And from the bottom of the river
I looked up for the sun
Which had shattered in the water
And pieces were rained down
-Rock Bottom Riser, by Smog
You're five years old and you wake up on the beach, your hair tangled in dried seaweed and white sand. During the night you had crept out of the tent and collapsed exhaustively just outside it, falling back asleep instantly. You dreamt of floating, hanging jellyfish, draped in virgin-white silky petticoats, like the ones on the cover of your mama's romance novels. Their skin was blue-tinted; with pulsing life or the reflection of the ocean around them you did not know. The loud crash of waves is somehow soft, and you wiggle your toes only to realize they're covered with pink seashells imprinted with fossilized fish. For a moment, you become a grain of sand.
You're six years old and your father is dead, but it's okay because you never really knew him anyway, at least that's what mama convinces you to feel. He leaves you his old guitar that he had nicknamed Rosie, both you and mama are disappointed. You don't want something you're not really allowed to touch until 'you're old enough'. You wanted the map of the solar system he had taped to his refrigerator. You don't know the name of the planets, but you like the silver, icy rings that encircle one of the hanging globes; the planets drip in a line like beads on a necklace. But mama forgot to take it off when she sold the fridge. You think he is up there right now, a guitar slung on his back and riding on a magic carpet stitched with stars, the milky way unfolding under his feet. An explorer of galaxies unseen, kissing past supernovas and burning stars, a king of moons and spaceships and infinite space. And then you feel sad, because you know he left without his Rosie, and he must be feeling lonely.
You're seven years old and to pass away the hours you count the trillions of freckles on your face in the dim reflection of the passenger window, using your fingers to measure the space between the furthest ones. Your mama sees this and laughs, briefly taking her attention away from the stretch of road ahead. In that moment she jokingly renames you Pepper, Virginia is her name and her mother's name and Lord knows how much she hates it. There is a wistful smile playing on her lips as she plays with the radio, humming to herself. You think her to be beautiful.
You're eight years old, and you're using your neon green fanny pack as a pillow while you curl up in the backseat. The car is parked somewhere in the badlands, nightfall enshrouded around it like a coffin. The dark outlines of ancient rocks and funny-shaped hoodoos tower all around you, the various colors of red stone stretching across their eroded skin in linear formation, shining despite the dimness of night. Your mother and brother are sitting on top of the car, gazing at the sheer vastness of the black sky and the brilliance of the stars. They knock occasionally on the roof, hoping the tinny noise will convince you to get out and join them. But you're far too afraid. You swore you saw a coyote creeping past, the tawny fur blending in with the rocks. Instead you dream that you're sleeping in the tall grasses you saw a mile back, and you pray the north wind will carry you away and encircle you and make you Queen of the prairie night. Vultures will creep away as shadowy villains often do, and laughing jackals dressed as royal trumpeters will herald your arrival. If you were a deer you could run forever.
You're nine years old and your mother forgot you were in the gas station bathroom. You come out to find an empty parking lot and you wonder why you aren't more afraid. You think maybe this is the greatest thing to ever happen to you, and you consider hitching a ride to Atlanta (somehow you mixed this up with the lost island of Atlantis, and you naively thought it had been discovered) but you don't want your mother or Peter to have to worry. You stand outside the Gas n' Fast and play with the peeling green pain, watching fields of flax sweep by in the dead wind, racing along the highway in it's typical bristling fashion. You're wearing a popsicle-stained tee shirt and pink sandals from Goodwill, paid by with change you dug under vending machines from bus stops. You spell your name in the gravel road, and count how many cars pass by for three long hours. When they come back your mother slaps you, and drags you by the ear to the car. You wish you could have run into the fields while you had the chance.
You're ten years old and you're in another school, another classroom. Stuck in another playground of cruel kids who take pleasure in calling you Carrot-top and/or Freckles. When you're taken to the principals office after telling another kid he could, quote, "fuck off and burn in hell", you drown out your mother's screeching voice by resting your ear against the air conditioner, listening to the thrumming vibrate like a heartbeat.
You're eleven years old, and you and your brother catch tadpoles with a Cola cup at a local fishpond. You're lying on your stomach, your head and arm hanging over the edge; you've hacked off your hair so you could look just like Peter. The creatures glint like moving light between the glittering ripples, their murky skin indistinguishable from the grainy sediment of the bottom. The sun shatters like glass on their flitting figures. You look at your brother; he's cupping a tadpole in his palms, swishing the water into a swirly vortex. The sun illuminates his copper hair, and you think he's your best friend in the whole wide world. You laugh to yourself, Peter the Frog Prophet. The tadpole shimmers in the silvery reflection in his hands, forming wavy patterns on the pink skin below.
