Watchers & Dancers

by RoZita B.

Of two sisters, one is always the watcher, one the dancer. -Louise Gl├╝ck

1. Sleeves and Snowflakes

A passing stranger might have thought a riot was taking place at the high school. Shouts rang out, lockers banged, engines revved, doors slammed, feet stomped, books fell, shrieks of laughter, insults, whoops and hollers issuing into the cold winter afternoon light, until it seemed the snow would be shaken from the treetops in a minor avalanche.

And some of the racket was even coming from the students.

"Halle-frickin'-lujah, we're free!" Jodie March said as she and Lisa Fox put on their wraps. "So at what exotic locale will you be spending your Christmas holidays, girlfriend? Aruba, Jamaica, or..."

"Miami Beach," Lisa said as she bundled herself into her warm, expensive-looking furry coat, pulling up the hood over her silver-blonde hair, with just a glance at Jo's shabby plaid jacket which she was attempting to zip. "That's the first time I've seen you wear my grandma's cheerleader sweater to school," she remarked.

"Yeah well, I thought since it was the last day of school, I'd haul off and wear it," Jo said as she gave the zipper another good yank. The sweater was mustard yellow, with black and yellow striped sleeves, the word HORNET appliqued in big black letters with a fierce-looking gigantic insect of that designation below. The word was originally HORNETS, but the S had come off. Lisa had found the sweater among her grandmother's things after she died, and Jo had taken a fancy to it, although she was no cheerleader. "I think its feelings were getting hurt. So you're high-tailing it to Miami?"

"Yeah. What a bore, right? I guess you'll be Christmasing here with your family?"

"Yep. Great-aunt Martha's going to Myrtle Beach, so I won't be stuck with trying to keep her from sleepwalking on the stairs on weekends. For a moment I thought she was going to ask me to come with her, so I whisked my skinny butt out of there before she could get the words halfway out of her mouth. I'm happier than a witch in a broom factory now."

She tried not to sound too jealous and defiant. Lisa looked thoughtfully at her locker a moment, then at Jo, and her eyes were wistful, much to her friend's surprise.

"Jojo...please don't let this get around," she said almost in a whisper, "but..." here she glanced about to make sure no one was listening. All the other students were slamming lockers, jabbering like a flock of geese, yet Lisa dropped her voice. "I envy you. Yes, really. I wish I had sisters like you do, and that my parents were still together, and that we could spend the holidays here. I hate those stupid resorts. I'd change places with you in a heartbeat, I really would. You won't tell anybody?"

Jo stared at her dumbfounded, her zipper still halfway up. She and Lisa had been friends when they were little. They had grown apart, Lisa favoring the jet-set crowd she now ran with, or so it seemed, while Jo was consigned to the fringes of the less well to do. She did have some standing among her classmates, being on the girls' basketball team and the softball team, and she wrote some clever pieces for the school paper. But she was definitely not one of the popular crowd, nor did she wish to be. Although she and Lisa were on good terms yet, she never supposed they would ever again be close as they had once been.

So naturally she was taken aback by Lisa's confession. Who knew?

"I'll take it to my grave," she said solemnly. "Nothing short of a plate of Hannah's double-fudge pecan brownies shall pry it from these cold, dead lips."

"Well, hope you have a merry Christmas," Lisa said regaining her composure with admirable swiftness, although she was not quite all bubbles and light as she was with the more popular students. "There's Britt and Chass waving at me. Sure you don't want to ride home with us?"

"I'll pass," Jo said. "I doubt you could squeeze me in anyway, unless you use me for a hood ornament. There's Meg now. Ride a dolphin for me."

Meghan, Jo's older sister, was talking with a couple of her friends when Jo came running up to her, back-pack jouncing behind her.

"Megs!" she called, sliding on the icy pavement just outside the gym where many excited students were awaiting the buses, talking, grumbling, laughing, shoving each other, swapping holiday plans. Then she lost her footing and landed on her behind, sliding several feet until she came neatly to a stop right before her sister, who looked down at her in exasperated embarrassment, although without surprise. Several students snickered, one boy shouting, "Way to go, Jojo!" Jo looked up with a cheeky grin.

