A few months ago I was lucky enough to meet one of my very very very favorite writers at a book signing they were having down at the mall. I brought over a dozen books for her to autograph and since it took a while and there wasn’t much of a line we started talking a little. I told her that I wanted to be a writer someday and asked if she had any advice for me. And she gave me a quick once-over and said, "The first million words you write will be rubbish."
I guess my discouragement must have shown because she was quick to add, "Don’t get me wrong. The first million words anyone writes are always rubbish. This leaves you with three choices. You can give up now, and forget about being a writer. You can spend the rest of your life dreaming up stories, starting them, seeing that they’re no good, junking them, and telling yourself that one day you’ll wake up suddenly able to do them justice. Or you can go home, sit down, grab a pen, and get that million over with!"
I thanked her and gathered up all the books I’d brought and let the next person get his book signed. But as I left, she called out to me again. "One more thing," she said. "You have to try. No fair writing ‘dog dog dog dog dog’ a million times and expecting that to help. You have to give it your best effort and pour your heart and soul and sweat into it. And then when you’re done you have to sit back and tell yourself that no matter how proud of yourself you are for honestly doing your best, it’s still rubbish."
So when I got home the first thing I did was take out a marker and write "Write a Million Words" on a piece of paper and stick it up on my bulletin board, right next to "No Stories About a Misunderstood Young Person Who Wants to Be a Writer" and "The Protagonist May Not Commit Suicide." And since then I’ve tried to write stories. And they’ve been pretty bad. But just a few days ago I had an idea. I was sitting around watching some of our old home movies — I’m the only one who ever watches them, and I watch them a lot — and it suddenly hit me: you know, the camera work is really bad, and the editing is even worse, and there’s the whole Christmas tape where all you get is sound because August forgot to take off the lens cap, but darn it, I like them anyway. For reasons that have nothing to do with quality. And that was when I realized: why can’t I do the same thing? Why not write a bunch of stories about my family? They won’t be any good, but I’ll enjoy them anyway, and it’ll help me whittle down my million words.
Then it was just a matter of figuring out which story to tell first. And that was where things got sticky. Because after thinking about it for a few days I finally decided that most of the family stories just wouldn’t work. Too many of them are kind of... well... pointless, when you get right down to it. Just Julie being Julie, or Jan being Jan. Which is all good fun when you’ve lived with these people all your life, but probably isn’t very interesting to anyone outside the family. Probably? Definitely. I’d actually told most of these stories to my friends and they’d usually just go, "Umm... yeah, okay, thanks for sharing." The only story that I could remember always got a reaction out of people was—
Why, this one, of course.
This one’s from not so long ago, just last Christmastime. I’m actually not in this one at all, really — I heard it from Julie, mostly. But not even Julie is much more than a supporting player. No, this story is entirely December’s. Which is what makes it so different, I guess.
See, December has always been more than a little... different. And you knew it the second you saw her with any of the rest of us. Like when we’d go out to restaurants. There we’d be at our table: Mom at one end, Dad at the other, and in the middle, eleven noisy little kids with honey-colored hair — and one silent one with hair black as night. No, not black as night. See? Rubbish. That cliché’s only been around for a few thousand years, huh? No, actually, her hair was bright black, like a television screen between commercials: it’s on, and it’s bright, but it’s still black. No one’s really sure where it came from — the Youngs have had honey-colored hair for generations. Mom’s side of the family too. When December was really little, Mom actually used to bleach her hair so she wouldn’t feel like she didn’t fit in, but then one day she colored it black again with a magic marker and so Mom finally got the hint. Lately she hasn’t been cutting it, either — it’s almost down to her waist and she’s always having to brush it out of her face. Which is just how she likes it.
And that brings us to the next item on our endless list of December’s idiosyncracies. Not only did she like her hair really really long, but she liked her dresses that way too. And skirts. And nightgowns. Not pants — I don’t think she’s ever even owned a pair of pants. In fact, now that I think about it, I specifically remember that when she got old enough to fit into some of my old jeans she refused to wear them. But then that probably had less to do with the fact that they were pants and more to do with the fact that she was third in line to get them. As I’ve grown older I’ve left a trail of denim in my wake.
