Small Spaces – Katherine Arden

OCTOBER IN EAST EVANSBURG, and the last warm sun of the year slanted red through the sugar maples. Olivia Adler sat nearest the big window in Mr. Easton’s math class, trying, catlike, to fit her entire body into a patch of light. She wished she were on the other side of the glass. You don’t waste October sunshine. Soon the old autumn sun would bed down in cloud blankets, and there would be weeks of gray rain before it finally decided to snow. But Mr. Easton was teaching fractions and had no sympathy for Olivia’s fidgets. “Now,” he said from the front of the room. His chalk squeaked on the board. Mike Campbell flinched. Mike Campbell got the shivers from squeaking blackboards and, for some reason, from people licking paper napkins. The sixth grade licked napkins around him as much as possible. “Can anyone tell me how to convert three-sixteenths to a decimal?” asked Mr. Easton.

He scanned the room for a victim. “Coco?” “Um,” said Coco Zintner, hastily shutting a sparkling pink notebook. “Ah,” she added wisely, squinting at the board. Point one eight seven five, thought Olivia idly, but she did not raise her hand to rescue Coco. She made a line of purple ink on her scratch paper, turned it into a flower, then a palm tree. Her attention wandered back to the window. What if a vampire army came through the gates right now? Or no, it’s sunny. Werewolves? Or what if the Brewsters’ Halloween skeleton decided to unhook himself from the third-floor window and lurch out the door? Ollie liked this idea. She had a mental image of Officer Perkins, who got cats out of trees and filed police reports about pies stolen off windowsills, approaching a wandering skeleton. I’m sorry, Mr. Bones, you’re going to have to put your skin on— A large foot landed by her desk. Ollie jumped. Coco had either conquered or been conquered by three-sixteenths, and now Mr. Easton was passing out math quizzes. The whole class groaned.

“Were you paying attention, Ollie?” asked Mr. Easton, putting her paper on her desk. “Yep,” said Ollie, and added, a little at random, “point one eight seven five.” Mr. Bones had failed to appear. Lazy skeleton. He could have gotten them out of their math quiz. Mr. Easton looked unconvinced but moved on. Ollie eyed her quiz. Please convert 9/8 to a decimal. Right. Ollie didn’t use a calculator or scratch paper. The idea of using either had always puzzled her, as though someone had suggested she needed a spyglass to read a book. She scribbled answers as fast as her pencil could write, put her quiz on Mr.

Easton’s desk, and waited, half out of her seat, for the bell to ring. Before the ringing had died away, Ollie seized her bag, inserted a crumpled heap of would-be homework, stowed a novel, and bolted for the door. She had almost made it out when a voice behind her said, “Ollie.” Ollie stopped; Lily Mayhew and Jenna Gehrmann nearly tripped over her. Then the whole class was going around her like she was a rock in a river. Ollie trudged back to Mr. Easton’s desk. Why me, she wondered irritably. Phil Greenblatt had spent the last hour picking his nose and sticking boogers onto the seat in front of him. Lily had hacked her big sister’s phone and screenshotted some texts Annabelle sent her boyfriend. The sixth grade had been giggling over them all day. And Mr. Easton wanted to talk to her? Ollie stopped in front of the teacher’s desk. “Yes? I turned in my quiz and everything so—” Mr. Easton had a wide mouth and a large nose that drooped over his upper lip.

A neatly trimmed mustache took up the tiny bit of space remaining. Usually he looked like a friendly walrus. Now he looked impatient. “Your quiz is letter-perfect, as you know, Ollie,” he said. “No complaints on that score.” Ollie knew that. She waited. “You should be doing eighth-grade math,” Mr. Easton said. “At least.” “No,” said Ollie. Mr. Easton looked sympathetic now, as though he knew why she didn’t want to do eighth-grade math. He probably did. Ollie had him for homeroom and life sciences, as well as math.

Ollie did not mind impatient teachers, but she did not like sympathy face. She crossed her arms. Mr. Easton hastily changed the subject. “Actually, I wanted to talk to you about chess club. We’re missing you this fall. The other kids, you know, really appreciated that you took the time to work with them on their opening gambits last year, and there’s the interscholastic tournament coming up soon so—” He went on about chess club. Ollie bit her tongue. She wanted to go outside, she wanted to ride her bike, and she didn’t want to rejoin chess club. When Mr. Easton finally came to a stop, she said, not quite meeting his eyes, “I’ll send the club some links about opening gambits. Super helpful. They’ll work fine. Um, tell everyone I’m sorry.” He sighed.

“Well, it’s your decision. But if you were to change your mind, we’d love—” “Yeah,” said Ollie. “I’ll think about it.” Hastily she added, “Gotta run. Have a good day. Bye.” She was out the door before Mr. Easton could object, but she could feel him watching her go. Past the green lockers, thirty-six on each side, down the hall that always smelled like bleach and old sandwiches. Out the double doors and onto the front lawn. All around was bright sun and cool air shaking golden trees: fall in East Evansburg. Ollie took a glad breath. She was going to ride her bike down along the creek as far and as fast as she could go. Maybe she’d jump in the water. The creek wasn’t that cold.

