you get? We have quite a few new books out there.”

Clay held up The Joy Luck Club so that the librarian could see it. “My friend's mom read it and she said that she really liked it, so I want to read it.”

The librarian's face made a move that Clay did not understand.

“Don't worry,” he said, “I know it's a new book and I'll take good care of it.”

“I know you will,” the librarian said. “I'm not worried about that. It's just... I don't know if you'll like that book, Clay.”

“Patrick's mother says that it's about church and kids and Chinese people,” Clay said. “I go to church and I'm a kid. Do you think there's something wrong with me reading about Chinese people?”

The librarian's whole head became red when Clay said that, so he held very still, keeping the book between himself and the librarian. He knew what happened when adults became very red. They sent you to bed without food, or else they started telling stories about why parents were right when they hit their kids.

When it was his mom who got red, then it meant that all the food was going to be thrown away and she was going to scream so loud that there was no place in the house to hide from her yelling. When it was his dad who got red, it was usually the first event in a chain that ended with Clay being grounded, once again, for “sass.”

The librarian did not do any of those things, though. Instead, she took a deep breath, and then she said, “You can't check that book out. I'm sorry.”

“Why?” Clay could feel his body starting to harden. He hoped he could finish the conversation before he started to think about ways to get even with the librarian. He did not like the getting even thoughts that came with his metal body.

“That's not a book for kids.”

“It's a book about kids.”

“I know that, Clay. It's not a book for kids, though.”

“So you're saying that people can just write about kids all they want, but kids should not look at what they have to say? Why? Is it wrong? Are the kids being hurt? Are the people writing these books evil?”
Clay knew that adults got mad when you asked them too many questions without letting them answer, but he could not stop himself. He had intended just to ask one question, but his mouth was hard to close because his jaw was becoming heavy with the metal feeling, and it was making his thoughts harder.

“It's not that there's anything wrong, Clay. It's just that there are some books that are complicated. This is one of them. You should probably wait until you're grown up to read it, because it's not just about kids, it's about how kids grow into adults.”

Clay glared at the librarian.

“I know you can read a lot of adult books, but this one is not like a lot of adult books.”

Clay tried to respond to the librarian's words, but all he could do was maintain his glare. His metal body was now fully formed, and he knew that if he moved, he might wind up hitting the librarian with the book. His brain showed him pictures of different ways the librarian might be hurt. It felt good to bathe his mind in them, but he worried about what would happen if he let himself move before the pictures went away. So he just glared.

Finally, the librarian sighed. “Fine. You want to know why you can't check the book out? It's because your mother said you can't. She called down here and told us that you might be in tonight, and she told us that you were only allowed to check out books from the children's section unless she was with you.”

“Fine,” Clay said. He lowered the book. “Nothing you can do about that.”

He was proud of himself for not throwing a tantrum, but the revelation that his mother had intentionally gone out of her way to ruin his trip to the library, the only trip since school let out that she had been unable to ruin in person, made Clay's metal body heat up. He worried about how he was supposed to manage it. It felt powerful, but also loose, and he worried that if he moved too quickly the heat would make him come apart at the joints. All the while, the violence in his mind kept churning, spinning itself up like a turbine. Instead of showing him things that he might do to get revenge, though, his brain started showing him ways that he might free himself from his parents.

Maybe he would get lucky and they would die in a car crash while they were out tonight.

Clay waited for the shame and the guilt to wipe that thought away, but they did not come. Instead, his metal body started to cool down. To feel stronger again.

“I'm sorry, Clay,” the librarian said. “I don't really know what you can and can't read. I just know you read a lot, and that your mother is very particular about what you pick out. Someday you'll be grown up, though, and then you can read whatever you want.”

“I can read whatever I want right now,” Clay said.

“I know, but what I mean is that your mother won't always be around to tell you what to do.”

“That's what keeps me going,” Clay said.

Then he turned around and walked into the children's section. He still carried The Joy Luck Club. The librarian followed him.