But back to the point: December’s hemlines. We’re not talking knee-length, or calf-length, or even ankle-length here. We’re talking skirts and dresses so long that she swept the floor around her as she walked. Sometimes she could stand on a chair and these things would still reach the ground. The hems were always frayed and tattered two weeks after she got them. Now that she has to help pay for her own clothes out of her allowance she’s gotten a little better about this, but to this day I don’t think anyone’s ever seen her feet. Mom and Dad buy her shoes, but whether she actually wears them or not you just kind of have to take on faith.
And then of course you’ve got the nightgowns. Unlike her normal clothes, which were (and still are) usually black, her nightgowns have always been white. But maybe "nightgown" isn’t really the best word. Because she always put them on the second she got home from school, and wore them all day on weekends. Which I guess would be okay, but carrying around a lit candle all the time was a bit much. Four in the afternoon on a bright summer day, December’s skulking around the house in a nightgown, the hem trailing four feet after her, carrying around a candle in an elaborate candleholder like it was a blackout in the middle of the night, or as if it were the 18th century. We finally got her to give up the candles by — that’s right — making her pay for them out of her allowance, but at the time of this story she was still going through them like a chain smoker goes through cigarettes. She even lit the wick of each new one with the dying stub of the old one.
Which isn’t to say that she had some kind of philosophical objection to electric light or anything. Actually, when she was six she’d gone up to the attic and stolen a string of Christmas lights for her own personal use: she kept them up in her half of the bedroom window, blinking red yellow blue and green day and night for eleven months out of the year and driving Julie absolutely crazy. For a few weeks I got to hear the same argument every night through the wall: "I can’t sleep with those things lit up all night! It’s not even Christmas! Why are you so weird?" But Mom and Dad wouldn’t do anything about it, and eventually Julie got used to it.
Which is something else I probably ought to mention: why December got away with all this stuff. I mean, if I’d tried it, or May, or any one of us except her, we’d’ve just been sent to our rooms until we snapped out of it. But once again, December was different. See, she wasn’t supposed to be a December. She was supposed to be a February. Maybe even a March. But she was born way premature and didn’t come home from the hospital for weeks and weeks. She was hooked up to an incubator and had machines doing her breathing for her and for a while there it was really an open question of whether she’d make it or not. Actually, if she’d been born even just a few years earlier she probably wouldn’t have. The technology wasn’t there yet. But even once there was no longer any question that she’d make it, even once she was a kid like the rest of us and there was no way to tell her life had ever been in danger, Mom and Dad always treated her like she’d break if anyone even touched her. And that attitude was probably reinforced by the gowns and the candles and everything. It was like she hadn’t actually died, but had decided to haunt us all anyway.
But once again, I’m getting off track. Back to the Christmas lights. Remember how I said that she kept them up eleven months out of the year? Well, you can probably guess which month she took them down. That’s right — December. December 1st, every year, just as we put up all our lights, she took down hers. We were pretty big on Christmas lights, and always outlined each edge of the house and all the windows. Dad and August would put them up in the afternoon, and then that night we’d all go out and ooh and ahh — except for December; and there would be our house, all lit up, except for half a window — December’s.
Now that I think about it, December always hated Christmas. Most of us figured that it was just because with her birthday on December 25th she usually got a "combination present" that was never any better than what any of us got — and then we got separate birthdays, too. She didn’t even get a cake — after all, what were we supposed to put on it? "Happy Birthday, December — and JESUS"? It was kind of hard to compete. But she never admitted that that was the reason. No, she threw all kinds of reasons at us, and one of them almost got Mom and Dad to give up Christmas for good: "Christ said to commemorate the day of His death," she said, "not of His birth or of His resurrection. So we shouldn’t celebrate Christmas or Easter, just Good Friday." Mom and Dad are more than a little religious, so they were about to cancel the whole thing. But then May argued that Jesus never said not to celebrate his birthday, so Christmas was back on again. And then December complained that December 25th wasn’t really Jesus’s birthday anyway, and that it was all a pagan ritual co-opted by Christianity to pacify the heathen Europeans so that they’d convert, and on and on and on, but no one listened to her and eventually she just skulked back up to her room.
So the story begins with December taking her Christmas lights down. For whatever reason, all the kids in our neighborhood somehow got all offended about it. We live at the end of a stumpy little cul-de-sac in Yorba Linda and there are only five other houses on our street, but kids from all over the development play on our street and they’re all just jerks. There’s Neil and Ryan Campbell and Ian Short and Andy Bourne and Erin Jester and Christi Anviola and that Sanjeev kid from two streets down and little Dickie Etter — he calls himself Rick now but he’s lived on our street since he was a baby and to us he’ll always be little Dickie. There were some others, too. Most of them were in December’s class — she was in sixth grade — and naturally because she was different they picked on her. And of course she couldn’t run away because of the cello and so—
Oh, wait. I haven’t even told you about the cello yet!
