Today brings us week three and chapter two with Ansel. Not only that, the print version of the novel is up and ready for sale right through here, and the ebook version is up for pre-sale, to be fully released on May 30th.
Here’s a little drawing I did of Ansel to get you started. Enjoy chapter two and think about picking up a copy if you can’t wait to see how the story finishes.
Ansel jumped out of bed at the first sight of light and ran to the balcony to watch the sun rise over the Green Belt. In all her years on this planet she had never seen such a beautiful sight. Never before had the sky been so big and blue or the world around her so green and alive. Not even her first day of school could ruin it.
School. Ugh. She shuddered at the thought of it. Maybe school could ruin it.
She heard a creak behind her and turned to find her dad—dark eyes puffy from sleep and still in his pajamas—standing in the balcony door.
“Yyyyuuuuuaaaahhh—Isn’t it beautiful?” he said through a yawn, stretching his arms way up over his head.
“It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” Ansel said, not taking her eyes off the shimmering blue and green.
“Just wait until recess,” her dad said, smiling and nodding. “Then you’ll get to run and play in it with the other children.”
She shuddered at the thought of them, too. “Do I have to, Dad? I could just go play in it now.”
“No, no, Ansel. The schooling is one of the main benefits of living here. Life is more than blue skies and green trees. You should know that as well as anyone coming from where we come from.”
“I know, Dad. But there are blue skies and green trees here. Why can’t I take advantage of that now?”
“Because you need an education. How do you think your mother and I got to where we are now? Hard work and learning everything we could to make ourselves more valuable.”
“And stealing printers,” Ansel mumbled under her breath.
“Excuse me, ma’am.”
“I said what can they teach me that I don’t already know?”
“And just what is it that you think you know?” Her dad smiled.
“Well, I can count… And add. Read most things. And I trap a mean rat. Not to mention I can hit a pigeon from a mile away with my slingshot.” She patted it in her back pocket.
“And I guess that’s everything there is to know.”
“It’s served me just fine.” Ansel crossed her arms.
Ansel’s mom poked her puffy-haired head out of the balcony door. “What’s all the racket out here so early?” she said, coming outside. She looked like she had been up for a while because she was already wearing a purple, flowery dress which Ansel had never seen before.
“Your daughter was just explaining to me how she knows everything there is to know,” her dad said with a smile. “She doesn’t think she needs to go to school because they can’t teach her anything.”
“Is that right?” Her mom looked at Ansel for confirmation.
“Well, not everything,” Ansel said, kicking nothing with her feet. “But I still don’t need school.”
“I beg to differ, ma’am,” her mom said. “Now go put on that new dress of yours, and I’ll walk you down there myself. You should meet some of the kids in the neighborhood, anyway. You’ll need some new friends”
“I want my old friends,” Ansel mumbled.
“Excuse me, ma’am,” her mom said.
“I don’t want to wear a stupid dress!” Ansel stomped her foot. “I want to play in the grass and climb trees.”
“You will wear that dress,” her mom said. “You don’t know the trouble it cost us to get you something so clean and new.”
“But it doesn’t even have pockets,” Ansel complained. “How am I supposed to carry my slingshot without pockets?”
“You aren’t, dear,” her mom said. “You won’t be needing your slingshot at school. I’ll ask you to leave it in your room, please.”
“Go!” Her mom stomped her foot.
Ansel looked to her dad for help, but he avoided eye contact with her by pretending to be enjoying the view of the Belt. With no more lines of defense, she stomped to her room to get dressed.
Her new bedroom was smaller than her bedroom back home, but it didn’t make a difference, it still fit her bed and dresser with the mirror on top. She looked at herself in the mirror. She was from the Green Belt now, but she didn’t feel any different. A pencil drawing of two girls holding hands was stuck in the corner of the frame. Looking at it made her miss Katie back home. Katie would probably wake up today and go out trapping rats or hunting pigeons. She definitely wouldn’t be going to any stupid school. But at least there was the Green Belt to look forward to. There was no green grass or blue sky in Katie’s future. Not anytime soon, at least. Just the concrete, tar, and steel of completely streets and the oppressive skyline of rows and rows of skyscrapers.
