Cross-grained Lara seemed bent on self-destruction until two unlikely rescuers intervened
“Good luck, sweetie! I hope you’ll enjoy your first day at your new school,” Sylvia Wentworth said. She looked fondly at her 17-year-old daughter, attired in the gray skirt, white blouse, and navy-blue blazer with the Groveton Academy crest that constituted the school uniform. “And I hope you’ll do well.”
Lara did not respond but picked up her backpack and stowed her cell phone in her pocket. This accomplished, she turned to her mother. “I’m ready to leave when you are,” she said.
“All right. The house is locked up, so we’ll go now.”
Lara had her own car, a little runabout Sylvia had bought second-hand last year. Ten minutes into the drive to her job in a Chicago office park, Sylvia glanced at her rear-view mirror to see Lara’s car peeling off to the left. That was the route to her new school.
At dinner that night Sylvia asked, “So how did you like it? Was it what you expected?”
Lara shrugged, keeping her eyes on her plate. “It was okay, I guess.”
It had better be okay, Sylvia thought. Lara had begged so hard to attend Groveton that Sylvia took the $20,000 required for a year’s tuition out of Lara’s college fund and paid for both semesters in advance. “There’s a 10 percent discount if you pay the whole year in advance,” the principal told Sylvia.
It was disappointing that after agitating so much to attend private school, Lara had nothing more to say about her first day than “It’s okay.” Sylvia, knowing the cause of Lara’s surliness, was used to it by now, but it still bothered her from time to time.
However, after lunch the next day, Sylvia walked into her office and received a jolt. Lara was sitting in one of the visitor’s chairs in front of Sylvia’s desk.
“What’s the matter?” Sylvia asked in alarm. “Are you ill?”
She went over to Lara and put her arm around the girl’s shoulders.
Lara shook off her arm and stared into space. “I’m not going back to Groveton.”
“What? Why not?”
“I hate it. I’m not going back there.”
Lara shrugged. “I want to go back to my old school so I can be with people I know.”
Sylvia closed her eyes in frustration, knowing what lay ahead of her. A morning of telephone calls, apologies, requests for refunds, and late registration at the public high school, all of which could be achieved only by taking time off her job. She’d have to work late for the rest of the week to avoid getting behind on her current project. Sighing, she took out her phone.
For the next two weeks all went smoothly, except that Groveton Academy refused to issue a refund for the unused tuition.
“What?” Sylvia raised her voice. “She was only there for a day and a half! You’re telling me you won’t refund any of the $20,000?”
“It’s in the contract you signed,” the principal said on the other end of the telephone. “The fee is not refundable.”
“What if I have my lawyer call you?”
“He’ll get the same answer. Contracts are contracts.”
And that was that. Sylvia fumed as she disconnected from the call. What a mass of trouble Lara had caused! She could feel a headache coming on.
Her headache grew worse the next day when she received a call at her office from Fredericka Beale, one of Lara’s teachers at Lakeside High School.
“Mrs. Wentworth? How are you? This is Fredericka Beale. I’m Lara’s mathematics teacher.”
“Yes, Miss Beale? Is something wrong with Lara?”
“I wouldn’t know,” Miss Beale said pleasantly. “I was hoping you would. Lara hasn’t been to school at all for two weeks.”
The mystery was easily explained. When Sylvia confronted her daughter, Lara cheerfully admitted that she left the house in the mornings and drove around the corner until she saw her mother leaving the house in her own car. Then she drove back and stayed in the family room all day, watching TV and playing games on her laptop.
“My God,” Sylvia yelled. “How do you expect to get into college? Even if you go to classes and make good grades you’ll have to win a scholarship, now that 20,000 dollars of your college fund has gone down the toilet! What is wrong with you?”
Lara looked away and didn’t answer.
Sylvia went upstairs to her bedroom, locked the door, and dialed the personal cell phone number Fredericka Beale had given her. “I’m at my wit’s end, Miss Beale!”
“Call me Fred, it’s easier.” There was a pause, then Fred said, “Is Lara acting out? Has she suffered some kind of trauma in the past?”
“Yes, she has,” Sylvia said. She drew a long breath and with a catch in her voice said, “We’ve both suffered. Let me tell you about it.”
At the end of the conversation, Fred said, “I’m so sorry, Mrs. Wentworth. Let me discuss this with another of Lara’s teachers, Miss Buss, and get back to you.”
Fred and her partner Andrea, who taught French, German, and world geography at Lakeside High, discussed Lara’s situation over dinner.
“Lara’s father died of cancer three years ago, when she was fourteen,” Fred said, helping herself to sliced roast chicken. “Lara had always been his pet, so you can imagine what a blow that was. Then her older brother Harvey died in a tragic car crash a year ago. Apparently Lara worshipped Harvey. He was like the Norse god Baldur the Beautiful—handsome, lovable, brilliant. Just a real golden boy, a freshman in college.”
Andy paused with a forkful of mashed potato in mid-air and said, “How awful! Does that explain why Lara is so difficult? She’s what the Victorians would have called ‘cross-grained’—you know, stubborn and contrary.”
“It explains a good deal,” Fred said. She took a sip of her wine and thought for a minute. “Lara is like the Norse god Loki, the mischief-maker. Loki was a miserable son of a bitch and wanted everyone else to be just as unhappy as he was. He spent all his time playing mean tricks on the other gods and was responsible for Baldur’s death.”
“Born in the shadow of Loki,” Andy said. “That’s our Lara. She seems to delight in making her mother miserable and she’s sullen in class. Yet there’s good stuff in the girl, you know, cross-grained or not. She’s highly intelligent. She speaks French fluently—one would almost take her for a native, except for the accent.”