Around the time of her baptism December had shown some interest in music and so Mom and Dad asked if she might be interested in learning an instrument and she said that she wanted to learn the cello. So Mom and Dad scraped up some money and bought her a pretty decent used cello (it was in pretty good shape except for a little heart that someone had carved into the back of it with a penknife or something) and signed her up for some lessons — the whole setup cost well over a thousand dollars. (When I got baptized all I got was a couple of sweaters and a set of scriptures. Gee, a Doctrine and Covenants of my very own. Sheesh. Some people have all the luck. Oh, well. Who knows... my sixteenth birthday is coming up, maybe they’ll get me a car. And as long as I’m dreaming, a vacation home in Paris might be nice too.) Anyway, the lessons got pretty expensive after a few months and since the school had a perfectly good music program they cancelled the lessons. After all, it was pretty clear that December wasn’t going to be any kind of musical prodigy and she didn’t really need private instruction. But she refused to take music at the school. "I don’t want to play with other kids," she said. "I hate orchestra music. I only like cello music." But Mom and Dad didn’t have enough money to throw away on private lessons anymore and so December said she’d just teach herself how to play. And so she practiced. And practiced. And practiced. But she never got any better. All she could ever do was scales, and little snatches of melodies that she’d make up, and that was about it. Then came the big mistake. See, the rest of us got really tired of hearing the same scales over and over and over again while we were trying to do our homework and stuff — I mean, she’d sit down and play the same eight notes over and over again for three hours! — and so we complained. And Mom and Dad told her that she could either take the music class at school and learn how to play properly or they’d take her cello away. And that was the big mistake. Because from that day on December refused to leave the house without her cello for fear it’d be gone when she got back. Every morning as I got ready for school I’d hear her packing up her cello into its case, and every afternoon as my bus passed her school I’d see her lugging the big black cello case along with her as she came home. It was practically bigger than she was and she could barely walk with it but she refused to leave it home. They even sent her to the school psychologist and had him meet with Mom and Dad to discuss the problem. He theorized that the cello was a phallic symbol and that December suffered from an acute case of penis envy. Mom and Dad got offended and walked out and from then on almost encouraged her to keep bringing the cello to school just to annoy the psychologist.
Anyway, so the kids in the neighborhood would gang up on her as she walked home and shove her around and call her names and ask, "How come you’re so weird? What’s wrong with you?" And they’d obsess about whatever it was that’d set them off that particular week. Like a few weeks before the bit with the Christmas lights they’d demanded that she smile for them. Now, December never smiled, period, let alone for them. So they shoved her and pinched her and knocked her around a little bit and told her to "Smile! Smile, dammit! Smile and we’ll let you go. Come on!" And she refused to give in, just tried to protect her cello and make sure no one took it. This went on for a couple of weeks and then they gave up and found someone else to pick on and left her alone for a while. But then she took down her Christmas lights.
Why this bugged the neighborhood kids so much I have no idea. They’d actually beaten her up a couple of times for putting them up in the first place ("It’s not even Christmas, you freak!") so you’d think they’d be glad. But then the day after we put up the lights she was walking home from school and they surrounded her and stood on the edge of her dress so she couldn’t leave. As usual, Ryan Campbell did most of the talking. "What, don’t you want to go home?" he asked.
"You’re standing on my dress," she said.
"So why don’t you get one that’s not so big so I can’t stand on it?" he countered.
"Because I have better things to do than plan my life around the actions of morons," she said.
Usually they would’ve gone straight to the roughing-up but this time they seemed to have an agenda. "Why’d you take your lights down, huh?" Ryan asked.
"Yeah," Ian Short said. "How come your window’s the only part of your house not lit up, huh?"
"Yeah," said Dickie Etter.
December brushed her hair out of her eyes. "Because," she said, "in December everyone knows that you’re supposed to be kind to each other. My job is to remind people the other eleven months of the year."
"You’re pretty stuck up, aren’t you?" Ryan asked.
"How come you’re so stuck up?" Erin Jester asked.
"Yeah," said Dickie Etter.
"Well," she said, "look at me, and then look at yourself, and take a guess."
