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  • Hillora Lang

Quetzal

Another from my collection of short stories produced for family and friends.


QUETZAL

Kari? Kari, where are you?” Aunt Muriel’s clipped voice floated up through the attic floorboards. “Kari, I know you’re here. The school called me at work again. You’d better get down here now!”


Thirteen-year-old Kari Mireya scrambled down the folding attic stairs into her third-floor bedroom, flung open the door, and took the remaining stairs two at a time. “I’m here,” she groused at her aunt’s back. Muriel was peering up the narrow back stairs from the kitchen, but Kari had come down from the front of the house. That was about the only good thing about the remodeled Colonial farmhouse—the many ways to get around the house made it possible for Kari to avoid her aunt much of the time. It was almost like her life before, when she had the freedom to come and go when and where she wanted to, without having to meet the standards of some ruthless dictator arbitrarily given control of her life. “What do you want?”


Muriel spun around, her face flushed beneath the perfectly applied makeup. If she’d known that raising her sister’s daughter was going to be this hard—


“You cut school again,” she spat. “Do you know how much trouble you’re causing me? I had to reschedule two appointments this morning, with very important clients. Besides which you’re making me look like an incompetent—”


“Sorry.” Her niece didn’t look sorry, standing there sullenly in that ridiculous Indian sari. All of the money she’d spent trying to bring the child into the twenty-first century—the American twenty-first century—and she insisted on wearing all of that ethnic clothing her parents had bought in third-world bazaars and filthy marketplaces. No wonder she couldn’t fit in with her new classmates.


“What am I supposed to do?” Muriel demanded. “I never wanted to have a child; that’s why I never got married!” Maybe she should have let the father’s parents take the girl. “I’m doing my best. Why can’t you just try a little harder?”


Kari’s eyes brimmed with unshed tears. “I hate it here! You don’t know anything about me, and you don’t care that those girls all hate me!”


Muriel flashed back to the day before, picking Kari up after school and listening to the girl’s woes. A trio of the popular girls had totally slashed her for wearing a turquoise silk cheongsam topped off with her mother’s Pashmina shawl. Whenever Kari needed to feel her late mother’s presence—when she was feeling really sad or lonely or lost—she would wrap herself in some precious piece of her mom’s Bohemian clothing. At the school in Qatar where the foreign kids went, Kari told her aunt, her friends loved to wear ethnic clothing, signaling their international camaraderie.


Kari just didn’t understand that here, in America, appearance was everything.


In Scarsdale, any teen who didn’t dress like Kim Kardashian or Nicki Minaj was ostracized, if not bullied.


“Well, maybe they wouldn’t make fun of you if you tried a little harder to fit in,” Muriel said. “I bought you a whole new wardrobe just so that you wouldn’t look so…”


“So what? Strange? Weird?” Tears spilled down Kari’s reddened cheeks. “Just because I don’t want to look like a cheerleader or a slut? There’s a lot more to life than looking like everyone else!”


She threw an accusing look at her aunt’s work attire, a perfectly tailored business suit, silk blouse, and two-hundred-dollar heels, and stomped up the back stairs to her sanctuary. At least there, in the attic among the boxes of her mother’s possessions, she could pretend that her life hadn’t changed so irreversibly. She could still feel the love and acceptance her parents had given her throughout her life. She buried her face in the quilt her mother had sewn from Tahitian batik fabrics and cried wrenching tears.


Downstairs, Muriel wandered into the exquisitely decorated sitting room and sank down on the pristine loveseat, pulling a throw pillow onto her lap and wrapping her arms around it. Why did I resent you so much? she asked her absent baby sister. As the older sister, she had grown up serious and responsible, unlike Kari’s mother. Alisa had followed Muriel into Sycamore Hill, the private New England girls’ school. But where Muriel majored in math, and went on to Harvard Business School, Alisa had majored in art, and left New England for Kentucky to study folk crafts. There she’d met her future husband Duncan, an archaeologist working on a Native American dig, eloping and running off around the world to grub in the dirt and collect ethnic crap. Muriel had worked her way up in a Fortune 500 company before leaving to start her own management consultation firm. She devoted her life to her business, believing financial security—not husband and family—was the route to happiness.


And here she was trying to provide a decent upbringing for a damaged thirteen-year-old she barely knew.


“I always thought I was the smart one,” Muriel said to her absent sister. “But maybe you had it right, after all. You flew off into the world like—” her gaze fell on a framed photograph of her sister in a Moroccan courtyard, perched on the edge of a splashing fountain cradling her infant daughter on her lap. She thought of Alisa’s favorite bird, the quetzal, a rare Amazonian species boasting flowing tail feathers of emerald, turquoise, and scarlet, brilliant and exquisite in a National Geographic sort of way.


“You were a quetzal, rare and wonderful,” she told her sister’s ghost. “And Kari is just like you.”


*


Muriel looked in on Kari before she drove back to her office, but the girl had cried herself to sleep, the embroidered pink sari crumpled around her on the attic floor. She felt a brief flash of anger at Kari’s untidiness; obviously her niece had never learned the value of nice things. The girl spent more time in the dusty attic among the packing boxes than in her bedroom. Muriel might as well have saved her money and left the room as it was before she’d learned that Alisa and Duncan had named her guardian of their daughter in their wills, but she’d thought the girl should have a typical teenager’s room, and hired the best design firm in Scarsdale to redecorate it. What a waste.


It was past lunchtime, but if she drove fast she could still make it back to the office in time for her three o’clock. She headed down Marston toward Route 9, past the new mall. Creeping along in traffic through a stack of traffic lights, she checked messages on her phone, her eyes drifting between the cars ahead of her and the white marble and glass expanse of the mall. Groups of teenagers clustered outside the entrances, girls wearing skin-tight shorts and skimpy tops. One group after another passed by, and she realized she couldn’t tell one girl from the next.


They all looked the same, interchangeable and uniform in their style and attitudes.


Muriel turned the wheel suddenly, shot across three lanes and hung a U-turn at the next light.


*


“Where are we going?”


Muriel hustled her niece along the walkway leading to the American Airlines counter, checking available flights on her phone. There were seats to Rome, Brussels, Moscow, Malta. Too ordinary, she thought, for this first journey with her niece. Patting her overnight bag, she reassured herself that both their passports were tucked into the outside pocket. The lack of luggage might be a tad difficult to explain to the TSA officials, but she knew she could talk their way through security. Surely, they could understand an aunt and her niece wanting to get away for a little while. They would just buy what they needed when they got where they were going.


Wherever that was.


“Aunt Muriel,” Kari tried to get her attention. “Aunt Muriel!”


“What?” she asked absently. “Oh, yes—now I think we’re getting somewhere.”


“Where are we getting? I mean, where are we going?”

Muriel looked up at the flight board above the check-in counter. There…that could be just what they needed. And if not, they’d try somewhere else. What did it matter where they went, after all, as long as it was not Scarsdale?


Maybe it was time to find out how she looked in a sari.


“Kari,” she said, “have you ever been to Sri Lanka?”

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©2020 by Hillora Lang