Ansel’s mom called in to see if she was ready, and Ansel called back to say almost. She got the dress out of her dresser and rubbed the blue floral cloth between her fingers. It was soft and clean and new, she had to give her mom that much. Ansel wasn’t sure if she had ever seen clothes made from anything but recycled rags, and now she was holding just that in her hands. But it was still a dress, and a dress was no good for playing in an open field or climbing trees. She had never played in an open field or climbed a tree in her life, and even she knew that. She also knew that she wouldn’t get out of the house without the dress on, though, so she relented. When she slipped it on over her head, it was so soft and smooth, she felt like she wasn’t wearing anything at all, a second skin. She almost blushed when she walked out to show her parents.
“Now that is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” her dad said.
Her mom said nothing. She just stared with a little moisture in her eyes.
“Are you alright mom?” Ansel asked when she noticed.
“Yes, dear,” she said. “I—You’re lovely, dear. Just lovely.” She smiled.
“Thanks, ma,” Ansel said, although she thought she would look just as good with a new pair of pants and t-shirt on, it was just the fact that the dress was new that made them like it.
“Alright,” her mom said. “Let’s go on then. Say goodbye to your father.”
Her dad squatted down and gave her a big hug. “Remember that you always have something to learn, Ansel,” he said. “And everyone knows something you don’t know. But most of all remember to have fun out there. Okay.”
He kissed her on the head. “I love you, sweetheart,” he said. “See you after class. You’ll have to tell me all about it.”
He gave her one last hug and let her go.
“Alright, sweetheart. Let’s go.” Her mom held out a hand and Ansel grabbed it.
Their apartment was on the fifth floor of a nine floor walk up. The sound of their steps echoed through the stairwell as they made their descent. Walking out the front door of the building was like walking into Ansel’s old neighborhood. The apartment opened up onto the Street side of the building and all they could see were the lines and lines of skyscrapers towering over either side of them. It felt like a comforting embrace to Ansel.
They walked around their apartment building toward the Green Belt which was called that because it was exactly a green belt: a long skinny strip of green grass and trees in the middle of a sea of tall balconied buildings. It was two blocks wide and as long as the eye could see. For all Ansel knew it went on forever and ever without end. The school was right on the edge of the Belt, and only families who lived right on the edge themselves could send their children there. Graduates of the Green Belt Day School went on to hold top positions in all the most important families.
“Ansel, dear,” her mom said as they walked along the grass, holding hands. “There’s something I need to say to you.”
But Ansel couldn’t keep her eyes off the trees and the bugs and the sky. She wanted to study and understand all of it. If only she didn’t have to go to stupid school.
“Are you listening to me, Ansel?” her mom said.
“Yeah, ma,” Ansel said, not listening.
“Ansel.” Her mom stopped dead in her tracks. Ansel’s arm yanked back and she stopped, too. “Ansel. I’m serious.”
“Yes, mother,” she said. “I’m listening.” And she really was this time. She stared at the silver necklace her mom was wearing so she wouldn’t be distracted from her words.
“Ansel,” her mom said. “I know you don’t want to go to school—and I don’t blame you, really, because, honestly, they won’t be able to teach you much you don’t already know—but you have to understand that school is about more than that. You have to put up with the teachers while you teach yourself how to interact with your classmates. Do you understand?”
Ansel nodded. “I think so.”
Her mom looked deep into her eyes and smiled. “Of course you don’t, kiddo,” she said, shaking her head. “Its nonsense. To tell you the truth, I don’t really know what I’m saying. But let me say something else. We do nothing alone. You got that? Can you repeat it for me?”
“We do nothing alone,” Ansel said with a nod.
“That’s right, sweetheart,” her mom said with a smile. “Now, there’s one more thing that’s even more important for you to remember, more important than anything in the whole entire world. Do you want to know what it is?”
“I love you, Ansel. I always will.” She kissed Ansel on the top of the head.
“I love you too, mom.”
Her mom brought her in for a hug. She was wiping her eyes when she let go, but Ansel didn’t notice because a bug with big colorful wings fluttered by and distracted her.
“What’s that, ma?” she asked, running to catch it.
“A butterfly, dear,” her mom said. “Like my necklace.”