"Shut up," Ryan said. He shoved her in the chest. (Don’t get the wrong idea — he was just eleven, and December wasn’t even eleven yet, not till the 25th. So it was a purely platonic shove.) "Freak," he added.
December realized that the beating was about to begin, so she grabbed her cello. Actually, I probably shouldn’t call it a "beating." They never really beat on her — if they’d marked her up too badly Mom and Dad could’ve taken her to their parents and gotten them in trouble. So they didn’t hit her. They just shoved her and pinched her and slapped her and pulled her hair and knocked her to the ground a few times. Then they got bored. They always got bored after a few minutes — she didn’t fight back, just held onto her cello and waited for them to stop. You know, now that I think about it, the cello was probably a pretty good shield. Maybe that’s why she brought it everywhere. But no, that can’t be it. I mean, if all she wanted was a shield there are easier ones to carry than cellos.
Anyway, the neighborhood kids went a little overboard this time — they ripped her dress. Erin was the one who noticed, and they got scared and ran away. And then December calmly got up and picked up her cello and came home.
Mom kind of freaked when she saw December’s dress — remember, she still thought that if someone pushed December to the ground she’d shatter into a million pieces. December hated it when Mom made a big deal about her getting beaten up, so she tried to sneak back to her room and change into her nightgown before Mom could spot her. But once again, it’s kind of hard to sneak up to your room and lug a huge black cello case upstairs at the same time.
"Julie!" Mom yelled. "July Young, you get down here this minute."
Julie came about halfway down the stairs and looked out over the railing. You could see the whole living room from there and whenever we got called we usually didn’t make it to the end of the stairs. "What?" she said.
"Look at your sister," Mom said.
"Which one?" Julie asked. "I’ve got lots."
"Don’t be smart with me, young lady," Mom said. "Look at December. She’s been attacked by those hoodlums again."
"So what do you want me to do about it?" she asked.
"Stop them!" Mom said.
I probably ought to mention at this point that one of Julie’s unofficial duties for a few years had been to make sure none of the younger kids were picked on at school. She was one of the two big jocks in the family: she was captain of her soccer team and her basketball team had won the NJB playoffs the year before. She was also, at age twelve, five-six-and-a-half and still growing fast; April and I were lucky enough to be the first kids in our family to face the prospect of "hand-me-ups" when Julie grew out of her old things. But even though they fit heightwise, they were kind of a tight squeeze in other places, if you get my drift; nevertheless, Mom made sure to pack them away in the attic just in case October (age four) turned out to be tall when she grew up. Don’t laugh — she’d packed away August’s old clothes in the attic and then dug them out ten years later to dress some of the younger kids. With twelve kids, you don’t throw away clothes.
Anyway, for years Julie had been in charge of making sure December didn’t get picked on; usually all she had to do was walk up to whoever was bothering her and look down at them and say, "You can leave now. Or you can liven up my afternoon." But now she was in middle school, so December had to fend for herself. Besides, toward the end of the last school year Julie had grown really tired of having to defend December every five minutes, especially because December never thanked her or anything. "Mom," she said, "what do you want me to do? Walk all the way across town to escort her home? If you want," she added, looking at December, "I can teach you how to fight."
"I don’t want to learn how to fight," December said.
"Fine," Mom said. "Julie, go get your brother."
"Which one?" she said. "I’ve got lots."
"I said don’t be smart with me, young lady," Mom said.
"No, I’m serious," Julie said. "Which one?"
"March," Mom said.
So Julie went upstairs. She came back a second later. "He’s outside," she said. She went outside.
Now March was the other big jock in the family; he was in fourth grade, and was in not one, not two, but five sports after school: baseball, soccer, football, street hockey, and basketball, and each one overlapped the next one so that he’d be in the playoffs for one sport just as training camp started for the next one. The only problem was that he was just nine and no matter how athletic he was he probably wouldn’t match up against sixth graders the same way Julie would.
Mom let December go upstairs to change into her nightgown and put her cello away. But then she didn’t come back, and for that matter, neither did Julie and March. So Mom went outside to see what was keeping them. She found them out on the driveway shooting baskets.
"I thought I told you two to get in here," she said.
"Aw, Mom," Julie said. "It’ll just be a minute. He’ll never get any good without learning to break through a defense and—"
"You heard me," Mom said. "Inside."
