Chapter the First,
In Which We Meet Our Courageous Heroine
Alice Carroll could think of a hundred places she’d rather be than staring at an old dead woman on a Sunday afternoon.
Not that she was actually staring. In fact, she was trying to keep her eyes away from the front of the room where the old woman lay in her coffin. She was looking at the bald head of the old man in front of her instead. Until then, she’d never realized that the back of someone’s neck could be so wrinkly.
She shifted her eyes and looked around. Bad idea. Viewing the living at a funeral was almost worse than viewing the dead. The church was full of old people, with their wrinkles and their age spots and their loose skin. They were like skeletons shuffling around. She grimaced as she caught the eye of an old man with whiskers coming out of his nose. He smiled at her with his stained teeth, and Alice shifted closer to her mother.
Her mother gave her a sad smile and patted her hand. Alice glared at her and crossed her arms, covering the bleeding apple on the front of her black t-shirt.
She didn’t know why her mother had dragged her to this stupid funeral to begin with. It’s not like she even knew the dead lady. Nellie Stephens or Simpson or “S” something or other. Alice had only seen the woman a couple of times in her entire life, and her mother hadn’t worked with her for years.
She’d tried to get out of coming. She’d even asked the neighbors if she could babysit their two little blobs that afternoon, but they’d given her a funny look and said they thought she was too young or maybe they were going to be home all weekend. They couldn’t decide which.
Thirteen years old was not too young to babysit; Alice knew for a fact that they’d had sixth graders babysit for them before. The real reason was that they thought she was a bad kid. Just because she wore black clothes and dark eyeshadow didn’t mean she was a juvenile delinquent. It’s not like she did drugs or punched babies; actually, she got straight A’s and had never even had detention. She just happened to like things that were slightly macabre. Except funerals, of course.
She pulled up her black knee socks and admired the pattern of skulls sewn into them.
“We’re going to a funeral, not a Halloween party,” her mother had said when she’d seen them.
Alice thought they went pretty well with the black and blue streaks she’d put in her hair the day before. Plus, she had been hoping the outfit paired with her crazy hair would make her mother so angry she would let Alice stay home. That hadn’t worked either.
She twisted a strand of hair around her finger and noticed that the people in front of them were standing and leaving their seats.
“What’s going on?” she asked her mother.
“It’s time for the viewing,” her mother whispered back.
“The what?” Alice asked.
“Shh. Come on.” Her mother stood, and before Alice could say anything, her mother had pulled her into the line of people moving down the aisle.
Alice looked around, but she had already figured out where they were going. One by one, each person walked by the casket and paid his or her final respects to the dead woman. She noticed a few who actually leaned over the body itself, and although she couldn’t see exactly what they were doing, she had a sneaking suspicion they were kissing the dead woman’s face.
She felt a gag forming in her throat. She clutched her mother’s arm as the line edged closer to the casket.
“Mom,” she hissed. “I don’t want to go up there. I think I’m going to throw up.”
Her mother shook her arm loose and shushed her. “Stop it, Alice. Don’t make a scene.”
“I’m serious, Mom,” Alice insisted. She was beginning to panic. “I want to go home. I don’t feel well.”
Her mother turned impatiently and looked her squarely in the eye. “Stop. It. Right. Now.” She hissed.
Suddenly they were standing right next to the casket, and Alice felt her eyes being drawn to the corpse, like an insect drawn to light. The old woman’s face was peaceful, as if she was asleep. A strand of white pearls lay across her neck, and someone had brushed her eyelids with violet eye shadow. As Alice stared at the corpse’s face, her vision began to waver. She blinked to clear her eyes, but the image continued to flicker. The skin on the woman’s face began to wobble and smooth out, the wrinkles disappearing one by one. A healthy pink glow crept into her skin, a blush entering her cheeks. The woman opened her eyes, which were clear and blue, and then she smiled, revealing shiny white teeth. Suddenly, Alice was looking into the face of a little girl. Then, just as quickly as it had appeared, the color seeped out, the eyes closed, and the youthful image was gone. Once again, Alice was looking at the pale, sunken face of a dead woman.
The vision could not have lasted more than a second, but it was long enough for both Alice and her mother to pass by the coffin. Alice felt her heart skittering in her chest.
“Mom,” she gasped. “I saw…I saw…”
“I know,” her mother cooed and put an arm around her shoulders. “I know it’s hard.”
“No!” Alice exclaimed and shook off her mother’s arm. “Listen, Mom. I saw—“
“What?” Her mother asked testily and grabbed Alice’s arm to steer her out of the church. “What exactly did you see, Alice?”
Alice crossed her arms and kicked a pebble. “Nothing,” she muttered.