"Think that's something, wait'll you see my triple axle," she said as she got herself to her feet. "Ow, I think I busted something. I smell a big fat lawsuit coming out of this."

"Jo," Meg said rolling her eyes as she extended a gloved hand to help her sister up, "when are you going to learn not to run on the ice? Are you really hurt?"

"No, momma," Jo said as she settled her backpack back on her shoulder, "Gah, where did this mob come from? I didn't know there were so dang many people at this podunk school. Fall on your behonkus and they all come out of the woodwork."

"Well, come on, Jo," Meg said, "or we'll miss the bus. Here it comes now."

"Let's hoof it," Jo said as she walked with her sister to the stop where students were gleefully pummeling each other with snowballs, some less good-naturedly than others. "I hate that damn bus. It'll be like a prison riot on it. And walking will be good exercise, and we can go window shopping on Main Street."

"Watch your language," Meg said, and considered her sister's proposal. The word "exercise" did the trick, for Meg worried incessantly about her weight. And in truth, she didn't like the bus any more than Jo did. "Ok then. Maybe we'll get a ride with somebody along the way."

No stranger would have taken the girls for sisters at first glance. Meg, at sixteen, had long soft brown hair and a fair oval face devoid of makeup. Her white coat was cheap, but she wore it so well it looked expensive. She was not really fat, only curvy, but she often supposed people were seeing masses of blubber when they looked at her. What they actually saw was a lovely young girl with soulful blue eyes and a spirituality rare to find any more.

Jo, though a year younger, was two inches taller, all sharp angles and arms and legs. Under rather thick eyebrows her eyes were grey with flecks of hazel, and they seemed to see everything-that is, as she was wont to say, when her nose didn't get in the way. She had a tiny gap between her two front teeth and a pointed chin, and long thick chestnut hair she was always threatening to cut, worn in a braid that poked through a hole in the polka-dotted knit cap she wore. When she thought of it at all, she supposed people saw a klutzy tomboy with a huge nose, goofy clothing and a terminal bad hair day. Yet some also saw a youngster with high spirits and irrepressible good humor, who was rarely dull to have around.

"Wonder if Beth and Hannah are baking cookies," Jo said referring to their younger sister and their mother's friend, who cleaned house for them once a week and home-schooled Beth. "I hope so. Been thinking about 'em for over an hour now."

"I don't know," Meg said. "You know how tight money's been this year. Guess I should look on the bright side-at least I won't gain so much weight over the holidays."

"And I'll have a chance to work on my novel," Jo said. "I still can't make up my mind whether to have Lady Elianna turn into a vampire, or retain her maidenly purity and redeem Sir Emirion from his evil ways. Which reminds me, I fixed the Christmas play. I took out those lame lines and put in some new ones for you."

"I am so not doing this next year," Meg said. "Remember when Dad used to tape our Christmas programs and show them to our relatives? I'd just die if...anyone taped us this year. It might even end up on Youtube, and then I'd never be able to hold my head up again. And don't you dare get any big ideas from that!"

"It is kinda embarrassing," Jo said softly. "But you know what, I wouldn't mind it...if only Dad was here this year. Won't seem like the same without him. Just wish I could see him-glasses, big nose, corny jokes and all."

"I wish he hadn't gone to Afghanistan," Meg said. "I don't see what good he could do there anyway, at his age. Even as a chaplain."

"I wish there wasn't any reason for him to go," Jo said. "Maybe Mom will rent a vidcam and record the play, and send it to him. I wouldn't mind as long as he's the only one who sees it...Well, whup me with a greenstick, look who's coming. Eddy Moffat, as I live and breathe. Joy to the world."

A gleaming silver Porsche pulled up and slowed, the window on the driver's side descended, the heavy metal music that was playing inside it at a migraine-inducing level suddenly subsided, and a blondish handsome head poked itself out, saying, "Hey there baby doll, want a ride?"

Meg looked uncertainly at him, then at her sister. "Jo," she said, "do you want to-"

"I meant you, angel," Ed said letting the ashes of his cigarette fly out the window. "I'm afraid I don't have room for your friend. Unless we put her in the trunk. Or let her run on behind."

