Claire's Great Adventure Chapter One
Claire's sixteenth birthday arrived without fanfare, just as she'd expected. It was, after all, a school day in late May, and with her Mom working late, a party was out of the question. Not that she wanted one, anyway; there was nothing to celebrate, she sighed, except the approaching end of the school year. That was the sole benefit of having a birthday in late May.
Her best friend Camden had remembered, of course, and slipped her a soft thin package wrapped in last Sunday's comics page. It was inventive of Camden, she thought as she fingered the slim rectangle, but it was also possible there was no wrapping paper in her family's cramped apartment. Claire knew it would be a homemade present, for Camden rarely had money; but she was very clever with needle and thread, Claire thought with a small pleasure, and maybe it's a coin purse.
Well, that's it, she sighed as she turned the corner to her street; this one little surprise. She already knew her Mom would buy her some practical item of clothing, and because she knew her Mom worked so hard to keep the roof over their heads, she would smile as if in surprise and delight to hide her disappointment. If Mom repeats that idiotic "sweet sixteen and never been kissed," I swear I'll scream, Claire thought as she purposefully splashed through the puddles left by the day's Spring rain; I loathe all that sappy romantic junk that I'm suddenly supposed to care about. Not that she didn't like a few of the boys, of course, but really, this obsession with having a b.f. was so incredibly small-minded.
Claire approached the front door of the modest row house and went over to inspect the spider family which had taken up residence in one of the blue shutters which faced the street. The tiny hatchlings were scurrying about the center of the lacey web, while the mom or dad spider-she could not tell which-was busy wrapping up a shiny fat fly which had become tangled in the web. Everyone has to eat something, Claire mused; without that fly, those babies might have starved.
Her mind switching to the burdensome task of finishing her biology paper, Claire absent-mindedly turned to the mailbox. Her Aunt May might have sent her a birthday card and twenty dollars, but then Mom always made her deposit the money in her miniscule college savings fund. As if twenty bucks is going to grow into twenty thousand in two years, she thought gloomily; they'll be no money for college, and I already know that. Her Aunt May was her only relative; her father had a sister and brother, but she'd never met them, any more than she'd met her father.
He'd married her Mom out of a sort of gallantry, she'd long supposed, and then tired of married life within a year. There was one photo of him holding Claire as a three-month old baby-a horrid, pasty little baby with hardly any hair, Claire recalled with dissatisfaction-and that was her only photo of her father. Her Mother had torn the rest to bits years ago, and it was not something Claire wanted to bring up in conversation. Nothing to be gained from that, she sighed as she opened the letterbox; she already knew her father was shiftless, conniving and might as well have horns and a forked tail like the Devil himself-at least in her Mom's eyes. And obviously he was irresponsible, for he'd never sent a dime to help her Mom pay the bills.
Claire withdrew the letters one at a time: a credit card offer, a bank statement, a flyer advertising an amazing bargain on a new muffler, and the expected card from Aunt May. Still, Claire consoled herself, it was nice getting a card, even if she couldn't spend the twenty dollars inside.
But there was also some sort of lumpy object in the bottom of the mailbox, and Claire wondered if one of the neighborhood boys had played some mischief. Reaching deep into the box, Claire gingerly pulled out a plump, unshapely lump of a mailing envelope. To her astonishment, it was addressed to her. She did not know the return address, nor recognize the strange scrawling handwriting, which read, "J. Prufrock Giddings, P.O. Box 19, Black Butte, Montana."
In a jumble of puzzlement and excitement, Claire opened the door, tossed the letters on the dining room table and retreated to her room. Carefully examining the package, she noted the postmark did not match the return address. While the sender lived in Montana, the package had been mailed three days before from Grand Central Station, New York. Odd, she thought, and then she could no longer stand the suspense. With a fast-beating heart she ripped open the padded envelope and slid the contents into her hand. It was an unrecognizable lump, badly wrapped in newspaper, The International Herald Tribune, European Edition, she noted; this guy certainly gets around. Tearing off the newsprint, Claire found a small jewelry case and a crumpled note written in neatly printed letters on light-blue paper:
Your father instructed me to give you this ring and letter of instruction on your sixteenth birthday. Although you don't know me, I have known your father a long time, and would do anything for him. Please know that he does want to meet you, very much so, but he travels a lot and so it will take some effort to catch up with him. The enclosed bond will cover your initial expenses, but please don't hesitate to ask for more as you need it. My voicemail and email are written below.