So they went in and then Mom called December downstairs. She came sweeping down the stairs in a long white nightgown, candle in hand. "Now, March," Mom said, "your sister has—"
"It’s Mark, Mom," March said. "I want people to start calling me Mark."
A quick aside about the names: no, my parents weren’t hippies. The calendar thing happened sort of by accident. My older sister May was named after my dad’s grandmother and the fact that she happened to be born in May was just a coincidence. But then since whenever they had another kid my parents could never agree on a name they decided that they might as well keep raiding the calendar. After a few more kids they actually started planning ahead so they wouldn’t have to repeat a month. And you wonder where December gets the weird genes.
Anyway, some of us lucked out and some of us didn’t. Like May and April — heck, when April was in kindergarten there were two other Aprils in her class. But then there were others of us who jumped for the nearest "normal" name, like Julie and Jan and even Toby (though I’ve never liked that name.) And March had been trying to get people to call him Mark for years without much success. Me, I always liked my name, though August has a new nickname for me every week. This week it’s "Tem-tress," which is better than "Temberine" (last week’s model) and a heck of a lot better than "Tempura," which stuck around way longer than I would’ve liked. As for December, well, she wouldn’t even answer you unless you pronounced every syllable clearly and distinctly.
"Okay," Mom said, "Mark. Your sister was assaulted again by those ruffians in her class. Now that your sister is in middle school—"
"December isn’t in middle school," March said.
"I’m talking about July," Mom said.
"It’s Julie," Julie said.
"Enough!" Mom said. "Now that Julie is in middle school, it’s going to be your job to make sure that December doesn’t get hurt."
"Why don’t you just call the principal?" March asked.
"We tried that last year," she said. "He can’t do anything unless it happens on school grounds. So I want you to walk home from school with her and chase away any troublemakers that come near."
"But Mom," March said, "do I have to walk with her? It takes her forever with that stupid cello!"
"Then you carry the cello," Mom said.
"No," December said. "It’s my cello."
"Don’t argue," Mom said. "Just make sure she doesn’t get hurt."
So the next day after school March walked with December as she lugged her cello home. "Why do you even bring that thing?" he asked. "You don’t even know how to play it."
"That’s because none of you will let me practice," she said.
"But even when you practice you— ow!" March looked around. "What was that?"
December sighed and sat down on the curb, her cello on her lap. And then suddenly, from every direction: crabapples. Whole handfuls of them, raining out of the sky. "Ow!" March yelled. And he wasn’t even the one they were aiming at. By far the hardest and the hardest-thrown crabapples were being hurled right at December’s head, and most of them were hitting right on target. "That’s it," March said. He took off in a random direction and found Neil Campbell hiding behind a bush and started beating him up. But from every other direction the crabapples kept coming, until Neil started crying and the others came to chase March away.
"Let’s get out of here," March said. December silently nodded and got up and started back on the trip home like nothing had happened.
By that night December had two shiny purple bruises on her forehead and no one was madder about it than March. "Why didn’t you duck?" he asked. "Or run away? Do you want to get hurt?"
"No," she said. "But I want them to stop hurting me because they want to stop hurting me."
"So fight back," he said. "That way they won’t want to pick on you."
"That’s not the point," she said. "Then they’d still want to hurt me, they’d just be afraid to. I want them to stop even if I’m totally defenseless just because they don’t want to hurt me. Or anyone."
"You’re weird," March said.
The next day it was acorns, and then when they ran out of acorns, then came a flurry of walnuts. This time it was Andy Bourne that March found hiding behind a car in someone’s driveway, and he gave him a bloody nose before the rest of them stopped throwing walnuts and came to his rescue. Sort of. They didn’t really help him at first, they just watched his nose bleed. As March and December walked away they heard Christi Anviola say, "Cool! It’s all red and stuff." March started laughing and even December looked over her shoulder. She didn’t laugh, but then obviously since she never smiled, she never laughed either.
Later that night Dad got a phone call and when it was over he called March and had a meeting in Julie and December’s room with the three of them. "Does anyone care to tell me what exactly is going on?" he asked. "March, did you give Andy Bourne a bloody nose today?"
"Yeah," he said. "But he was throwing walnuts! And it’s Mark n—"
"And what did you do to make him throw walnuts at you?" Dad asked.
"He wasn’t throwing them at me," March said. "He was throwing them at December."
"I dunno," he said. "Because she’s weird."
"Because I took down my Christmas lights," December said.