“I thought your necklace was silver,” Ansel said, getting further into the grass. “That thing was colorful.”
“My necklace is silver but butterflies aren’t,” her mom said. “Now let’s get going.”
The school was on the first floor of a squat grey building. There were two women standing at the doorway, and Ansel’s mom had to literally drag her away from the grass to meet them.
“Ah, this must be Ansel,” the older of the two—with white hair—said. “We were expecting you.”
Ansel tried one last time to run off to the grass but her mom held strong.
“You’d rather be playing in the field,” the other woman said. She was younger and had darker hair.
Ansel didn’t respond. She kicked dust at her feet.
“Me, too,” the younger woman said with a smile. “That’s why I’m having class outside today.”
“Did you hear that?” her mom said.
“Am I in your class?” Ansel asked.
The younger woman looked over at the white-haired woman who nodded with a solemn face. “It seems you are.”
Ansel dropped her mom’s hand and grabbed the younger woman’s. “Alright. Come on, then. Let’s go,” she said, trying to pull the woman out to the Belt.
“Slow down, child. You have to meet the rest of the class, first. Go on inside. Room two. I’d like to have a word with your mother before I follow.”
“Oh, alright,” Ansel said with a sigh, dropping the woman’s hand and stomping inside. Her mom called out that she loved her as she did.
Behind the glass door of the school was a long hall with speckled vinyl floors and faded teal walls. The rooms were numbered with signs that had foreign dots under them. Ansel studied the little formation of dots under the one sign, wondering what they meant, then she remembered that she was supposed to go to room two and walked that way. She held her breath for a second, trying to imagine the worst thing that could be on the other side of the door before she opened it, and what she found was so much worse.
There was a chalkboard with a name written on it: Mrs. Lerner. Ansel assumed it was the teacher’s name. There were also rows of desks, each with kids, mostly light-skinned, sitting behind them, and all in shiny, new, clean clothes. She felt for a second like she was standing naked in front of them, then she remembered her own shiny new dress and felt even more embarrassed than she would have been if she actually was naked. She felt her face flush, making her mad at herself for being embarrassed, and clenched her fists, not sure if she should sit down or wait for Mrs. Lerner since they were going outside anyway.
“Don’t you know how to sit, girl?” came a mocking voice from a back corner of the room.
The class erupted in laughter.
“I can teach you if that’s what you’re asking,” Ansel yelled back at the room in general.
“Ooooh!” came a lonely voice from the other corner of the room. Everyone in the class turned to see who it was.
“Shut up, Pidgeon!” a large boy yelled, chucking a wadded up piece of paper at the boy who had Ooooh!ed.
“You shut up!” Pidgeon yelled back just as Mrs. Lerner walked in the door.
“Richard Maid. You apologize right now,” she said before the door closed. “We do not tell people to shut up in this class. Do you understand me? You’re setting a bad example for our new student.”
“But Mrs. Lerner,” Pidgeon said. “I—”
“No, sir,” Mrs. Lerner said. “I don’t want to hear it. Apologize.”
The class Ooooh!ed together.
“Class!” Mrs. Lerner quieted them.
“It wasn’t his fault, ma’am,” Ansel said, looking at the floor.
“I’m sorry, child?” Mrs. Lerner said. “You’ll have to speak up.”
Ansel looked over at Pidgeon. He waved his hands and shook his head, trying to communicate something Ansel couldn’t understand. “Don’t blame Pidgeon, ma’am,” she said. “I started it. It’s my fault.”
“Oh…Well.” Mrs. Lerner looked from Ansel to Pidgeon and back again. “If that’s so, you’re not making a very productive start to your first day here, Miss Server.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Ansel said, shaking her head and still looking at the floor. “I’m sorry, ma’am.”
“I’ll let it slide this once,” Mrs. Lerner said. “Now, class, this is our new student Ansel.”
“Good morning, Ansel,” the class sang in unison.
“Please take a seat so we can get started, Miss Server.”
“I—but—” Ansel protested. “I thought you said we were going outside.”
The class laughed.
“We will, child,” Mrs. Lerner said. “But first we have to take care of business. All play and no work. You know. Now please, Miss Server, take a seat. There’s one…”
“There’s one right here, Mrs. Lerner,” Pidgeon said.