You're twelve years old and you've just had your first period. Your mother is gone, for God knows how long, and so you shame-facedly ask Darlene for help, the woman who owns the couch you and your brother have been crashing on for the past month. She grumbles and throws you a pad, making you promise to repay her for it.
You're thirteen years old and your friend Amy has come over with a magazine on Teen Celebrities. You stretch out on your purple comforter and force a girlish giggle as your friend makes teasing comments about the hot boys. You could care less, but you're really getting concerned about your lack of friends. Your mother tells you "you could make a better effort to make friends, but we're not sticking around for long'. Amy opens to an article on Tony Stark, famous merely for his parent's wealth and his child-genius status. There is a photograph of him building a small robot, his serious expression marred by a cocky grin. 'He's cute', you think offhandedly. But you know his type. You're only thirteen, and you already know what sort of guy you need to stay away from. Your friend squeals that she is in love, 'you can have him', you think. You swallow a sigh, raising a bored glance at the floral wallpaper, scorched by the sun.
You're fourteen years old and a boy from a nearby Cree reservation teaches you how play your fathers guitar. You practice with him at a bench of clustered stones hidden by a clump of tall grasses by the water tower. His name is John, and when you're finally able to transcend a G-minor into a C chord, he sweeps in and awkwardly kisses you. Your first kiss. He smiles as you flush with embarrassment, and you stare at your feet until the butterflies have left.
You're fifteen years old and you've quit your first real job. You didn't mean to, really, but your boss was such a bitch, besides, who the fuck cares? You pull your thin jacket tighter, staring at the screaming seagulls swooping across the grey sky and into the empty parking lot. Plastic bags swirl at your feet, reflecting your swirling thoughts. You feel the lightness of your wallet, and for a brief minute you're afraid. Peter's going to be mad, but you're tired of creepy coworkers trying to cop a feel. You realize than, that you haven't been afraid since you were a little girl. You toughen up, shrugging away your fears. You don't know that girl anymore anyway.
You're sixteen years old and it's easier than you thought to leave your mother behind, but maybe it's just because you have Peter with you. Or maybe it's just because she always been the one to leave you behind. Your brother buys a secondhand Chevrolet with the money he's saved up as a mechanic, and the two of you hit the road without a goodbye to the woman who… sorta raised you. This time no one can catch you. You sing out loud to Tom Petty until your voice goes completely hoarse, and even grim-faced Peter spares a smile. But still he's no fun; he makes you study for high school finals in the passenger seat, despite your insistence on dropping out. Peter was always older than his years, even the bright redness of his hair dulled with his mood. But today the brightness had returned to his eyes, and you wanted to cry with the happiness of it all. You like to stick your arm out the window, the wind swelling like a bubble and shattering across the break in your fingers.
You're seventeen years old and you realize you have never once, in all these years, seen your brother cry. Until now. You're at the airport, the blinding white tiles shimmering with fresh wax and glinting brightly in your eyes, like new snow. Peter's off to help build houses or schools or whatever in Africa. He learned about this program in a magazine he had picked up while temping at a rig up north, tossed in the garbage in the men's washroom. You're happy for him, he's taken care of you since he was a child, and now he's free from you. You think he'll be like your father now, exploring lands unknown and crisscrossing the world as adventurers always do. This is the beginning for him. He clutches you tightly; his breath hitching and you think he smells like desert flowers. He is like a desert flower, a harsh, beautiful thing. Impermeable. He begs you to go back to live with your mother, you can't possibly be by yourself. After all this time, he still worries. You smile, you know she's already forgotten about you, and you wouldn't be able to find her anyway. You watch him walk in that lanky way of his into the terminal, sadly glancing back at your lone figure, your fingers in your pocket already playing with the keys. Bye Peter. It's on the drive back when some unknown force grips your heart and you pull over and cry on the steering wheel. Bitter tears stain your jeans, and you know it's because every time you say goodbye to someone you never see them again. And this time it's worse because Peter's the only one you've ever loved anyway.
You're eighteen years old and you're playing a small crowd at a pub called Dirty Harry's. The smoke stings your eyes, and you know you'll never be able to wash the smell of Pilsner and weed out of your shirt. During intermission you crank back 5 shots, and when you get back on stage you begin to cry into the microphone, still playing, while your bassist begins to pack up.
You're still fucking eighteen years old and somehow you've ended up working as a waitress on a riverboat in BC. After the peak season ends you and your boyfriend steal a kayak and follow the river into the Yukon, sleeping on the shore like crocodiles, the color of your hair the only thing to identify you as something other than the scenery. You travel until you reach the bluest lake you've ever laid eyes on, reflecting purple mountains far off in the distance, their peaks bordering the sky. The pine trees tower about you, protecting you in its green kingdom. You realize then, as your fingers glide delicately upon the still water, that you need to learn how to return to civilization.
