Previous Challenge Entry (EDITOR'S CHOICE)
Topic: Cousin(s)( 05/22/08)
By Jan Ackerson
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The summer that Baylee turned nine and I was ten, she moved away. Uncle Dan had taken a job in Pascagoula, Mississippi, a place that sounded breathlessly exotic. I didn’t miss Uncle Dan or Aunt Constance (who looked exactly like my mother except for a hardness shadowing her eyes). But I ached for Baylee while listlessly stacking my scores of books in haphazard piles.
I didn’t see her for years—except once, at Grandma’s funeral, when we were both suffering through a pimply, pudgy adolescence. We sat together, the wooden pew cold on our legs. There was nothing to say, but we smiled shyly, a little embarrassed at the memory of our quirky childhood.
A few weeks before my junior year, my mother told me that Baylee and Aunt Constance were moving back. Uncle Dan was staying in Pascagoula, where he had succumbed to the humid charms of a Mississippi woman. My mother cupped my cheek. “Flynn,” she said, “your cousin’s had it rough. Help her get settled at school, okay?”
I didn’t see Baylee until lunch of the first day. I scanned the cafeteria for her auburn hair and missed her, but eventually my eyes fell upon a hunched shape sitting alone at a far table. I sat next to her. “Hey, Baylee,” I said. “How’s the first day going? Who do you have?”
Baylee didn’t look at me, but mumbled into her wall of stringy, dyed-black hair. She looked rumpled, her clothing unmatched. Maybe that’s the way they dress in Mississippi, I decided. “Baylee? Do you have Willis for Bio? You’ll like him, he’s pretty cool.”
She studied my face through squinted eyes. “Flynn. You’re too thin, Flynn. That’s a sin.” I laughed—I was hardly thin. Baylee lowered her gaze. “Willis is too green. I couldn’t listen to him.”
Green? I pictured the Biology teacher: tall, balding, pale. Not green, but perhaps Baylee was speaking environmentally. “Baylee, can I see your schedule? Maybe we can walk to 4th hour together.”
She passed me a crumpled paper, and I filled her in on her teachers—Maroney was a push-over, Veldman could be distracted if you asked about her cat. Baylee listened, giggling at random moments. I hoped I could persuade my friends to accept her. Baylee was…unusual.
We had one class together—choir, 7th hour. She was already there when I arrived, sitting at the back and mumbling. I tapped her shoulder. “Hey, Baylee, this is the bass section. Are you alto or soprano? I’ll show you where to sit.”
She followed me to the alto section, whispering “Flynn sings low, what does she know, long time ago.” I wondered if she was a budding rapper.
I stayed close to Baylee for the first few weeks of September. She seemed perpetually frightened, vulnerable. I changed my mind about those quirks that I originally thought were Mississippi-isms. Something was wrong with Baylee. I didn’t think it was drugs—she wasn’t associating with the druggie crowd, and she spent every evening in her bedroom. I joined her there sometimes, with my Brit Lit homework. Baylee’s books, I saw, were arranged alphabetically.
Our conversations were odd—sometimes Baylee was delightful, witty, sharp. But other times she pulled away, muttered, stared beyond my shoulder. She spoke of people in terms of their colors: “Why Flynn, you’re yellow today!” she would chortle, pretending to shield her eyes.
Had Aunt Constance noticed Baylee’s quirks? She and my mother were spending a lot of time together, mostly analyzing Uncle Dan’s faults. I think Baylee had simply faded out of Aunt Constance’s sight.
In mid-October, I read chapter 3 of my Psych book and felt something huge shift, then thunk into place. Delusions: Baylee. Self-neglect: Baylee. Rhyming speech, bizarre behavior, inappropriate emotions: Baylee.
Onset in early adulthood...
Symptoms of schizophrenia…
I ran downstairs, startling my mother. “Mom—we have to call Aunt Constance. Now.”
In my mind, seven-year-old Baylee steps out from behind a neat stack of books. Her matchstick arms encircle my waist, and she blesses me with a toothless grin.
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