The class Ooooh!ed again.
“Mr. Maid,” Mrs. Lerner said. “That’s strike two. If you act out one more time today, I’m reporting you to the principal.”
“Strike two?” Pidgeon complained. “But I—”
“Richard.” Mrs. Lerner said.
“Yes, ma’am.” Pidgeon put his head down on his desk.
“Now, Miss Server,” Mrs. Lerner said. “Please take your seat and we’ll get started.”
Ansel hesitated but knew protesting was futile. She was under Mrs. Lerner’s control now, she had no say in the matter. She took as long as she could to walk back to her seat, though, her small act of defiance.
“Okay,” Mrs. Lerner said. “Where did we leave off yesterday? Ah yes. I remember. The history of the ownership of the Green Belt. Now, no one knows the history of the entire Belt. That would be impossible. No, let us not concern ourselves with that big of a picture for now. What concerns us is the local familial relationships in our immediate area of the Belt. If we start here with the Concierge sector—owned, of course, by the Concierge family and subsidiaries…”
Ansel lost all power of concentration at that. She couldn’t get her mind over one little speed bump, one sentence that Mrs. Lerner stated as a matter of fact then breezed right over. No one knows the history of the entire Belt. How could that be? Someone had to know. Didn’t they? Or could it go on for ever and ever like everyone always said it did? Before she realized it, Ansel blurted out, “But how?”
“Excuse me, Ansel,” Mrs. Lerner said. “Please raise your hand the next time you would like to speak. But how did the McCannick’s usurp the original Union? That’s a good question, and the explanation goes back to before the—”
“No,” Ansel said, shaking her head. “How does no one know the history of the entire Belt?”
“Again, Miss Server,” Mrs. Lerner said. “Raise your hand if you would like to speak.”
Ansel raised her hand.
“How does no one know the history of the entire Belt?”
“Well, that, too, is a very good question, child,” Mrs. Lerner said. “I would say that it’s a result of the fact that—”
A loud, metallic, clanging bell drowned out her voice. Ansel jumped in her seat—knocking her desk over—at the sound of it. The class laughed at her reaction as they filed out of the room.
“The cafeteria’s just down the hall, miss Server,” Mrs. Lerner said after everyone else had left the room. “Would you like me to show you the way?”
“I can find it myself,” Ansel said, setting her desk up again.
“Very good,” Mrs. Lerner said. “Just see to it that you’re back in your seat promptly after the bell.”
The door to room two clicked closed behind her. Ansel ignored the growling in her stomach, and instead of dealing with the inevitable insults from the class—and possibly other classes—in the cafeteria, she decided to take this time to explore the Belt. She hadn’t had a chance to play in the green grass since they moved there and it didn’t look like any sort of outside time was actually on Mrs. Lerner’s agenda.
Ansel opened the door and glared out into the sunlight. The sun was exactly overhead, so the belt was spotted with patches of inviting shade under each tree. Ansel couldn’t help herself but to run over to one of them and try to climb it. First she did a few circles around the trunk, looking for a good place to grip it, and when she thought she had planned a course, she went to work, hand over hand, one step at a time, up the tree. She was ten feet off the ground when she heard a familiar voice from above say, “Hey! What are you doing in my tree?”
She looked up to see who it was but couldn’t make the person out through the thick foliage. “I don’t see your name on it!” she called up anyway. Her time in the Streets had taught her that letting too many insults slide was dangerous, and one was too many.
“Technically, my name is on it,” the voice came back. “I’ve carved it in all over the place.”
“Pidgeon, is that you?” Ansel said, starting up the tree again.
“Who’d you think it was?” he called back down.
“You know,” she said, she could see him now, petting a little, black, furry creature on the branch next to him. “You didn’t have to let me take all the heat this morning.”
“I didn’t ask you to take any of it,” he said.
“Well, part of it was mine, wasn’t it?” She sat on a branch a little higher than his in case he tried anything funny. He still didn’t have to look up to see her, though. Ansel thought he looked a few years older than her, but she couldn’t tell how many. “And I wasn’t going to let the class think I was a snitch and tell her it was really that asshole’s fault,” she added.
