Read Shine (Short Story) Online
Authors: Jodi Picoult
is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
A Ballantine Books Ebook Original
Copyright Â© 2016 by Jodi Picoult
Small Great Things
by Jodi Picoult copyright Â© 2016 by Jodi Picoult
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.
colophon are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.
This book contains an excerpt from the forthcoming book
Small Great Things
by Jodi Picoult. This excerpt has been set for this edition only and may not reflect the final content of the forthcoming edition.
Cover design and art: Laura Klynstra
On the morning of Ruth Brooks's first day of class at the prestigious Dalton School, she sat in the kitchen of another family's house, waiting for her mama to finish packing her lunch. “You act like a guest,” her mama instructed, spreading the same peanut butter on the same kind of bread that would be tucked into Christina's lunch, too. “You don't give them any reason to not invite you back.”
In the past, Ruth had come only occasionally to the Hallowells' home, but all that was going to change. Now, every morning, Sam Hallowell's chauffeur would take her and Christina in a shiny black car through Central Park to the Upper East SideâNinety-first Streetâwhere she would be enrolled in third grade. At the end of the school day, she would return and play with Christina in her room or do homework in the kitchen until her mama finished working. Then they'd take the bus to Harlem, back to their own place, where Granny and Rachel would be waiting.
Ruth knew that it was a blessing to go to this fancy school. In first grade, she and her sister, Rachel, had both gone to a school that was mostly Orthodox Jewish kids. Ruth had loved itâeverything from the snap-together cubes for counting to the felt board with a floppy sun, a listless cloud, a thunderbolt, a snowflake. But it was a two-hour commute each way on the bus. In second grade, Ruth had gone to public school in Harlem. It was as different from her first school as possible. There were no books in the school library that didn't have most of their pages ripped out. The teachers spent more time yelling than teaching. Rachel had never been an engaged student, but Ruth was having the life sucked out of her. She didn't know what conversation between Ms. Mina and Mama had led to this full scholarship, but she had taken a test and done well, and that was thatâshe was in. And she was grateful.
At least, she was supposed to be.
She swung her feet on the kitchen stool, thinking of Rachel, who didn't have to get up at 5:30
. to go to school. Rachel was in fifth grade this year, and thought she knew everything. Like last night, she told Ruth that she would probably be the only Black girl in the whole school and nobody would talk to her. Ruth had asked her mama on the bus ride in whether that was true. “Ms. Christina will talk to you,” her mama had said. “You two have known each other forever.”
But there was a difference between visiting the brownstone on a random Saturday and playing with Barbies, and actually attending the same school as Christina. Plus, Christina had gone to this school since kindergarten and already had friends. Just thinking about it made Ruth's throat feel too tight.
Christina bounced into the kitchen. Her hair was caught back in her favorite barrette, the one with silk roses glued to it. She carried a spotless pink backpack.
“It's time to go,” she said, her voice a musical scale. “You ready, Ruth?”
Ruth hopped off the chair. Her mama straightened her cardigan and handed her one of the bag lunches. “Baby girl,” Mama said to Christina, “don't you forget this.”
Christina took the matching lunch. As Ruth followed her into the parlor, Ms. Mina was waiting with little Louis in her arms. He was only three, not even in preschool yet, and he was not having a lot of success at potty training. “Are you excited, Ruth?” Ms. Mina asked. “First day!”
“Yes, ma'am,” Ruth said.
felt as if they might be one and the same.
The sedan was already in front of the brownstone. The minute they walked outside, a man burst out of the car like a kernel of popcorn exploding. He opened the back door and gave a little bow. “Ms. Christina,” he said. “Ms. Ruth.”
If Rachel could see this, she'd bust up.
Can't they open their own car doors?
Ruth just said thank you and buckled herself in. She and Christina waved to their mothers on the stoop until they couldn't see them anymore. “Wait till you meet Lola,” Christina said. “Lola has a pet monkey. I swear. It's part of her dad's work or something.” She leaned toward Ruth. “It wears a
Ruth imagined going to a new friend's house and meeting this monkey in a diaper. She pictured teaching it a trick, like how to clap or something, and her new friend telling everyone else what Ruth had done.
