Other People’s Lifetimes

“Don’t you think it’s funny, the stuff that people keep?” Dana said.
“I find everything you people do a little odd.” Bella responded. “As you know.”

Dana grinned, and kept rummaging through the tables. Garage sales were a surefire way to kill a Saturday afternoon, when you were fourteen, bored, and too cool and unpopular to go to hang at the mall. If Bella didn’t agree, she never said so.

It cracked Dana up when Bella did her “alien among you” schtick. Neither girl was made to feel particularly ordinary by their fellow students – Dana had, in fact, been locked in more than one toilet cubicle for being a “skanky freak” before Bella had come along – but Bella seemed to have made the decision to make her alienation a full-blown ‘thing‘ at some point before they had met.

It was all an act, of course. When they sat around in Dana’s room listening to music – preferably songs designed to make sensitive adolescent boys cry – Bella would admit to being just as lost in all the normal girl stuff that Dana was. Bella was just another skanky freak, when it came down to it.

“This blows.” Dana decided suddenly and out loud. She was prone to catching herself by suprise with her occassional spontaneity, but Bella seemed unfazed. “This is all electronics and tickytacky. Nothing here is older than my sneakers.”
“Doth the lady desire a milkshake?” Bella asked.
“‘Doth the lady’?” Dana blurted. She snorted a laugh. “Hah! You are such a dork.”
“Well, you know…” Bella said, reaching down and scratching absently at her ankle. “I was a blank slate when you found me, so I must have imprinted on you, like a baby bird.”
“That’s your lame way of saying ‘I know you are but what am I’, right?” Dana said. “Okay, milkshakes, but you’re paying.”

Bella’s behaviour was a way of acknowledging the oddness of her home life. Bella’s family had lived in the area since she was five or six years old, though she and Dana hadn’t met till they were both in their teens. Bella’s folks were nurturing and kind parents, and fit much better with the adult community in their suburb than Bella did with the other kids.

But both Bella and Dana had noticed that something was off about the household. The family used the same sort of cutlery as everybody else – they watched the same dumb family movies – the parents tried to enforce the same curfews and used the same weak punishments when those curfews were broken.

There was nothing major that set them apart from everyone else, but Dana never questioned Bella’s assertion that the family was somehow apart – somehow different from the rest of the community.

The only definitive thing that the girls could point to was the lack of family history in their house. There were photos in frames on the mantel, but none of them went back any further than Bella being born. There were photos of her as a toddler, and photos of her parents doting on her. The older Bella got, there were pictures of birthday parties, with friends from back then – faces of little girls that Bella couldn’t even really remember that clearly any more.

But nothing going any further back. No wedding photos. No grandparents, aunts or uncles. Bella had tried asking her mom and dad about their family’s history, and had always come up with nothing. Absolutely nothing. To the extent that it was actually weird. When she asked about where they had lived before moving into town, her mom always suddenly realised that there was baking to do, and her dad would find a reason to step out to the store.

“Come on, bitch. They close in twenty minutes!” Dana yelled. She dragged Bella into the thrift store, and straight past most of the shelves and tables.
“Why do we have to go in back? The dust plays havoc with my sensitive lung.”
“Lungs, you lunatic, and yeah,” Dana said, “that’s where they keep all the good stuff.”

Dana’s particular addiction was for the ephemera of other people’s lives – the more distant those people were from her own life experience, the better. Her home life wasn’t lacking, so much as lackadaisical. Her parents were lovely, but very, very boring.

She had found her way into her hobby in the inside front cover of a second-hand Judy Blume paperback, bought as one of a dozen similar books by her father for a dollar. Her mother would have avoided that particular book, knowing from memory how innappropriate it was for their ten year old daughter, but her unwitting father had contributed to her education, as well as her enlightenment, on that day.

As bewildering as the contents of the novel were to such a young girl, it was the inscription that had really caught her imagination. The book was about young love, and this copy had obviously been passed from one teen girl to another. The inscription spoke of fondness and favourite passages – some of which were actually marked out in the text in pencil – and for Dana it was a window into the much more interesting lives of other people.

Fiction was fine, but even then, she could recognise it as false. But inscriptions, and later old photographs, postcards from lost decades, and family slides gave her access to the hidden details of other people’s lives. They were, as far as she could tell, the key to what made other people more interesting than her and hers, and she found endless romance in them.

“What about these?” Bella said, holding up a bundle of old photographs, held together with string. “These might be interesting. They’re certainly gross enough.” She added, wrinkling her nose at the slightly frayed edges.
Dana gave up on the pile of projection slides that she had diligently been holding up to the light, and went over to her friend. Bella had untied the string, and was leafing through some of the pictures.