I am at your service-
Most Sincerely, James P. Giddings"
With a strange mix of giddiness and apprehension that she had never felt before, Claire pried open the jewelry case and found a tightly folded note and a heavy silver ring. The paper of the note crackled with age as she unfolded it, and she realized it must have sat in the jewelry box a long time. With nervous fingers she smoothed the paper out on her knee and read:
It is unforgivable how I have ignored you and your Mother all these years, and so I do not even ask for forgiveness, as that would be too much to ask. However, I do ask to meet you, and by law you are now able to choose to see me, should you so wish.
Here is the ring which I had cast for you in Kerala, India, many years ago. I had to guess on the size, and hope that you are about the same size as your Mother. This ring has little value in terms of its design or silver content, but in certain places you will find it has great power. Keep it always, as it could protect you in ways nothing else will.
Here is a bond in your name, which any bank will convert to cash. Use the money only for travel, as it may be difficult for Jim to get you more should you run out. I am sure you are careful with money, just as your Mom is. Have the bank convert the cash into traveler's checks, which can be replaced if you lose them. Lastly, as it is your birthday, use the enclosed money to treat yourself to something when you get to Paris. Please come as soon as you are out of school, and inform Jim of the arrival date. He will get in touch with me.
Claire's mind buzzed like a rattled hive of bees, and a sheen of sweat came to her forehead. Paris? Her father, wanting to see her after fifteen years? Even his nickname for her startled Claire. CJ. She'd always loathed her middle name, Janet, bestowed on her, her Mom said, by her father; but now she felt a sudden liking for it. He had a nickname for me, she mused, even though he hasn't seen me in fifteen years.
Inside the letter was another tightly folded bundle; Claire carefully opened it, and stared at the colorful blue-tinted twenty-euro notes. The five bills were dated four years ago, Claire noted, which means her father had probably assembled this package for her when she was just twelve. He may be a bad father, she thought, but at least he's a good planner.
Inside the notes lay another surprise: a small rectangle of hard green paper. It had few markings, only a string of numbers, some small circles, and the words RATF, carnet, and "dans Paris." The magnetic stripe on the back meant it was a ticket of some sort, and obviously for Paris-though she hated French class above all others, she had picked up enough to know "dans Paris" meant "inside Paris."
The ring itself was remarkable, and it held a great many mysteries. First, it was thick and heavy, more a man's ring than a young woman's, even if it was small in diameter. It was embossed with a Chinese character and her initials, CJ, and had a solid flat crown with tiny decorative lines traced into the silver. With a thrill of anticipation, Claire slipped the ring onto her third finger, and with a small sense of deflation found it a little too tight. No matter, she decided; I'll wear it somehow.
Recalling that a person's dominant hand was always slightly larger, she tried the ring on her left hand and discovered it fit perfectly. With a flush of embarrassment she wondered, will anyone think this means I'm married? I shouldn't think so; it's too big, and it's silver, and hasn't any diamond. Probably, she reassured herself, no one will even notice.
Claire knew that she should be angry with her father for being such an irresponsible parent, but she could not replace her excitement with anger. Before today, her summer had stretched out in weary boredom: oboe lessons (her Mother insisted on her learning an instrument, and she'd purposefully picked the weirdest one she could think of), advanced math to boost her SAT score (not that we have any money for me to go to university anyway), and maybe, if she was lucky, a few outings with her Mom or Camden's family on the weekends. The rest of the time she would be alone, walking to the library in the vain hope they had some new books, or playing with the neighbor's kitten Jacks when he slipped over the fence between their tiny backyards.
But now-Paris! It was beyond imagination or hope. But then a pall of doom came over her, for Claire knew with all her heart that her Mom would never, ever, ever allow her to jet off to Paris alone , and especially not to meet her father.
One last wad of paper remained, and Claire smoothed this last bit out on her knee. It was the bond, an official-looking document dated five years ago, carrying her full name Claire Janet Kekumu, and the momentous words, "five thousand dollars upon maturity."
Five thousand dollars, in her name. While Claire knew it wasn't much in the world at large, it was an unimaginable fortune to a girl of sixteen. Now all I have to do is figure out a way to get to Paris, she thought. The idea scared her, more than any idea she'd ever had before; but it also pleased her, and she thought determinedly, I have to convince Mom I'll be OK-but will I?
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copyright © 2005 Charles Hugh Smith. All rights reserved in all media.
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