"You know," Julie interrupted, "if they’re throwing stuff there’s really nothing you can do but—"
"Quiet," Dad said. "Now look, March, I appreciate that you’re just trying to protect your sister, but I’m not going to have my kids sink to their level. So no more fighting. Got it?"
"Yes, sir," March said.
"Didn’t the Campbells call?" December asked. "He beat up Neil before he beat up Andy."
"Gee, thanks a lot," March said.
"He did?" Dad said. "March, I want you to get on that phone and apologize."
So March called up the Campbells. "Hi, is Neil there?" he said. "Oh. Well, this is Mark Young. Um, I just wanted to tell him I’m sorry I beat him up. Okay?" He put his hand over the receiver. "Dad, Mr. Campbell wants to talk to you."
Dad took the phone. "John Young," he said. "Yes. So why didn’t you—? Oh. I see. Well, good-bye." He hung up.
"What’d he say?" Julie asked.
"He said the reason he hadn’t called was because even though he wasn’t thrilled about his boys getting beaten up, he figured having them get beaten up by my son was an improvement over having them get beaten up by my daughter." Even Dad had to crack a smile at that one.
"Huh," Julie said. "I ought to beat them up just for being sexist."
"That’s enough," he said. "I don’t want anyone beating anyone else up. Julie, tomorrow I want you to meet your sister at the elementary school and walk her home and if anyone tries to harass her I want you to talk to them."
"Why me?" she asked.
"Because they respect you," he said. "And December — put out the candle, will you please?"
The next day when December came home the first thing she did was wash the egg stains off her cello case. Then she went to change into her nightgown but Mom called her and she had to come downstairs.
"What happened this time?" Mom asked.
"They threw eggs," December said. Her dress was ruined, too. There were big ugly yellow smears all over it.
Julie was sprawled out on the couch reading the comics in the paper. "I tried to talk to them," she said. "They were being pretty reasonable but December wouldn’t meet them halfway."
"What do you mean?" Mom asked.
"Well," Julie said, "they said they wouldn’t do anything to her as long as she put her Christmas lights back up. And she said no. And then they said they’d leave her alone as long as she smiled, just once. But she wouldn’t do that either. So they threw the eggs. And she just stood there, like she wanted to get hit. It was only when they hit her stupid cello that she tried to leave."
"And I take it you just stood there and did nothing," Mom said.
"What, are you kidding?" Julie said. "I decked them. Two of them, anyway. The rest ran away."
"Oh, dear," Mom said.
"Look, Mom," Julie said, "I really think you should look into getting her some professional help, you know? I mean, there’s quirky and then there’s disturbed and I think December’s on the wrong side of—"
"Hush, Julie," Mom said. "Don’t talk about your sister that way." She turned to December, who was just standing there in silence. "December, go change," she said.
"I’m not going to change," December said. "Not for them, not for—"
"I meant your clothes," Mom said.
"Oh," she said. She went upstairs.
The next day was Saturday so no one had a chance to pick on December. To make up for it, they toilet papered our house. I woke up and opened the curtains (and April threw a pillow at me, like getting up at a reasonable hour was a federal offense or something) and there draped all over the house and the trees in the front yards was just roll after roll of toilet paper. And someone had drawn (with crayons — clearly Dickie Etter’s handiwork) a picture of a broken cello and taped it to the door. Not a great way to start the weekend.
So after breakfast we all went out to clean up the mess, but December wouldn’t let us. "They did it because of me," she said, "so it’s my responsibility." And with just one person it took all morning to gather it all up. Plus she ruined another nightgown because it was so long that when she finally came in the bottom two feet of material was just a solid grass stain all the way around. Meanwhile, Dad was on the phone. We all thought he was talking to the parents of the neighborhood kids but the next day we found out it was something else altogether.
It wasn’t long after we had come back from church. The doorbell rang and as usual about eight different pairs of feet went running to see who it was. Me, I’m much more mature than that. I just looked over the railing. It was the visiting teacher, which was weird because she usually didn’t come till the end of the month. Then my dad came to the door and had all the little kids scram and invited her in, and then: "December! Will you come down here please?"
While they waited for December I heard a little snippet of conversation: "Sorry to have made you come all this way," Dad said, "but she doesn’t go anywhere without her cello and I thought it’d be easier to—"
"I understand completely," the visiting teacher said. "We all have our crosses to bear." Then December came downstairs and they went off to the den to talk.