And suddenly, they were there. The driver opened the door and Christina bolted from the car, shrieking and throwing her arms around a girl who had silvery blond hair. Lola, maybe? She didn't look back. They were talking so fast that it sounded like a different language.
The driver handed Ruth her backpack, which had been Rachel's last year. “You have a nice day, Ms. Ruth,” he said gently.
It was at that moment that Ruth realized her mother had never answered her
question on the bus: would there be anyone else at Dalton who looked like her?
Ruth stepped onto the curb. Then she took a deep breath and dove into a wave of white.
At Dalton you didn't get assigned to a teacher's classroom, you got assigned to a houseâwhich, Ruth figured out quickly, was just a fancy word for a bunch of kids who were all the same age.
Christina was in her house, and so was the girl with the silvery hairâLola. Ruth trailed them inside to Ms. Thomas's room, waiting for a break in the conversation so that she could introduce herself, like Mama told her to do. She waited for Christina to come to her rescue, to say,
This is Ruth.
But instead Christina ducked into the room and ran to the neat row of cubbies. “Lola,” she called. “We're next to each other!”
Last year, Ruth had not had a cubby. She put her lunch neatly in the bottom and hung her jacket up on a hook. When she turned around, there was a pretty redheaded lady crouched down, holding out her hand. “I'm Ms. Thomas,” she said. “I'm the house adviser.” Ruth guessed that was the Dalton word for
. “What's your name?”
“Ruth,” she said.
“Well, Ruth, we are so glad to have you with us this year.”
Ruth nodded. But she wondered who else Ms. Thomas was speaking for; who was the
in that equation.
They played a game where everyone clapped a rhythm that went with their name, and everyone else in the class had to mimic it. Ruth tapped her right knee, left knee, then waved her hands like she was singing hallelujah at church.
everyone said, and they did the same motion she had done. It made her think of her granny's story about going to the French part of Canada once, and how she had to do charades just to ask where the toilet was.
Ms. Thomas wore a double strand of pearls that had a glittery spider clasp in the back, and Ruth counted the number of times that the spider slipped down her neck and Ms. Thomas had to tug it back into place. Ms. Thomas showed everyone a picture of herself in a white princess dress, with a handsome man beside her in a tuxedo. It looked like snow was falling on them, but it was rice. She told everyone that her husband's name was David and then she showed another picture, this one of a very small dog called Caesar. “That's my family,” she said. “Now I want you to draw me a picture of yours!”
Ruth was placed at a table with a boy named Marcus (clap up high, clap down low) and a girl named Maia (tiny claps all around her face, like the petals of a sunflower). Ruth had seen Marcus pick his nose during the circle time, and between that and the fact that he was a boy, she had very little interest in him. Maia, though, was the only other student in the house who was new to Dalton. She had moved from Dallas. She had red hair like a molten river that was held back by a rhinestone headband. She had an accent, and when she spoke, her voice was full of music.
At each seat was the kind of thick vanilla drawing paper Ruth remembered from her year at the Jewish school. A confetti of crayons splashed the center of every table. “We have to share,” Maia announced. She took the crayons and rolled a few toward each of them, divvying up the colors.
Christina was all the way across the room. Ruth wondered what she was drawing to illustrate her family, whether Mama would be part of it. After all, Mama spent more hours taking care of Christina than her own mother did; it was her job. And Ms. Mina was always calling Mama
. But could Mama be on Christina's drawing
Ruth's? Didn't Ruth get first dibs?
Or what if Christina left Mama out of her drawing? Did that suggest family meant different things to different people?
Honestly, Ruth couldn't figure out what would make her more upset: seeing Christina's finished drawing with Mama in it, or not.
“You get these,” Maia announced, pushing a bunch of crayons toward Marcus and another group toward Ruth.
“No way,” he said. “I need flesh color.” He grabbed the peach crayon that was in front of Maia.
Ruth looked at the crayons in front of her. She picked up the dark blue, because Maia had saved the black for herself. She made the outline of Mama, and then drew in Rachel and herself and Granny. Then she picked up the brown crayon.