She passed the whole lot over to Dana after a few moments, and Dana took up the exploration.
“Why does everyone look so unhappy in them?” Bella asked.
“Well, I guess thems were harder times.” Dana replied, and flipped through a few more photos.
“What…” Bella grunted, pointing at a garish colour image as Dana worked past it, “The seventies?”
“I don’t know, actually. Maybe… hmm.” She stopped cycling through the pictures for a second, and then backed through a couple, taking them from the bottom of the pile in her hand and putting them back on top. “That’s… kinda cool.”
“What is?” Bella said, trying to get a look at the image that Dana was now scrutinising with such interest. All she could tell, from her not-all-that-bothered vantage point, was that the photo was old – so old that it had gone through the fading process, and was turning yellow-brown instead. “Wow, old picture. When’s it from?”
“Well, uh, I don’t know. It’s really pretty old.” She flipped the ancient piece of card in her hand, looking at the back. “Um… 193o-something. It’s faded a lot.”
“So? You’ve found older junk, right?” Bella whined, now starting to feel the pull of the DVDs they had picked out for the night – she was staying over at Dana’s place for the weekend, and movies were what they did, Saturday nights.
“Yeah, but… look who they look like.” Dana said, and passed her the photo.

Bella looked, and saw what Dana was getting at instantly. The photo, that felt strangely light and crisp between her fingers, was of a couple, in front of a covered wagon. The woman was standing in front of the wagon, and the man was at rest on what looked like a travel bundle. She was so distracted by the totally foreign setting of the image – she’d only seen wagons and outfits like that in history class – that it took her a few seconds to notice what Dana had.

Their faces were set in unfamiliar hostile grimaces – the result, she guessed, of primitive flash technology – but the likenesses were uncanny. The couple looked just like her parents.

“Wow!” She said. “That’s just… that’s wild.”
“Isn’t it?” Dana responded. “Hey, maybe it’s a relative. Your great, great, great grandparents, or something?”
“I was grown in a vat, stupid.” Bella reacted, on instinct. “But we have to buy it! My folks will go nuts!”
“Yeah… maybe they’ll even stand still long enough to answer your questions, huh?” Dana said, fishing out her purse.
“Well, let’s not us go nuts.” Bella cautioned. “But still, it’s kinda cool. Did you notice that the guy is holding a baby bundle? Wonder if that kid’s still alive somewhere?”
They paid, and left the store.

That night, they watched a couple of movies, and talked, in the light and in the dark, and both, in their own minds, thought about how cool it was to have a best friend.

That Sunday night, Dana got a call from Bella. Her friend sounded uncharacteristically wiggy from the second Dana answered.
“Hey, uh, hi.”
“Hey!” Dana had said, and then, “What’s up, bitch?”
“Oh, probably nothing.” Bella said, but she sounded a little confused.
“Nothing, probably?” Dana responded.
“Well, it’s just… At dinner I remembered the photo we found, and I thought it would be funny to show the ‘rents.”
“Yeah?”
“Yeah… and, well, it wasn’t. Funny. Neither of them said anything, but then it was like they really weren’t saying anything. And, well, after dinner, I came up to prep for school tomorrow, and it’s, like… They’re downstairs, and they’re talking really low, and it’s pretty intense.”
“Oh, hey, it’s probably nothing, sweetie.” Dana said. As far as it went, each of their parents did things that freaked them out on an almost twice-weekly basis, and that was each girl’s standard answer for when the other got stressed out.
“You think?” Bella asked, and the waver went wondering out of her voice.
“Oh, totally… Your folks are pretty intense anyway, remember.” Dana replied. “You going to be okay?”
“Sure. I think they’ve stopped talking now, anyway. Maybe it was about something else?”
“Yeah, course it was.” Dana said. “I’ll see you tomorrow, okay, crazy girl?”
“Sure thing, mortal being.” Bella replied, and they rang off.

But Bella wasn’t at school the next day, and she wasn’t answering her cell. And when Dana walked by her friend’s house after school, there were no cars in the drive, and no signs of life.

And that was that. Nobody seemed to know why Bella’s parents had taken her out of school, or where they had moved on to. And if they did, adults weren’t in the habit of telling fourteen year old girls stuff like that. You couldn’t force a straight answer out of anyone if you were just a kid – Bella and Dana had learnt that lesson together.

As the years went on, Dana would often wonder what happened to Bella, and try and seek her out, but she always came up empty. The mystery wasn’t the point of it all, anyway. The point of it was that she had lost her best friend, when losing one’s best friend just won’t do, and Dana instinctively knew what would end up being the truth – that it was a loss that she would feel forever.

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Nicolas Papaconstantinou
Nicolas Papaconstantinou is an enthusiastic amateur creative type, and the chap behind Elephant Words. Be nice to him. He growed up kinda wrong.

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