“Clay, I can't check that out to you. It doesn't matter if you go to the children's checkout desk or not.”

“I'm not going to the children's checkout desk,” Clay said. Then he sat at a table in the children's reading room. “I'm going to sit here and read the book.”

“Are you sure you want to do that?” the librarian asked.

“I'm not checking it out. Are you going to tell me I'm not allowed to sit and read?”

Clay could hear the metal in his words. It flaked off his tongue and adhered to the sound of his voice, slipping into the syllables he formed and turning his childish demands into orders. He guessed that the librarian could hear it, too, because she shrugged and walked away, leaving him to enjoy the book.

The first chapter was about people meeting to play a game called mahjong. Clay had no idea what the game was, so he skipped that chapter. The next chapter was about a girl whose mother had left her alone and the ways that her family made her feel bad. Clay was not sure about how to think about that chapter. He could see a lot of different things happening there. He felt like he would have been mad, too, if someone just parked a child with him and expected him to take care of it. At the same time, though, he could not imagine his Grandma Marci talking about his mother the way that the grandmother in the story talked about the little girl's mother.

Even though Clay knew that his mother had been a junior in high school when she got pregnant with him, he also knew that his mother's family had been supportive of her and had helped her, because they always told him so. Grandma Marci told him at least once a month that he was not an accident, he was a gift. She had done this for as long as he could remember. If his family could overcome their ideas about having babies and sex and marriage to help his mother when she was pregnant with him, then why did the Chinese family in the story have to keep telling the child An-Mei that her mother was bad?

For the first time, Clay was aware that there were things in a story that he did not understand. He did not want to give up, though. After the way he had talked to the librarian, he felt obligated to work on reading the book. Clay worried that if he admitted to not being able to understand this book, that it would lead to even more extensive rules being put in place to restrict his reading choices. If, on the other hand, he managed to tease out the main ideas in this book, then he might have a chance at convincing the librarian that his mother was wrong and that he should have the right to read any book he chose to read.

He flipped back to the table of contents and read the title of every chapter. Most of them did not seem to be named in ways that made their plots immediately clear. He knew from the Bible and from reading a few other books like Childhood's End that there were times when books were indirect, when the different themes they discussed were talked about in a kind of sideways-talk that only became apparent after you finished reading the whole thing. Something told him that this was a book like that. Still, knowing that he was missing an important element in the story did not help Clay to understand what that element was.

He looked at the first chapter again. It was about a game called mahjong. Once Clay read it all the way through, it was clear that the game itself was not the important action in the chapter. The important action was the fact that this was something the family did together. That, Clay could understand. After all, his whole family played Uno together, and even though it was a stupid game that depended way too much on luck, they all had fun. The game was not the important thing—the fact that people came together and played and talked was the important thing.

Still, it was obvious that the behavior of each of the people during the game night was important. Clay guessed that all of the talk about the way the dead woman played was meant to tell him something about who she was. He did not know if he was right or not, though, because he did not understand the game. If he was right, then there was no way for him to interpret what the comments about her playing style meant. He went back to the table of contents, hoping to find a chapter that might explain mahjong more.

Right away, the first chapter in the second section of the book jumped out at him. It was called “Rules of the Game.”

* * *

As it turned out, “Rules of the Game” was not about mahjong at all. Instead it was about chess. It was about a very intelligent girl who played chess and the ways that her family encouraged her and also reveled in her success. In some ways, Clay was reminded of his own family. His father had taught him chess, and he had bragged to his friends about it, because Clay was only six the first time they played.
His father had stopped bragging after the first time that Clay beat him, though, and then their games had turned grim and silent.

Eventually, they stopped playing. Clay wondered what would have happened if they had not. The girl in the story was nine when she started to play, and she became a genius champion in short order.

How far might Clay have gone if he'd had more opponents? Or more patient ones? He had managed to learn how to defeat his father without anyone tutoring him about different strategies. The movements of his pieces across the board were patterns with no names, and they teased and provoked and reacted in moments, not across great spans of turns.