“Then, let’s go,” her mother said. She stopped and with a smile pasted on her face, said hello to a woman in a long black dress wearing strappy black heels.
Alice felt like punching somebody, but instead, she just followed her mother to the parking lot and bit a strand of black and blue hair that had fallen across her face.
She refused to talk to her mother during the car ride; she couldn’t get the weird picture of the little girl’s face out of her mind. She was so distracted, she didn’t even notice when her mother passed by the street that led to their house and kept on driving. In fact, she didn’t even know what was going on until her mother put the car in park, and she looked up to find herself in the middle of a cemetery.
“Um, this isn’t our house,” she said.
“I want to go to the graveside service,” her mother answered. “It’s the proper thing to do. After all, I owe my complete livelihood to Nellie, and believe me that you wouldn’t be enjoying the life you have now without her help. The least we can do is see her off to her final resting place.”
“Why?” Alice asked. “It’s not like she’s going to know we’re there. I don’t think she’s sitting up in heaven keeping tabs on who came to her funeral.”
Her mother held up her hand abruptly and hushed her. “All right, Alice, that’s enough. If you don’t want to show your respect and gratitude, then you can just stay in the car.”
“Fine,” Alice shrugged as her mother got out of the car. She didn’t like the idea of sitting by herself in a graveyard, but it was better than standing around a hole in the ground while a bunch of old people blew their noses and cried. Besides, she was still peeved at her mother.
As her mother walked away, Alice cracked the car windows, turned up the radio, and started playing with her phone.
Even with the radio on, she was bored. It was also kind of hot, and her feet hurt. She took off her leather jacket and removed her boots, replacing them with a pair of her mother’s boring brown sandals laying in the back seat.
She watched as elderly people shuffled past the car and stared disapprovingly in at her. She squinted at them and gave them a closed mouth smile, wishing they would mind their own business. She reached over to turn the volume up on the radio and heard a tap at the window. She looked up to see a little girl with curly blonde hair smiling in at her. She was the exact image Alice had seen in the coffin.
“Hey,” Alice said. She fumbled with the car door to roll the window down, and when she looked up again, the little girl was gone.
That was strange, she thought. She wondered if the fumes from the hair dye were making her see things. She scanned the parking lot and saw an old man hobbling along with a cane, but there was no sign of the little girl.
Suddenly, the little girl’s blonde head popped up from behind a blue sedan.
“Hey,” Alice shouted through the open window. “Wait a second.”
The little girl grinned and covered her mouth with her hands. Then, she turned and darted into the graveyard. She stopped and looked back at Alice, motioning for her to follow.
Alice wasn’t keen on chasing a little kid around a graveyard, especially a little kid who looked just like the vision she’d seen in the casket earlier. But, she was pretty sure the little girl was flesh and blood; ghosts didn’t generally knock on windows. Weren’t they more into rattling chains or something? Besides, Alice figured she should probably grab the little brat before she tripped over a headstone or tree root and broke her leg.
She groaned and popped the door open. The little girl was standing on a hill looking at her, and when she spotted Alice climbing out of the car, she turned abruptly and raced down the other side.
“Wait,” Alice yelled after her. “Stop. You’re going to get hurt.”
She slammed the car door in irritation and reluctantly began to jog after the little girl. After a few seconds, she reached the top of the hill, stopped, and looked around. Miles of headstones and trees stretched in every direction. She couldn’t see the little girl anywhere. Then, out of the corner of her eye, she saw a flash of white, and turning her head, she spotted a white ruffled dress disappearing behind a tree.
“Hey,” she yelled. “Stop running. I’m not playing with you.”
She was starting to get angry at the little girl. Little kids could be so annoying.
She was panting a bit by the time she reached the tree where the little girl had disappeared. But when she looked behind the trunk, the child was gone again. That was odd. She’d had a complete view of the tree and the field surrounding it as she’d been running. There was no way the little girl could have snuck away without Alice seeing her.
She heard a giggle a few yards away. It sounded like it was coming from behind a headstone rimmed with weeds. She crept down to the grave marker, and when she reached it, she leaped around it.
“Ha! I’ve got you now, kid,” she said.
But the little girl wasn’t there. Instead, there was a large rectangular hole. Alice was moving too fast to catch herself, and she fell head first into the open grave.
You know that person with that one little flaw--that person who would be perfect...
...if you could just change that one itty-bitty thing.
Or maybe there's someone with a whole lot of flaws, but he has a sweet inner core, and if you could slough off all the ugly stuff on the inside, he'd be a shining star.
If only you could change that person!
So can you change other people?