"She's my sister, as you well know," Meg said with dignity. Jo's scowl ironed itself into a grin. "And if she doesn't ride, then I don't."

Without a word, Ed sped off, tires screeching, nearly running into a couple of little girls crossing the street. He swore at them and then drove away at a slightly more reasonable speed.

"And they say I have a temper," Jo remarked. "I'm guessing he's pissed that you don't appreciate the fact that he likes you despite your looowly status on the social register. You ungrateful wretch, you."

Meg's cheeks were slightly flushed, and not from the cold. Jo looked sharply at her.

"Please tell me you don't like him too?" she said. "Pretty please with whipped cream and a cherry on top?"

"Well," Meg hedged, "no. He is a jerk. But still, it's not like I've got guys falling all over themselves to date me, and he's, well..."

"Filthy rich," Jo said rolling her eyes. "Well, Christopher Columbus, that just hides a multitude of sins, what? You wouldn't give that dirtbag the time of day if he was as poor as us, would ya?"

"Jo, I don't like him any better than you do, even though I was friends with his sisters back before Dad lost all our money. He was a spoiled brat even then. Still, it doesn't hurt to have friends in high places. If you don't have good connections, you won't ever rise out of the hole where you are."

"Where did you hear that one? Home ec class? No wonder I didn't take it."

"It's just a fact of life, Jo. It's..."

"Not what you know, it's who you know," Jo finished for her. "Actually, it's not who you know, it's what you've got on 'em."

She had read that somewhere. Meg just shrugged.

"Speaking of guys," she said brightening a little, "have you seen the new boy yet?"

"New boy?"

"Don't play innocent with me, Jo March. You know perfectly well who I'm talking about."

"Oh, the one that moved in across the street from us?"

"I heard he was cute. And about your age." Meg looked sidelong at her sister with a little smile.

"He's not bad, if you like dark, brooding, angsty types in preppie attire," Jo admitted. "I got a peek at him."

"And you didn't tell me? When was this momentous occasion?" Meg stopped and looked straight at her sister.

"Just the other day. You and Beth were at choir practice, Mom was at work, Hannah was baking bread, and Amy was plastered all over the TV set. I was bored and feeling nosy, so I decided to take the mail out of their box and tell them it got put in ours by mistake. I-"

"Jo, you didn't! Then again, maybe you did. It sounds like something you'd do."

"Well, I thought of borrowing a cup of sugar, but didn't think I could pull it off. Their name is Laurence, by the way. With a u. I saw it on the envelopes. Some woman answered the door-their housekeeper, obviously. I was expecting a butler with a monocle and an evil gleam in his eye. She looked at me like she knew I was using the mail thingy as a pretext, but she said she'd take it, and that's when I saw him peeking out of a door at me. And then I heard a man's voice yell, 'Theodore!' and you could have knocked me over with the proverbial feather. The last thing he looked like was a Theodore. But he turned and said, 'Coming, Granddad,' with a bit of a sigh, and disappeared into the room. But not before I got a gander at the books and the piano in there."

"Oh, wow," Meg said, "and you're just now telling me all this."

"Well," Jo said, "good ol' Uncle Charles was there last night, and you know how he likes to tease us about boys and all, so I thought I'd save it for later. And then I got sidetracked. But wow, you should have seen the house inside. Sure it's big, and it's got those stone lions out front that you used to be scared of, but-"

"I wasn't scared of them. Beth and Amy were. A certain someone used to tell them they were enchanted by an evil sorceress and were known to come to life at certain times of the year and bite people's legs off." Meg looked sidelong at her sister.

"Yeah, well. I always thought they were cool. The place is almost as gloomy-doomy as it looks on the outside...so I wasn't too disappointed. There were a couple of swords crossed over the mantelpiece-the gas-log fire below kinda spoiled the effect, but not too much. And a portrait of some old geezer over the sofa, and a pretty neat antique chandelier, that I would have loved to swing on, except the old guy kept giving me dirty looks, like he knew what I was thinking. I guess they keep the suit of armor with the uplifted battle-axe elsewhere. I'd give a pretty to see that library. Maybe that's where they keep the armor."