He sensed that this way of thinking made him very different from the girl in the story, but he did not have words to explain it to himself.

There was one difference he did articulate to himself, though: If his parents ever actually took his chores away and made space for him to focus on doing just what he wanted to do, then he would not be ungrateful. He understood the girl's reaction to her mother's ownership of her success—one is inclined to want credit for one's labors, after all—but as someone who had to labor for the right to make his own choices, Clay envied the ease with which the Jong family made room for Waverly's talent and nurtured it. He wanted to slap her when she ruined that, and he was happy when Lindo Jong took her confidence away and made her schemes into something small and impotent. He wished that he understood how to do that in his own life, because it seemed like a useful talent.

Clay was looking in the table of contents for a chapter about Lindo when the lights blinked. He sighed and closed the book then. Learning how to take someone's confidence and make their scheming petty would have to wait. He was not allowed to check this book out, and blinking lights meant that he only had five minutes to find a book and check out before they closed the checkout desk for the night and started story time.

He carried The Joy Luck Club with him as he set out in search of a book that he could take home.
Clay barely had to glance at the shelves in the chapter book section of the children's library to realize that he would not be able to pick a book out. His mind was still on chess and China and the secret wars between mothers and children, and he could not sweep those thoughts aside just because he was expected to make decisions. Luckily, the librarian saw him almost immediately and called him over to the check-out desk.

“I thought you might use up all your time reading,” she said, “so I picked out a book for you. If you like it, then you can have it.”

Clay smiled. First she had not yelled when he made her turn red, now this. He was starting to think the librarian liked him.

She handed him a book that was quite a bit thicker than The Joy Luck Club. It was also shorter, in terms of height.

Clay stared at the two books, lost in contemplation about the various trim sizes available for paperback books. He wondered why no one thought to standardize them.

“It's about children and war and patriotism,” the librarian said as she gestured at the book, “and it's not really a kid's book, but since it started getting carried in the Scholastic catalog, we've moved it out of the adult section.”

She winked at Clay after she finished talking.

Clay put aside his thoughts about paperback book sizes and looked again at the squat, thick volume in front of him. It was called Ender's Game. There was a spaceship on the cover.

He was sold.

“I want it,” he said. “Let's check it out.”

The librarian nodded and scanned the book. Then she took his card and scanned that. When she reached for The Joy Luck Club, though, Clay grabbed the book back from her.

“You know I can't check that out to you,” the librarian said.

“Can I just keep reading until the end of story time?”

The librarian shook her head.


“I have to shelve all the books and lock up the adult side of the library while you're listening to story time,” the librarian said. “I can't go home until I finish re-shelving all the books.”

“So just make this one last,” Clay felt himself starting to turn to metal again.

The librarian stayed cool. “If it was up to me, I would. Rules are rules, though, and we all have to follow them.”

Clay nodded. He knew about rules. Life was nothing but an intersecting set of rules that other people around him inflicted on him. Since they each had different rules, sometimes he felt like he was expected to do two contradictory things at once. At other times, he felt bound by a set of rules even after the people who owned those rules were gone. All of the rules in life made it hard to know how to do anything. Still, they were rules for a reason, and until he got older and found out the reason, he was stuck with them.

His chest turned to metal while he thought about the rules, and as his heart hardened he found himself thinking that rules were not real things, they were just ideas, and that what mattered was who had the book. For a moment, he thought about grabbing it and running. He might get into trouble, but he would at least get to read the Lindo Jong chapter. He might learn how to shame an enemy into making herself small if he did that. Before Clay could act, though, the librarian picked up the book and walked away with it. Rules and reality fell into agreement with each other. Clay no longer had The Joy Luck Club.

He did have Ender's Game, though. Clay sat down to read it, wondering what it might have to teach him about parents and children and growing up.

Next: Sass and Sensibility

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