The visiting teacher left about an hour later. Dad asked what she suggested. "Well," she said, "first of all, let me say that December is a delightful child, and very bright. And I certainly have to approve of her choice of a role model. But she is a child. There are certain theological issues that she simply can’t grasp yet. I suggest you have December organize tomorrow’s family home evening. She might very well simply come out and explain what’s troubling her."
So that night at dinner Dad went over to the kids’ table — the standing rule at our house was that everyone twelve and under had to eat in the kitchen when we had company over, and we always had company over on Sunday nights — and announced that December would be giving the lesson at tomorrow’s family home evening. They all seemed pretty enthusiastic about it. (Probably because the last time someone from the kids’ table had been assigned to give the lesson, March had us all watch the Lakers game on TV and then asked, "Well, what have we learned?") The only one who didn’t seem too excited was December, who just nodded solemnly and kept on eating.
And speaking of food: the next day on the way home from school she got pelted with squishy, overripe peaches fresh from Sanjeev’s house. Julie and March were with her again, but their patience was starting to wear thin. "Do we have to walk her home every day?" they asked. "I’m sick of going a mile and a half out of my way every day," Julie said. "I’ve got hockey practice after school," March said. "Besides," they added, "a few peaches never hurt anyone."
"Fair enough," Dad said. "Now go get ready for December’s lesson."
So that evening we all piled into the living room to see what December had put together. As always, the first order of business was to get April to take off her headphones so she’d actually be listening and not just rocking out with her Walkman. Then Mom and Dad led the song and the prayer and then December turned out the lights and lit up a whole bunch of candles — it was pretty eerie. And then of course she had the candle that she always carried around with her lighting up her face. She looked really spooky.
"I want to start with a few questions," she said. "Who wants to go first?"
A bunch of the little kids raised their hands but she called on April instead, catching her in mid-yawn. "Okay, April," she said, "I have a question. Would you rip the wings off a butterfly for ten bucks?"
Mom started to say something but Dad stopped her. "No," April said. "Of course not."
"Okay," December said. "How about for a hundred?"
"A hundred?" she said. "Umm... sure, I guess. But like, who’d give you money to—"
"How about fifty?"
"I don’t know about fifty—"
"I guess, but—"
"How about sixty-two fifty?" December asked. "Let’s find out exactly what your price is."
"Hey, what are you saying?" April asked. "Are you calling me a—"
"Why don’t you move to another question?" Dad suggested.
"Okay," December said. "This one’s for March. Now, let’s say that you woke up tomorrow and found that a bunch of aliens had taken over the planet."
"Cool," March said.
"And the aliens announce that they’re here to suck all the resources out of the planet and kill half the people and enslave the rest," she continued. "But then they offer you a deal."
"Me personally?" he asked.
"Yeah," she said. "They say that if you let them cut you apart and study you then they’ll leave everyone alone and fly away. And they do it in the most painful way possible, they have some kind of technology that lets them cut you up without killing you so you feel every single piece being sliced off, feel every nerve of your body scream as the cold steel bites into your flesh and—"
"December!" Mom said.
December looked over at Mom. "Sorry," she said. "Well, anyway, and then at the end they put you back together and send you back down to earth and fly away and you’re the world’s biggest hero and they name countries after you and everywhere you go they have statues of you. Would you do it?"
March thought for a minute. "To save everyone in the world?" he finally said. "Yeah, okay, I would."
"All right," December said. "Now let’s say you have to do it anonymously. You still save the world, but no one knows it was you, and you’re not allowed to tell. So no statues, no parades, nothing."
"Hmm," he said. "I dunno. I’d have to think about that."
"I’d do it," Julie said.
"I wouldn’t," April said.
"Right," December said. "You’d be too busy ripping off butterfly wings for sixty-two fifty. Okay, Julie. So you’d do it anonymously. Now here’s the next condition. Let’s say you do it, they torture you in the worst way you can think of, and then when they send you back down, they’ve hypnotized everyone so that they hate you. Everywhere you go people throw mud at you and they’re always burning down your house and your name becomes like a curse word. So you’ve saved everybody, and they pay you back with hatred. Then would you do it?"
Before Julie could answer October started to cry and Mom turned the lights back on. "That’s enough, December," she said. "You know this isn’t what family home evening is supposed to be for. Now go to your room."
The next day October wouldn’t go to preschool because she was afraid the aliens would get her. But December went to school. And she came home bleeding. She had one cut on her forehead (just as the bruises were starting to heal) and one on her cheek as well as a lot of scrapes. "What happened?" Mom asked.