"Bookworm," Meg said grinning. "So...did you speak to him?"

"No, unfortunately," Jo admitted. "He smiled at me a little. I guess he had a cold-he was sniffling a bit, and then I heard him sneeze. Maybe you could go over there and...comfort him or something." She winked.

"Oh, he's too young for me," Meg said with a wave of her hand. "He isn't even old enough to drive yet. But," her eyes twinkled also, "maybe he'll be the one. The one who'll tame you, bring out your feminine side."

"Yeah, right," Jo scoffed, "me with my eagle beak and my ninety-pounds-soaking-wet frame and my frog-flipper feet and my uni-brow. Put me in a pair of silver long johns and paint my nose red, white and blue, and I could pass for a flagpole."

Meg giggled. "Jo, you're such a nut. And you're not that bad, you know. You have very nice eyes and beautiful hair. If you'd do something about those eyebrows, and fix your hair pretty instead of putting it in that dumb braid, and your clothes-"

"Oh please. Olive Oyl has a better figure. Besides, when all those jet-set divas get a look-see at him, they'll be on him like ugly all over an ape. Even you wouldn't stand a chance."

Meg's pretty face fell. "I know what you mean...Well, here's Main Street. Sure you want to walk this way?"

"Sure, why not? We can look at all the stuff we won't be getting for Christmas. We'll be lucky to get a pair of warm socks this year. Being poor massively sucks. But hey, a gal can dream, right?"

Main Street was bedizened with lights, bells, snowflakes, Santa Clauses, reindeer, everything Christmas, yet there were few people about. The atmosphere was rather like that of a party few cared to attend.

"Wow," Jo said, "this town looks so totally Norman Rockwell, and yet nobody's even looking at it."

"They're all at the mall," Meg said.

"Yup. Well, better them than us. I hate holiday crowds. Too bad those politically correct idiots wouldn't let the Salvation Army people out front this year. I miss seeing them at the five-and-dime, as Hannah calls it."

"Well, they wouldn't get much here anyway," Meg said as they paused before a dress shop window featuring holiday gowns. The voice of Patti Page singing "Silver Bells" could be heard over the small loudspeaker above the shop door, sounding strangely small and forlorn. "What would you buy for yourself if you had enough money?"

"Nothing here. I'd look ridiculous in any of that stuff. There's what I'd buy." Jo nodded toward the sporting goods store next to the boutique, indicating a pair of skis.

"But you don't ski," Meg pointed out.

"If I was wealthy enough for those puppies, I could afford ski lessons. What would you get?"

"Goodness," sighed Meg, "where to begin? I think I'd start with that." She indicated a royal blue velvet evening gown with glittery rhinestones and faux pearls all over the yoke. "Of course, I'd have to lose about twenty pounds to fit into it."

"Hoss crap," Jo said inelegantly. "You'd look classic in it, and you know it. Now look at that music store across the street. Which of those pianos would Bethy pick? That gleaming Steinway concert grand?"

"Of course not. I think she'd take that gorgeous little white baby grand next to it."

"Really? I think she'd go for the cute little upright with the mahogany finish and the curlicued rack and that round velvet-covered stool. Looks just like her. Wish I could buy it for her myself. That old thing we've got is beyond tuning."

"Yeah," Meg sighed as they ambled along. "Too bad she had to quit school on account of those stupid kids always teasing her about her shyness. And she's such a little sweetheart, too."

"Yep," Jo said. "Look, there's what Amy would buy." Amy was their youngest sister, who was only eleven, but artistically talented.

They paused before an art supply store, where a magnificent easel stood in the display window, a huge canvas showing a winter scene resting on it, and a box of oil paints and brushes on the seat. Amy was now having to make do with a kitchen chair for an easel.

"Well, let's go," Meg said at last. "No use wishing for what we can't have. I can see why people get depressed this time of year."

"I don't intend to get depressed," Jo said defiantly. "Aunt Martha gave me a fifty-dollar Christmas bonus-well, you know that already. We should each buy something we want, and treat ourselves. What the heck, we've put up with enough crap this year, I should say. Let's do it, Megs!"