“Jimmy?” Pidgeon chuckled. “He is a—an ass hole isn’t he?” The way he said it, it looked like it tasted about how it sounded.
“If that’s his name,” Ansel said. “Then yes.”
“It is,” Pidgeon said. “And mine’s Richard.”
“I like Pidgeon.”
“I don’t.” He shook his head, petting the cat.
“Pidgeon,” Ansel said. “Who’s your friend?”
Pidgeon grimaced. He pet the furry little beast a few times before deciding the battle wasn’t worth fighting, exposing a fatal weakness. One was too many.
“This is Mr. Kitty,” he said.
“Yeah. He’s always hanging out in this tree at lunch. That’s why I came up here. I wanted to see if he would be here again.”
Ansel didn’t know why someone would skip lunch just to pet a cat, but she did want to touch it. It sat there licking itself, letting Pidgeon scratch its back as it did.
“You can pet him if he’ll let you,” Pidgeon said. “He won’t bite.”
“I know!” she yelled, which caused the cat jump.
“You scared him!” Pidgeon yelled back, scaring it more.
“Now you did!” Ansel said, and the cat jumped off the branch and down the tree where it seemed to disappear.
“Look what you did now,” Pidgeon said. “Now I have to wait until tomorrow to try again.”
“Try what?” Ansel asked, but Pidgeon wasn’t paying any attention. His ears were perked up and he was listening to a far off sound that Ansel couldn’t hear.
“That’s the bell, anyway,” he said. “We better go. Come on.” He started his quick, monkey-like descent down the tree.
“Wait,” Ansel called after him. “Try what?” But it was too late, he was gone. She hurried down the tree after him, but by the time she caught up, they were both sitting in their desks and Mrs. Lerner had already gone on talking about which families controlled which local sectors of the Green Belt and how they got that way.
“What were you trying to do up there?” Ansel whispered to Pidgeon who pretended to be listening to Mrs. Lerner so he could ignore her.
“Psst. Pidgeon,” Ansel said. “Listen to me.”
“Shhh,” he shushed her.
“Mr. Maid,” Mrs. Lerner said. “Quiet down please.”
“No, sir,” she said. “I said quiet. Now, where was I…”
After she went on for a while Ansel whispered, “Pidgeon. Tell me.”
“Tomorrow, okay,” he whispered back. “Or after class.”
“Now!” she said too loudly.
“Miss Server,” Mrs. Lerner said. “You, too, child. Do I have to separate you two on your first day of class?”
The class Ooooh!ed, and Ansel decided she could wait until Mrs. Lerner was done droning on. It seemed like an eternity. When the final bell rang and everyone scrambled out of their seats, Ansel was ready and up as fast as anyone, but Mrs. Lerner had them all sit down again before they could leave.
“Alright, children,” she said. “You did very well today. Your parents would be proud. Now, I want you all to look forward to tomorrow because we’ll be holding class outside.” She paused for a reaction but no one responded. “For homework tonight,” she went on. “I want you all to think about how your family got to where they are today and to compare that to what we’ve learned about the families who came to own the Green Belt throughout its history. Very good now, children. Have a nice day. See you tomorrow.”
By the time she said “history” half the class had already left. Pidgeon got up and out before Ansel, but she ran to catch up with him outside and grabbed him by the arm to stop him.
“What were you doing up there?” she demanded.
“I told you already,” he said, shrugging her off. “What do you want?”
“You were just petting a cat? That’s it?”
“Is there something wrong with that?”
“I just—” Ansel looked out at the sprawling green of the Belt, at the tree they had climbed and the blue sky above. “No. I just thought there had to be more to it than that. Where’d that cat come from, anyway?”
“That’s exactly what I was trying to find out!” He smiled.
“Is that why they call you Pidgeon? Because you spend your lunch in the tree?”
The smile faded. He looked at the ground and shook his head. “No. No one even knows I come out here for lunch. We’re not supposed to. If they knew I did, there would be no way I could.”
Ansel wanted to know more about how he got his name, but she could tell it was a sore subject, and she didn’t want their already rocky start to get any worse. We do nothing alone.
