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Authors: James Lecesne

Absolute Brightness

BOOK: Absolute Brightness
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This book would not have happened without the encouragement and support of Christopher Potter; he saw it before it existed and he believed in it. I'm also indebted to my early readers, who took the time to read this book as soon as it was there and gave me the guidance I needed to complete it: Michael Cunningham, Eve Ensler, Katherine Deickmann, Michael Downing, Daniel Kaizer, Daniel Minahan, Adam Moss, Cy O'Neal, and Duncan Sheik. My special thanks to my friend and agent Bill Clegg for believing in me again and again and making the everything happen. And to my dear friends Gary Janetti, Armistead Maupin, and Ken Corbett, who are the best at being there for me. I'm so grateful to Laura Geringer Books, and to Laura herself, for seeing the goodness in
Absolute Brightness
and bringing it so perfectly into the world. Extra special thanks to Jean Feiwel and everyone at Feiwel & Friends for giving this book a second chance and for bringing Leonard Pelkey to life for a whole new generation.


I flam'd amazement.

—Ariel in
The Tempest

William Shakespeare



in aisle 7 of our local supermarket, musing over the selection of potato chips and saying something like, “But really, don't you think thirty-seven different types of chips is a ridiculous number to choose from? I mean, how did we end up living in a country that makes a big deal over everything being squeaky-clean and then at the same time makes you pay extra for chips called ‘dirty'?”

As usual, Mom hadn't heard a word I'd said. Instead, she was standing in the middle of the aisle, smiling at nothing in particular and referring to her shopping list as if it were about to tell her something about her life that she didn't already know. My sister, Deirdre, was hanging the top half of her body over the shopping cart, letting her long, luxurious chestnut-colored hair touch the unpaid-for produce. She couldn't hear me even if she'd been so inclined; she was plugged into her iPod and humming along. If you happened to be passing by, you might have assumed that Deirdre was just some girl about to be sick into the cart, or you might have mistaken her humming for the kind of low moaning that is popular with television actors starring in telenovelas when they've just been fatally shot.

Deirdre has always been considered the great beauty in our family, so I made a point of keeping a certain distance from her. Someone might be forced to compare us, and I would only come up short. Literally. Deirdre is a full four inches taller than I am. Deirdre has always been the tall, beautiful one. I was … well, I was Phoebe. I've also avoided lingering too long over her physical features, like her delicate bone structure, her glittery green eyes, or the aforementioned full-bodied head of gorgeous, chestnut-colored hair. Compare and despair. It's true that I've never tried that hard in the beauty department. What's the point? That's Deirdre's territory. It was as if Deirdre had used up all the genetic coding in our family for beauty, and I got whatever was left over, the dregs. Everyone was always looking at her, admiring her, telling her how beautiful she looked, how perfect her outfit was, and asking where she got her shoes. From top to bottom she was Neptune's “it” girl. I was the also-ran. It's lucky I loved Deirdre as much as I did; otherwise I would have hated her guts.

It's not that I'm bad looking. But my arms and legs have always been a bit too square, my hips are wide and I have a butt. I like my breasts. Once I got over the embarrassment of actually having breasts, I discovered that they gave me power over the boys at school when I wore a certain kind of top. My face is fine, but maybe it's a bit too flat and round to be considered anything other than just cute. Personally, I think my brown eyes are a little too far apart and they don't sparkle nearly as much as I would like, but I can see the world well enough with them, so I guess I shouldn't complain. I dye my hair; I always have. It's my signature thing, my way to keep from being overlooked or forgotten altogether. As my mother has always reminded us girls, “Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but for God's sakes, give 'em something worth beholding.”

Mom poked Deirdre in the ribs and told her to stand up straight and take her earbuds out. Mom had an announcement to make. And then without any fanfare whatsoever, in the middle of aisle 7, she told us that our cousin Leonard would be coming to live with us.

“And soon,” she added. “I mean, this Saturday.”

“I didn't know we had a cousin,” was the first thing out of my mouth.

Now normally, I don't like to hang out near the frozen foods. You can freeze your legs off if you linger too long in shorts by the Tater Tots and TV dinners. But we were stuck. Mom had decided that this was the time and place to tell us exactly who Leonard Pelkey was and why he would soon be living under our roof. By the time she had finished, my teeth were chattering and my fingertips had gone numb.