Meg brightened. "What will you get?"

"Well...at Barnes & Noble there's this three-volume hardback edition of Lord of the Rings that I've been drooling over for two months. What about you?"

"I'll get a party dress at the consignment shop-and you should too. Anne and Bella Moffat invited us to their New Years' party, you know. And you already have Lord of the Rings."

"Only in paperback, and a lot of pages are missing. So Ed's sisters are still speaking to you? They must have heard about the new guy. I bet Sally Gardiner is on about him."

"Don't be so cynical, Jo. Sally's still my friend, and generous when she wants to be. And a party is a party. When was the last time we went to one, other than those church things and the Halloween party?"

"Ah yes, the Halloween party. Where you were the fairy princess and I was the badass mobster chick. Big whoop. I still say it should have been the other way around-that would have been REALLY scary. Well, I don't suppose I can go mobster chick to this one, so I can wear my old dress. It still fits, I'm sure, and it's not like I've worn it to rags or anything. And you can wear your white one that Aunt Carol gave you."

"You're kidding, right? It has sleeves!"

"Say it ain't so!" Jo struck an attitude of abject horror. "Sleeves? You'll be ruined. Me too, come to think of it. Mine has sleeves too. We'll both be ruined."

"Besides, I've had it since last year. And don't think they won't remember it. I probably can't get into it now anyway."

"Oh, poop. You could wear a vacuum cleaner bag and still look better than all those phony snobs put together. Buy yourself a pretty necklace or some cute shoes to go with it, and you'll do fine."

Meg gave an exasperated sigh. "Jo March, you've got about as much fashion sense as Aunt Carol. I still can't believe you wore that awful sweater to school."

"Hey, it suits me. Goes with my temper and all. Jo the Hornet. Too bad it's not green, I could be a superhero or something." Jo made some ninja moves. Meg tried to frown, then giggled in spite of herself.

"But really Jo, I think you need to tone it down some," she said a moment later, sobering. "That whole tomboy thing wasn't so bad when you were a kid, but now...well, the others are starting to say nasty things."

"What things?"

"You know what things." Meg lowered her voice. Jo flushed a little.

"They wouldn't say 'em to my face, I betcha," she said darkly.

"Well, they get back to me. I'm not saying you should wear lace and jewelry and high heels or anything like that. I don't ask the impossible. But you could polish up a little. We do need to preserve the family dignity."

"Dignity, shmignity," Jo muttered. "So people are talking about us? Again? Wow, talk about being hard up for interest. Maybe we'll end up with our own reality show. The March Sisters and Their Sleeves."

"It's not funny, Jo. Just yesterday a couple of boys yelled at me, 'Hey Meg, how's your brother?' Now what was I supposed to say?"

"How about, 'Oh, he's as mean and ornery and butt-kicking as ever, thank you, I'll tell him you asked about him'. So what did you say?"

"Nothing. I just acted like I didn't hear them. But I was mortified to death."

"I don't see why you give a rat's patootie what those morons think. You should have told 'em to stick it where the sun don't shine and then climb up after it."

"Easy for you to say. You're not in my age bracket...yet."

"If that's what it's like, I hope I never get there. Wow, to think this is the last year I get to be human."

"Seriously, Jo. I'm not asking you to be all girly-girl. I'm just saying...tone it down. Stop picking fights, stop swearing, stop-"

"I don't pick fights-fights pick me. And I only swear when...well, when I feel like it."

"Remember that fight with Darcy Evans? You almost got expelled. You were lucky just to get suspended for three days."

"She had it coming. She said Amy was a prima donna and Bethy was a druggie, remember? And that you were a goody two shoes, and I think you can guess what she said about me. But the topper was those bright remarks about how Dad gambled away the family fortune and all, before coming to Jesus and going into the ministry. I let her have it, and I'd do it again if she was dumb enough to besmirch our family honor a second time."

"You almost put her in the hospital, you know. You should have just walked away with your head held high...like I do."