Marcus was coloring in his family with the peach crayon. Maia was making a big deal of having to wait for it.
Ruth colored her mother's face. She forgot to leave white for the eyes, and couldn't go backward, which left Mama looking angry. So she was more careful as she drew her own face. She touched the brown crayon gently to the page, shading so faintly she could barely see the pigment.
Recess happened on the roof of the school building, an artificial garden in the middle of the city. Maia had drawn the girls in the house to her like filings to a magnet. She told them that in Texas she had lived on a ranch and ridden horses every day, something New York City girls did only during summer camp and something Ruth had never done. Horses frightened her. She didn't like the yellow of their huge teeth.
She took a deep breath and sat down just behind Christina, as if she were about to start a second concentric circle, even if she was the only member. Christina glanced over her shoulder and then scooted to the right, creating a few inches of space that couldn't fit Ruth's leg, much less her whole body. Maia was designing some sort of game: “And this is the castle, and the boys over there are the trolls that can't ever touch you, and if you cross the line by the bench you're out of the whole kingdom, andâ”
Ruth wedged her feet into the spot Christina had created and scooted as far forward as she could. “Can I play too?”
Maia stared at her and scrunched her nose. “But we're playing
” she said. “You can't be a princess. You don't have the right hair.”
Instinctively, Ruth touched her hair. It curved in a bob to just above her chin. Lola touched it. “I like your hair,” she said. “It's pretty.”
“My granny used the hot comb,” Ruth said, and all six girls in the circle looked at her blankly.
Ruth puffed up a little, excited to know something they didn't. “Yeah,” she continued. “You heat it up on the stove, and while it's getting ready Granny puts green Super Gro grease on my hair, and then when the comb's really hot, she runs it through to get it all straight.”
Lola stared at Ruth. “And it just stays like that?”
“Yeah. Till she washes it again in a couple of weeks.”
Maia's eyes widened. “You don't wash your hair every day?” she said. “Do you even
The others girls laughed. Ruth couldn't see Christina's face, couldn't hear whether she was laughing, too. She felt tears cutting the tunnel of her throat, and stood up fast, her fists at her sides. “I don't want to play your game,” Ruth said, and she looked down at Christina. “You want to go over there and play something else?”
Christina hesitated. She looked up at Ruth, but her eyes weren't full of
. They were angry, as if she blamed Ruth for making her the rope in this tug-of-war. Christina ducked her head without answering.
Ruth ran to the far corner of the rooftop garden. She lay down on the ground, staring up at the clouds so that it was easy to think that they weren't even in the city anymore, if you blocked out the sound of the car horns from below. She blinked fast, and kept her eyes extra wide, and all the other tricks she knew to keep from crying.
She could hear Maia assigning character names. Princess Marigold. Princess Daffodil. Princess Ivy.
Ms. Thomas walked toward Ruth and sat down beside her, following Ruth's gaze up to the sky. “You know,” she said, as if they had been in the middle of a conversation, “there are stars there right now. You can't see them, because they're obscured by the sun. But the minute the sun goes away, wowâthey're as bright as jewels.”
Ruth didn't know why Ms. Thomas was telling her this. She didn't know why Ms. Thomas had come over here in the first place. She just wanted to go home. She wanted to be in Harlem in school with Rachel. Except she didn't really want to be there, either. So where did that leave her?
“Can I tell you a secret?” Ms. Thomas whispered. “We're going to study stars this year. But I'm trusting you not to tell anyone else, all right? It's going to be a surprise.”
Ruth sat up, hugging her knees to her chest.
“Yes, ma'am,” Ruth said.
Ms. Thomas put her arm around Ruth's shoulders and squeezed. “Would you be the leader for me today, when we line up to go downstairs?”
Ms. Thomas stood up and clapped. “Okay, boys and girls! Line up behind Ruth!”
Ruth stood at the door that led into the building and down the stairs. She thought about the secret Ms. Thomas had told her. She liked holding on to it. Sometimes at Ms. Mina's she took a hard candy from the bowl in the foyer and kept it in her pocket and didn't eat it, because she liked to stick her hand inside hours or even days later and know she had a surprise nobody else had.