“Worth saving,” Fred agreed. “Look, I told her poor mother we’d come up with a plan, so let’s invoke Athena.”
“Athena! Why not our matron goddess, Artemis?”
“Artemis is great for us, but Athena is the goddess of wisdom. We need Her guidance for this.”
“We can do a ritual,” Andy said, rising from the table. “And we’ll make an offering. What does She like?”
“Let me consult the search engine,” Fred said. She flipped her laptop open, typed a few rapid keystrokes, and sat back to read the results. “H’mm. She likes olive oil, olives, and wine—that’s no surprise. She also likes textiles and pottery.”
“The comestibles are no problem,” Andy said. “We’ve got all those. But we don’t have any kind of woven fabric in the house other than that square your little niece made and gave you for Christmas.”
“Pottery, then. We can’t burn Jenny’s little sampler, can we?”
“Are we supposed to break the pottery after the ritual?”
“Of course,” Fred said. “All those shards archeologists dig up and gloat over are shards for a reason. People offered the whole objects at the altar and then broke them, so that neither they nor anyone else—anyone human, that is—could use them.” She grinned. “And I know the exact piece of pottery we can sacrifice!”
“Oh, no, you don’t!” Andy sprang up from the sofa and started walking backwards to the kitchen door. “You are not getting your hands on the coffee mug I bought on Mykonos last year!”
Fred grimaced. “All right, keep it. Ugh, those pink and brown and yellow stripes—oh, well, never mind. Let’s do the ritual, offer the comestibles to the Fey afterwards, break something, and go to bed.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Andy said.
“Good morning, Mrs. Wentworth, this is Fred Beale, calling you back with regard to Lara.”
“Yes?” Sylvia sounded hopeful. “Have you thought of something?”
“Indeed we have, with your cooperation and permission. Now, it’s going to involve some firmness on your part, Mrs. Wentworth. For the plan to succeed, you’re going to have to drive Lara’s car to a secret location somewhere and keep the keys to it yourself.”
“I can do that,” Sylvia said. “Lara knows she’s in big trouble.”
“Good. Now, this is what we propose to do…”
The next morning Fred knocked on the front door of the Wentworth house. Sylvia, by arrangement, had left for work an hour early.
“Good morning, Lara,” Fred said after the door opened.
“Miss Beale! What on earth are you doing here?”
“I’m going to give you a ride to school,” Fred said. “Grab your backpack and let’s go.”
Still looking stunned, Lara silently slipped the straps of her backpack over her shoulders, locked the door, and joined Fred on the porch. Fred reached down behind her and handed Lara a helmet.
“What’s this for?”
“It’s for you. I have one too. Put it on.”
Out in the driveway Andy, already wearing a helmet, started revving up her motorcycle. Fred went over to the nearest motorcycle, a gleaming black Yamaha, and got on. “Get on, Lara, put your arms around me, and hang on tight!”
Arriving home from work that evening, Sylvia was greeted by an outraged Lara.
“Mother! I was escorted to school this morning by dykes on bikes! I was so embarrassed!”
“Do not use that word in my house,” Sylvia said, grim-faced. For the first time in her life, she looked at her daughter as if she were someone else’s less than lovable child.
“But that’s what they are,” Lara said.
“And what do you imagine people call you behind your back? Think about that.”
“I don’t care what people call me. It’s too embarrassing, having to ride behind Miss Beale on her bike with Miss Buss following us all the way to school.”
“Get used to it,” Sylvia said as she prepared to go upstairs. “Miss Buss follows behind in case you get any cute ideas about jumping off at a stoplight. If I see perfect attendance for the rest of the year, and if I see top grades in your classes and top performance on your lacrosse team, you’ll get your car back.”
Sylvia continued up the stairs, only glancing back once at Lara’s outraged face below.
Eight months later
On graduation day Fred and Andy sat in the upper front row of the high school gymnasium, fanning themselves with paper programs while watching the graduates file into the open space below. Although all the female graduates wore the same gray robes and gray mortarboards, it was easy to pick out Lara: she was the only girl wearing combat boots.
Fred and Andy clapped enthusiastically each time a graduate received his or her diploma from the principal. As Lara clumped her way across the stage, Fred whispered to Andy, “At least we got her through, didn’t we?”
“We did,” Andy whispered back. “She wouldn’t have made it without us, Miss Beale and Miss Buss.”
“Lara is never going to win the ‘Miss Congeniality’ award,” Fred said later, after the ceremony ended and all personnel were released for the day. “But even Lara had to be pleased when the other girls elected her captain of the lacrosse team.”
“You bet,” Andy said. “And the lacrosse scholarship she won to her college will help her poor mother financially too.”
Four years later
“This is the nicest thing anyone’s ever done for us,” Fred said as she and Andy took their places beside Sylvia on graduation day at Lara’s college. “It was so kind of you to invite us to Lara’s graduation and pay all our expenses to fly up here to Montreal.”
The three sat under the awning of an enormous tent, waiting for the ceremony to begin. Sylvia smiled. “If it hadn’t been for the two of you, Lara would never have won a scholarship, let alone been accepted by a college.”
“What did she major in, Sylvia?” Andy asked.
“Life sciences,” Sylvia said. “She’s going to apply for a job as a clinical lab technologist.”
Fred grinned. Lara would be working in a situation that required very little interaction with others. It would suit her personality perfectly. She glanced at Andy, guessing from the expression on Andy’s face that she was thinking the same thing.
Andy squeezed Fred’s hand. “She’s no longer in the shadow of Loki,” she whispered. “We vanquished him!”