"I'm not like you, Meggles. I'd rather kick somebody's ass into the next county and suffer the consequences, than just take their crap lying down. Maybe Amy is a prima donna, but I won't stand for anyone outside the family saying it."

"You know what Mom said. You shouldn't lower yourself to their level."

"Ha! I'd need a submarine for that."

"And shooting craps in the boys' room. Real classy, Jo."

"Hey, I won ten dollars, didn't I?"

"How does that look for a minister's daughter? Even if he used to gamble himself? And then there was that tattoo. I still can't believe that, even of you."

"I told you, I did it on a dare. Besides, nobody can see it...except in the shower. I just wish they'd done a better job of it. It's supposed to be a hornet, but it looks more like a horsefly. And Mace Hardwick had to get a butterfly on his, since he lost the dare. Only I suspect his was fake, the cheater."

Meg had to laugh in spite of herself. "Ok, I give up. You know Jo, I wouldn't say this to just anybody...but sometimes I wish I was more like you. You're daring and feisty and funny and clever, everything I'm not. I'm just a blah. I hope you don't change too much. I just-."

"You wish you were like me? Really? Lisa said the same thing a while ago, more or less. She said-Oops!" And Jo clapped both hands over her mouth, remembering she had promised not to tell.

"She said 'Oops'?" Meg said with a giggle.

"Well...please don't ever tell her I told you this, 'cause I promised I wouldn't. But she said she envied me. 'Cause I had sisters and my parents were still together and we were all dripping with nice cozy family values, and all that happy hoss crap. It knocked me on my butt. Know what I mean?"

"Yes, exactly," Meg said. "Well...I guess I should stop whining and complaining about my hard lot in life. Because I wouldn't want to be in Lisa's shoes, either."

"Yep. And you know, sometimes when I get to feeling sorry for myself, I think: 'Well Jo, look at it this way: you could have been Darcy Evans.' I've heard her parents hate each other and I can well believe it, and they probably hate her too, and that evil brother of hers. I'm sure I'd hate her, if I was them... Oh wait, I did not just say that. That was so not in the Christmas spirit. Bad Jo. Bad." She slapped her own cheeks rather hard. "Ouch!"

Meg laughed uproariously, a lovely sound, and not often provoked.

"And you're not a blah," Jo said. "You're gorgeous and ethereal and talented and good, and everybody falls in love with you. Sleeves or no sleeves. Everybody with any sense, at least. Even I'm in love with you sometimes."

They had reached the bridge that arched high over the railroad tracks. Mountains gleamed white and silvery in the distance, rising from dark evergreens and a grey haze of naked deciduous trees below, dove-colored clouds above. The snow lay over the town, slushy and thin in places, but still piled deep on roofs and hedges.

"I've lived here all my life," Jo said, "and yet I never get tired of this view. It's awesome and inspiring. Now, stop me before I break into a chorus of 'Climb Every Mountain', or something."

"I can see the Laurence house from here," Meg observed with twinkling eyes. "And I think I see Theodore in the front yard."

"Hey, it's snowing," Jo said reaching out to catch a fuzzy flake, artfully dodging the subject of Theodore. "We'll have a white Christmas after all. Stop me before I break into a chorus of 'Here Comes Suzy Snowflake'."

"This is New England, Daffy-doodle," Meg laughed, her childhood name for Jo slipping out. "I can't remember a Christmas that wasn't white."

"Maybe we can scare up a snowball fight," Jo said. "I can see the place where we used to have our tree house, before it fell apart. Remember what good times we used to have up there? Dang, now I sound like some old biddy reminiscing about the good ole days. Stop me before I break into a chorus of..." She puckered her brow and looked at her sister.

"'Those Were the Days'," Meg said. Both girls cracked up laughing.

"Well well, check out those pretty blue flashing lights over yonder," Jo said when she could get her breath, "and methinks I spy a lovely silver Porsche right in front of them. Look familiar?"

"Remotely," Meg grinned, and the specters of poverty and adolescent angst were momentarily forgotten, as the sisters began walking home through the softly falling white flakes that were always peaceful and awe-inspiring no matter how many times one had seen them.