Apparently, Leonard was the son of Janet Somebody from Phoenix who had been getting beaten up pretty regularly by her husband. Finally, she ran off with baby Leonard and tried to piece together a life. Years later, when Leonard was about eleven, Janet met my mother's brother, Mike, in a bar. After noticing that he had a job, she started living with Mike in a low-rise apartment complex with a Spanish-inspired motif until she died of breast cancer the following year, which forced my uncle Mike to become Leonard's legal guardian. But Mike wasn't much of a father figure. He finally broke down, called my mother, and cried long distance. He admitted that he couldn't handle the responsibility of raising a kid on his own. Mom asked him why this was the first she'd heard from him in two years. Uncle Mike explained that he had been traveling back and forth to Mexico and working on a scheme to raise some kind of cattle, which would later be sold for a ton of money. He wanted to know if Leonard could live with us—just until his cattle began to pay off.

After Mom finished telling us the story of Leonard, we made our way to the checkout, where Mrs. Toucci rang us up. Mrs. T took the opportunity to badger Mom; she wanted one of Mom's prime Saturday-morning appointment slots because, she said, she was going to a wedding in Atlantic City. Mom stood firm and explained to Mrs. T that her beauty salon was not a fly-by-night joint, and her Saturday slots were sacrosanct.

“Oh,” Mrs. T. said, squinting through the tops of her bifocals. “What the hell's sacro-sacked mean?”

“It means forgetaboutit,” Mom said as she handed over her credit card along with one of her signature smiles.

Deirdre and I stood on the sidelines, still reeling from the unexpected announcement. We tried to imagine what this unknown boy's arrival would mean to us personally. I looked at Deirdre and mouthed the words, “No way am I giving up my room.” She mouthed back, “Don't look at me.”

“Excuse me,” I said aloud, interrupting Mrs. T as she handed my mother back her credit card. Both women turned and stared at me. To tell you the truth, Mrs. T looked like she could've used some serious improvement. Her hair was the color of a paper bag and seemed as though someone had ironed it flat against her scalp. I briefly considered offering her
services, which was something I sometimes did for Mom's customers when they were desperate enough to pay double to have someone come to their house and fix them up. But I decided I couldn't be bothered. We had much more pressing issues to attend to in our own backyard.

“How old is the boy? This cousin of ours?” I asked.

“Thirteen. But he's about to be fourteen.”

I was fifteen at the time and Deirdre was seventeen, so we didn't have much use for a boy that age living under our roof. It wasn't as if Deirdre and I would be able to pick and choose PBFs (Potential Boyfriends) from the gang of boys that our “cousin” dragged home from school with him. They'd all be way too young—and annoying.

“I have a very bad feeling about this Leonard situation,” I said.

“Phoebe, don't start. I'm in no mood,” she said to me as she shoved her credit card back into her leatherette purse. “Grab those bags and put them in the cart. We have a lot to do.”

I knew what was going on. I knew what Mom was up to. She was doing that thing she does when she forces life to go on as usual. She doesn't say anything, but her actions speak louder than words, and they all seem to be saying:
This is it. This is the way it's going to be from now on. Get used to it
. And that's how I knew we were going to be stuck with Leonard and there was nothing anyone could say or do from that moment forward to change the situation.

There are those moments in your life when you just know for sure that a major shift is happening right beneath your running shoes and you can feel that your world will never be the same again. That day I swear I felt as if the floor buckled and split and we were all suddenly standing at the edge of a giant abyss looking into God-knows-what. The weird thing is that on the surface everything seemed the same. It was just another Monday at the local supermarket; the PA system was pumping out a watered-down version of “Every Breath You Take,” shoppers were loading up supplies for the week, and Mrs. T was badgering Mom for an appointment. Same ol', same ol'. But I wasn't fooled. Not for a minute. And neither was Deirdre.

“Where's he going to sleep?” Deirdre wanted to know once we were outside in the parking lot standing beside Mom's globally warmed Honda.

Mom was packing the groceries into the trunk. I noticed that her eyebrows were arched very high and her lips had been drawn tightly together in a little O of
No comment
. She slammed the trunk shut with a mighty

“Look,” she said in the voice she only used with her customers who had complaints about the end result, “arrangements will be made.”


We lived in a two-story, three-bedroom, split-level house that was smack in the middle of nowhere along the Jersey shore. Ours was not a house where
got made. We were more the type of family to whom things just happened. Fathers ran off. Parents got divorced. Grandmothers died. Cousins moved in. Everything from the future just seemed to tumble into the present and take us by surprise. There was never any planning involved, and certainly no
. It was true that
got made at my mother's hair salon every day of the week (except Sundays and Mondays), and since the salon itself was attached to our house by a narrow breezeway, it was technically still a part of our home; but those appointments weren't
; they were

BOOK: Absolute Brightness
7.63Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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