“So what’s with that teacher?” she asked to change the subject. “I thought we were supposed to have class outside today. And what about recess? I was told there would be recess.”
“Ha!” Pidgeon chuckled. “Recess is a lie. Mrs. Lerner’s a liar. The sooner you learn that the better.”
“And that cat…” Ansel said.
“Mr. Kitty, yeah. You only see it when—”
“Him,” Pidgeon said, cutting her off. “He’s not an it.”
“Okay,” Ansel said. “You only see him at lunch. Have you ever seen him any other time?”
“Nope,” Pidgeon said, shaking his head. “Just in the tree at lunch. It was pure luck I found him the first time, too. I was out here, playing with some bugs in the grass, when Mrs. Lerner and Mrs. Grover came out and walked right up to the tree I was sitting under. I had no choice but to climb up it, and I found him sitting up there all alone.” He smiled and shrugged.
“Do you see a lot of cats around the Belt?” Ansel asked.
“Well, it’s the first cat I’ve ever seen. I haven’t lived here all that long, but that’s why I wanted to find him. Have you ever seen one before?”
Ansel shook her head. “Heard of em. And I’ve eaten some—so I’ve been told—but I’ve never seen a live one.”
“Where do you think it came from?” Pidgeon asked.
“I don’t know.” Ansel shrugged. “But I know how to find out.”
She didn’t wait for a response, setting out for the tree at full speed. Pidgeon did his best to keep up, but even with his climbing ability, Ansel was sitting on the same branch she sat on for lunch, with her breath back, before he got there.
“What—” Pidgeon tried to say through his huffing and puffing. “Way—is—that?”
“Well, this way,” Ansel said.
Pidgeon clearly didn’t understand, but he was too out of breath to argue.
“You’ve only ever seen the cat here, right?”
“Then we have to wait here until it—until he comes back. Once we see him again, we follow him. Simple as that.”
“That’s what I was trying to do when you interrupted me at lunch,” Pidgeon said.
“Then why’d it take you so long to understand the plan?”
“Besides, I already know when he’s coming back. Lunchtime tomorrow. Like always.”
“Yeah, but do you know he doesn’t come around at other times?”
“I know he comes at lunch and leaves after,”
“Have you ever sat out here any other time? Does he come every lunch?”
Pidgeon didn’t answer. He looked down at his feet and played with the hem of his shirt.
“I thought so,” she said. “Now I’m gonna stay out here and wait for him. You can do whatever you want.” She turned away from Pidgeon to look up at the branches of the tree.
After a long silence he said, “Why are you interested in this cat, anyway?”
Ansel shrugged. “I dunno,” she said. “I haven’t thought about it. I just like to hunt, I guess.”
“I don’t know,” Pidgeon said. He broke a twig off of the branch next to him and tore it to tiny pieces. “I think its more than that.”
“You don’t even know me.”
Pidgeon shrugged. “I guess.” He tossed the little bits of branch down into the foliage where they disappeared into the tree, indistinguishable. “Have you ever heard of the legend of the Curious Cat?”
“Of course I have,” Ansel said. “So what?”
“I don’t know.” He shrugged. “Do you—Do you think it’s real?”
Ansel turned slowly to look at him. She couldn’t tell if he was being sincere or looking for a weakness. His eyes were averted, like he was a little embarrassed to even bring it up. He either wasn’t looking for a weakness, or he was a really good actor. “Why do you ask?”
“Do you think—” he said. “I mean—I don’t know. Do you think this could be him?”
Ansel laughed. Pidgeon didn’t, though. “You’re saying to me that you think this is the mythical Curious Cat who knows the way to Prosperity.”
“I—I don’t know,” Pidgeon said. “I’m sayin—I’m saying that I think he could be.”
“And you’re trying to find out where it comes from so you can follow it there?”
“I mean—Well, yeah. Wouldn’t you? Don’t you believe it’s true?”
She looked him up and down, sizing him up. She still wasn’t sure if she trusted what she saw. Finally she said, “We should take the tree in shifts if we want to cover the most time.”
# # #
Thanks again for joining us. If you don’t want to wait another week to read the rest of the story, order a print version of the book now or pre-order the ebook version, available next Saturday, May 30th.