She would go home at dusk—sunset at 5:58. She had lots of time. Her dad would be mad that she got home late, but he was always worrying about something. Ollie could take care of herself. Her bike was a Schwinn, plum-colored. She had locked it neatly to the space nearest the gate. No one in Evansburg would steal your bike—probably—but Ollie loved hers and sometimes people would prank you by stealing your wheels and hiding them. She had both hands on her bike lock, tongue sticking out as she wrestled with the combination, when a shriek split the air. “It’s mine!” a voice yelled. “Give it back! No—you can’t touch that. NO!” Ollie turned. Most of the sixth grade was milling on the front lawn, watching Coco Zintner hop around like a flea—it was she who’d screamed. Coco would not have been out of place in a troop of flower fairies. Her eyes were large, slanting, and ice-blue. Her strawberryblond hair was so strawberry that in the sunshine it looked pink.

You could imagine Coco crawling out of a daffodil each morning and sipping nectar for breakfast. Ollie was a little jealous. She herself had a headful of messy brown curls and no one would ever mistake her for a flower fairy. But at least, Ollie reminded herself, if Phil Greenblatt steals something from me, I’m big enough to sock him. Phil Greenblatt had stolen Coco’s sparkly notebook. The one Coco had closed when Mr. Easton called on her. Phil was ignoring Coco’s attempts to get it back—he was a foot taller than her. Coco was tiny. He held the notebook easily over Coco’s head, flipped to the page he wanted, and snickered. Coco shrieked with frustration. “Hey, Brian,” called Phil. “Take a look at this.” Coco burst into tears. Brian Battersby was the star of the middle school hockey team even though he was only twelve himself.

He was way shorter than Phil, but looked like he fit together better, instead of sprouting limbs like a praying mantis. He was lounging against the brick wall of the school building, watching Phil and Coco with interest. Ollie started to get mad. No one liked Coco much—she had just moved from the city and her squeaky enthusiasm annoyed everyone. But really, make her cry in school? Brian looked at the notebook Phil held out to him. He shrugged. Ollie thought he looked more embarrassed than anything. Coco started crying harder. Brian definitely looked uncomfortable. “Come on, Phil, it might not be me.” Mike Campbell said, elbowing Brian, “No, it’s totally you.” He eyed the notebook page again. “I guess it could be a dog that looks like you.” “Give it back!” yelled Coco through her tears. She snatched again.

Phil was waving the notebook right over her head, laughing. The sixth grade was laughing too, and now Ollie could see what they were all looking at. It was a picture—a good picture, Coco could really draw—of Brian and Coco’s faces nestled together with a heart around them. Phil sat behind Coco in math class; he must have seen her drawing. Poor dumb Coco —why would you do that if you were sitting in front of nosy Philip Greenblatt? “Come on, Brian,” Mike was saying. “Don’t you want to go out with Hot Cocoa here?” Coco looked like she wanted to run away except that she really wanted her notebook back and Ollie had pretty much had enough of the whole situation, and so she bent down, got a moderate-sized rock, and let it fly. Numbers and throwing things, those were the two talents of Olivia Adler. She’d quit the softball team last year too, but her aim was still on. Her rock caught Brian squarely in the back of the head, dropped him thump onto the grass, and turned everyone’s attention from Coco Zintner to her. Ideally, Ollie would have hit Phil, but Phil was facing her and Ollie didn’t want to put out an eye. Besides, she didn’t have a lot of sympathy for Brian. He knew perfectly well that he was the best at hockey, and half the girls giggled about him, and he wasn’t coming to Coco’s rescue even though he’d more or less gotten her into this with his dumb friends and his dumb charming smile. Ollie crossed her arms, thought in her mom’s voice, Well, in for a penny . , hefted another rock, and said, “Oops. My hand slipped.

” The entire sixth grade was staring. The kids in front started backing away. A lot of them thought she had cracked since last year. “Um, seriously, guys,” she said. “Doesn’t anyone have anything better to do?” Coco Zintner took advantage of Phil’s distraction to snatch her notebook back. She gave Ollie a long look, and darted away. Ollie thought, I’m going to have detention for a year, and then Brian got up, spitting out dirt, and said, “That was a pretty good throw.” The noise began. Ms. Mouton, that day’s lawn monitor, finally noticed the commotion. “Now,” she said, hurrying over. “Now, now.” Ms. Mouton was the librarian and she was not the best lawn monitor. Ollie decided that she wasn’t going to say sorry or anything.