My answer is a resounding NO!!!!!!! *oh, such ugliness and pessimism* No, no, no, no, no! You can't change other people and you shouldn't even try...
I have met young people over and over again--it tends to be girls, unfortunately--who feel like they can "change" other people--usually boys they like. The thing is that you can't change other people. So if that's true, then why did I write "kind of" above? It's because yes, you can influence them. You can mentor them. You can try to be a role model for other people But the thing is that you can't change them. The only way a person can change is if he or she wants to change. And if that inner desire isn't there, it just ain't going to happen.
Let me give you an example.
I grew up with this very interesting guy. He was good looking, smart, funny--everything you'd think a great guy should be. He came from an impoverished background, and he was raised by a single mom. Expectations for this guy were pretty low, and it reflected in the choices he made throughout his life. He joined the military, left it, got married, had a couple kids, got divorced, went to prison because he couldn't control his temper, became a pothead, and drifted from job to job, mostly returning to Burger King. I've tried over and over again throughout the years to convince this guy that he is worthwhile and intelligent, that he can make his life better, that he can go back to school and create a happy life for himself. And even though he wants to be happy, he wants a better job and a better life, he still refuses to change. He just keeps at the same dead-end lifestyle. And you know what? There's nothing I can do about it. He has to choose the life he wants to lead, and I can't do that for him.
There is a particularly sneaky kind of person out there that you should know about. I've noticed it in guys, but I have no doubt that girls do this too. Read this exchange and see if you can detect how this guy is manipulating the girl.
Boy: I'm not any good at anything.
Girl: That's not true. I'm sure there's a lot you're good at.
Boy: No, I'm not. I wish I were smart like you.
Girl: You're smart. You shouldn't put yourself down.
Boy: I'm just telling the truth. Nobody likes me. I'll never get a girlfriend. I'll just be alone my whole life.
Girl: You're a great guy. Any girl would be lucky to go out with you.
Boy: No girl would ever go out with me. I bet you'd never go out with a guy like me.
How do you respond to something like that? Have you ever met someone like this--someone who reels you in by making you feel sorry for them? This is the strangest tactic I've ever seen, and I have seen it before. I actually knew a guy like this briefly, and there for a second he had me trapped by his pathetic-ness. But then I figured out his game and got away.
These people make you feel like you should help them, like you could be the person who helps them get their life turned around. They hook you by evoking your sympathy and then reel you in by making you feel like you could be their hero. Don't fall for it! Believe me--they've done this over and over again, and it's a manipulation tactic.
Here's what happens when you fall into the black hole of trying to change someone who doesn't want to be changed but keeps stringing you along anyway. You are under constant stress because you know that the other person can change and that the person is worthwhile--if only you could find or say the right thing to help that person. The person becomes your cause, and you devote far too much time to "helping" him or her. You neglect the opportunities in your own life because you're so focused on this other person. Other people associate you with this deadbeat and conclude you must be a deadbeat also. Now, the level of doom and gloom corresponds directly to how much time and effort you devote to your change-up project. For example, the guy I mentioned above--well, I didn't devote too much time to helping him out since I didn't see him that often, so my own life wasn't overly affected by his loserdom.
One of the truly ugly sides of loser manipulation is the abusive relationship. I was just talking to a colleague about this, and we agreed that somehow, without consulting one another, abusers have figured out the magic manipulation formula: be sweet, turn mean, make the other person (usually a girl) believe that it's her fault, become verbally and/or physically abusive, apologize and promise it'll never happen again when she's had enough, and start the whole cycle all over again. The girl stays in the relationship because....*sigh* I'm not a psychologist; there must be tons of reasons the girl stays. One of them, I'm sure, is that she truly believes she can change the other person.
So what does all this mean? Well, here's my advice, and it's going to sound pretty harsh--dump the dead weight in your life. That's right. Don't hang out with people who are downers. You don't have to. And whatever you do, don't feel like you're responsible for their happiness. If someone is a jerk or if someone is a loser, that's their problem, not yours. And if you're with an abuser, get out as soon as it's safe to do so and never look back.
Now I'm not advocating being mean or cruel to people. If someone honestly wants help or wants to change, it's up to you whether or not you should be there for that person. The trick is figuring out when someone is really devoted to changing and when they're just going through the motions.
For other ideas--
Read this article from The Huffington Post. Their conclusion is that you can change other people (say, what?) but only kinda/sorta.
And in this blog post, Lauren Suval says that we should adjust our perspective when we think other people need to change.
If you are in an abusive relationship, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233. If you suspect a loved one is in an abusive relationship, the Hotline has signs to look for.
Have you ever changed another person for the better? How did you do it! (No, really, please share. I would honestly like to know.)
Word and Book Lover.