"They threw rocks this time," she said.
"Rocks?" Mom said. "They threw rocks at you? This isn’t funny anymore. This is dangerous. I’m calling their parents."
"Don’t," December said.
"And why not?" Mom asked.
"Because," December said. "They have to learn for themselves. They have to know why it’s wrong."
"I don’t care what they know or don’t know," Mom said. "I’m not letting the neighborhood hooligans throw rocks at my daughter."
So Mom made some calls and December changed into her nightgown and then she came down and Mom put some bandages on her cuts. As Mom was putting on the last one August got home from school. "Hey, kid," he said. "What happened to you?"
"I got stoned," she said.
"Really?" he said. "And you jumped out of a window? Like the girl in that angel dust movie? Krrreesh! Keeeow! Splat!"
"Not that kind of stoned," she said.
"Oh," he said.
The next morning Julie spent all of breakfast dreading that Mom was going to put her back on security detail. But Mom didn’t say anything, and Julie headed off to school, but she didn’t get past the driveway before she had a twinge of conscience and came back. "Do you want me to make sure December doesn’t get hit with rocks today?" she asked.
"It’s all been straightened out," Mom said. "I talked to all their parents and every last one of those delinquents has been grounded."
"Oh!" Julie said. "Cool."
Unfortunately, a simple grounding wasn’t nearly enough to stop them. As December walked home — without a guardian this time, since March was at hockey practice — she heard a rock zip past her head and stopped. She looked behind her and coming toward her almost in phalanx formation were all the kids she’d got in trouble. She picked up her cello and continued walking but just like on the first day Ryan Campbell caught up to her and stood on the edge of her skirt so she couldn’t leave.
"You got us all in trouble," Ryan said.
"We’re grounded," Ian said. "I’m not allowed to go anywhere but school for two weeks."
"Yeah," said Dickie Etter.
"I see," December said. "So you got in trouble for picking on me, and to get your revenge you’re going to pick on me some more. You’re not very intelligent."
Ryan shoved her. "Shut up," he said.
"When you stop throwing things at me I’ll stop throwing words at you," she said.
"Oh, we’re not going to throw anything at you," he said. "Neil. Erin. Grab the cello."
"What?" she said. "No, it’s mine! Leave it alone."
She grabbed onto the cello and hugged it to her chest but Neil and Erin were stronger and pried her hands off it. "Open the case," Ryan said. "We’ll see what she has to say when her precious cello’s in pieces."
"No!" December said. "That cost my Mom and Dad over a thousand dollars! If you think you’re in trouble now—"
"Shut up," he said. "Open the case."
They opened the case.
There was no cello.
"Hey, what the—"
A smile slowly spread across December’s face.
They’d expected to find a cello. Instead they found: several handfuls of crabapples, some acorns, a few bags’ worth of walnuts, about a dozen eggshells, three rolls or so of toilet paper, a couple overripe peaches, and last but not least, a bunch of rocks.
"Wait a minute," Ryan said. "You’ve been gathering up everything we threw at you? And carting it around? What’s wrong with you?"
December just smiled.
"Let’s get her," he said.
When she got home December was absolutely beaming. She had a black eye, and her lip was split, and her skirt was torn, and her cello case was scuffed up, but we’d never seen her happier.
"What happened?" Julie asked.
"They got it," she said. "For just a second and then it went away, but they got it. They got it, they got it."
They must have gotten something, because they never beat up December again. Picked on her, sure, called her names, absolutely, but they never actually beat her up or threw anything at her again. At least not that particular group. Other kids did, but not those kids. As for December, well, pretty soon she was back to her old self. She still carries the cello case around, though on any given day I don’t think anyone knows what’s in it but her. If she does. And even today she almost never smiles. But that’s the key: almost never. Every now and then, maybe only once every few weeks, and even then maybe just for a moment, but she does. And I’ll tell you — when she does, it makes you feel great. Because if you’ve done something to make December smile, you’ve done something remarkable indeed.
The last time she smiled at me was when I told her that if she wanted to, she could use my room a couple hours a week to practice the cello. April almost killed me, but now that May’s gone off to college I’m the senior member of the room and what I say goes. And even though she does still pretty much play the same eight notes over and over again and drives everyone crazy, she is getting a little bit better.
After all, if the rule is a million words for writers, who knows how long it is for musicians?