Let them call her dad, let them shake their heads, let them give her detention tomorrow. At least tomorrow the weather would change and she would not be stuck in school on a nice day, answering questions. Ollie jumped onto her bike and raced out of the school yard, wheels spitting gravel, before anyone could tell her to stop. 2 SHE PEDALED HARD past the hay bales in the roundabout on Main Street, turned onto Daisy Lane, and raced past the clapboard houses, where jack-o’-lanterns grinned on every front porch. She aimed her bike to knock down a rotting gray rubber hand groping up out of the earth in the Steiners’ yard, turned again at Johnson Hill, and climbed, panting, up the steep dirt road. No one came after her. Well, why would they, Ollie thought. She was Off School Property. Ollie let her bike coast down the other side of Johnson Hill. It was good to be alone in the warm sunshine. The river ran silver to her right, chattering over rocks. The firecolored trees shook their leaves down around her. It wasn’t hot, exactly—but warm for October. Just cool enough for jeans, but the sun was warm when you tilted your face to it. The swimming hole was Ollie’s favorite place.

Not far from her house, it had a secret spot on a rock half-hidden by a waterfall. That spot was Ollie’s, especially on fall days. After mid-September, she was the only one who went there. People didn’t go to swimming holes once the weather turned chilly. Other than her homework, Ollie was carrying Captain Blood by Rafael Sabatini, a broken-spined paperback that she’d dug out of her dad’s bookshelves. She mostly liked it. Peter Blood outsmarted everyone, which was a feature she liked in heroes, although she wished Peter were a girl, or the villain were a girl, or someone in the book besides his boat and his girlfriend (both named Arabella) were a girl. But at least the book had romance and high-seas adventures and other absolutely not Evansburg things. Ollie liked that. Reading it meant going to a new place where she wasn’t Olivia Adler at all. Ollie braked her bike. The ground by the road was carpeted with scarlet leaves; sugar maples start losing their leaves before other trees. Ollie kept a running list in her head of sugar maples in Evansburg that didn’t belong to anyone. When the sap ran, she and her mom would— Nope. No, they wouldn’t.

They could buy maple syrup. The road that ran beside the swimming hole looked like any other stretch of road. A person just driving by wouldn’t know the swimming hole was there. But, if you knew just where to look, you’d see a skinny dirt trail that went from the road to the water. Ollie walked her bike down the trail. The trees seemed to close in around her. Above was a white-railed bridge. Below, the creek paused in its trip down the mountain. It spread out, grew deep and quiet enough for swimming. There was a cliff for jumping and plenty of hiding places for one girl and her book. Ollie hurried. She was eager to go and read by the water and be alone. The trees ended suddenly, and Ollie was standing on the bank of a cheerful brown swimming hole. But, to her surprise, someone was already there. A slender woman, wearing jeans and flannel, stood at the edge of the water.

The woman was sobbing. Maybe Ollie’s foot scuffed a rock, because the woman jumped and whirled around. Ollie gulped. The woman was pretty, with amber-honey hair. But she had circles under her eyes like purple thumbprints. Streaks of mascara had run down her face, like she’d been crying for a while. “Hello,” the woman said, trying to smile. “You surprised me.” Her white-knuckled hands gripped a small, dark thing. “I didn’t mean to scare you,” Ollie said cautiously. Why are you crying? she wanted to ask. But it seemed impolite to ask that question of a grown-up, even if her face was streaked with the runoff from her tears. The woman didn’t reply; she darted a glance to the rocky path by the creek, then back to the water. Like she was looking out for something. Or someone.

Ollie felt a chill creep down her spine. She said, “Are you okay?” “Of course.” The woman tried to smile again. Fail. The wind rustled the leaves. Ollie glanced behind her. Nothing. “I’m fine,” said the woman. She turned the dark thing over in her hands. Then she said, in a rush, “I just have to get rid of this. Put it in the water. And then—” The woman broke off. Then? What then? The woman held the thing out over the water. Ollie saw that it was a small black book, the size of her spread-out hand. Her reaction was pure reflex.

“You can’t throw away a book!” Ollie let go of her bike and jumped forward. Part of her wondered, Why would you come here to throw a book in the creek? You can donate a book. There were donation boxes all over Evansburg. “I have to!” snapped the woman, bringing Ollie up short. The woman went on, half to herself, “That’s the bargain. Make the arrangements. Then give the book to the water.” She gave Ollie a pleading look. “I don’t have a choice, you see.” Ollie tried to drag the conversation out of crazy town. “You can donate a book if you don’t want it,” she said firmly. “Or—or give it to someone. Don’t just throw it in the creek.” “I have to,” said the woman again. “Have to drop a book in the creek?” “Before tomorrow,” said the woman.

Almost to herself, she whispered, “Tomorrow’s the day.” Ollie was nearly within arm’s reach now. The woman smelled sour—frightened. Ollie, completely bewildered, decided to ignore the stranger elements of the conversation. Later, she would wish she hadn’t. “If you don’t want that book, I’ll take it,” said Ollie. “I like books.” The woman shook her head. “He said water. Upstream. Where Lethe Creek runs out of the mountain. I’m here. I’m doing it!” She shrieked the last sentence as though someone besides Ollie were listening. Ollie had to stop herself from looking behind her again.



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Updated: 13 October 2021 — 13:20

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