You're nineteen years old and you are able to tweak your high school transfer just so to help you enter Post Secondary. The woman at the front desk at the application centre gives you a look like she knows you're white trash, you don't belong here. But you straighten your shoulders and stare at her until she looks away, embarrassed. You won't ever let anyone ever beat you down again.
You're twenty years old and you're at the university library, pulling an all-nighter to cram for this midterm. The only experience you've had in terms of studying was memorizing constellations, studying passing faces, committing roadmaps to memory. Now you have to actually memorize shit you doubt you'll need to know in the future. But it's the only way to get ahead, to escape. You stretch, and stare out of the window at the street below. The snow is falling in heavy clumps, blanketing the downtown in heavy silence. You wish you were outside, but you always wish you were somewhere else.
You're twenty-one years old and your mother is dead. You're at a bus-station in Louisiana, and a robotic voice interrupts the silence of the payphone to inform you the other line had hung up long ago. The strap of your backpack digs into your shoulder, and when the intercom mentions your bus is ready for boarding, you softly rest the receiver into its cradle and leave.
You're twenty-two years old and you've just hitched a ride to Malibu. You applied to a College there on a whim, and you were completely impassive when you received your acceptance letter. Your friends were aghast, Malibu? Hipsters that they are, you'll miss them. You know you've been to the ocean before as a kid, you remember the sound. But you can't remember the sea itself, and you find the excitement rising as the car clicks into the next lane. You see your reflection in the rearview mirror, off to the side at its curved edge, and you're a child all over again.
You're twenty-three years old and you're sitting in the stall at yet another Gas n' Fast with a pregnancy stick in hand, staring at it in horror. Your shoes are stuck to the sticky floor tiles, and the cramped walls close around you. You can't breathe. The florescent lights above flicker with laughter, flashing dim illuminations on the taunting pink line. You smooth out your skirt with one hand, and as you transfer your gaze to the vulgar graffiti on the door, you realize you've just ruined your life. After two months of bitterly resenting your growing belly, you suffer a miscarriage, and you're surprised by the devastation you feel. Even years after the fact you will wonder if it was a boy or a girl, and when you pass children in the playground you imagine yours amongst them.
You're twenty-four years old and you're staring at the photographer in confusion, not fully understanding why you're here. His camera extends from the tripod, forming tall legs. His assistant adjusts your graduation cap and smoothes out your hair, and suddenly you want to laugh with the absurdity of it all. Not once in your life have you stuck around for a school picture, not even your high school graduation photo. You tell yourself this time it's different, you've worked so hard these past few years, and you deserve to commemorate it. But you have no one to give your College Graduation Portrait to, and by the time the prints are ready for pick up there's only package left on the foldout table in the gym. It's a portrait of a beautiful, confident copper-haired woman that no one recognizes. No one claims her.
You're twenty-five years old and you've just finished an abysmal interview at the Stark Industry Corporation, in accounting. The interviewer grilled you on subjects like family and children and how long of a maternity leave would you insist on and 'do you think being a woman limits you?' You're shaken, and for a brief moment you lost your carefully composed mask, exposing the fraud you are. 'You fucked up, Virginia, never again.' You're in the bathroom trying to calm down, vigorously washing your hands when a mechanical voice speaks up from out of nowhere, a soft English accent that shocks you to the core and makes you shriek with surprise. You're humiliated the second you release that blood-curling scream. You jump backwards, glancing furiously around to see what it was that scared you. An empty room greets you, before suddenly the door bursts open and a man rushes in, sleeves rolled up and frantically waving a meter-long ruler around to use as a weapon. He thinks you're in danger, and the two of you share shocked stares before a stammer of words stumble out of your mouth as you hurriedly try to explain the situation. The businessman releases his deathly clutch on the ruler and begins to laugh, eventually able to introduce you to Jarvis. While he chuckles you think you recognize him, and suddenly a wave of embarrassment flows over you as you realize you're talking to the CEO himself. Tony Stark. He treats you to lunch to calm your nerves, (which you think completely unnecessary, but you've never met a more insistent man in your life) and you end up bantering with him for the better part of an hour. Somehow you walk out with a job, and in the future you will wonder if the A.I. scared you on purpose that day in the Ladies washroom. Today you're lucky, and you promise never to slip up again. Jarvis shocks you, but not as much as your first paycheck.
You're twenty-six years old and as you coil your hair into an intricate bun, you realize you don't recognize yourself anymore. You feel regret, but you know it's necessary to separate yourself from his life. Your true self. He doesn't know anything about you, except the standard resume education and experience and such. You've spent your whole life living off the radar, and there's something so satisfying about being able to recreate your life. You plan on becoming somebody else entirely, and you won't ever give this up. It's not like you had anything to hide, but you're so used to being thought of as white trash your whole life that you'll do anything to defend your new business card persona at all costs. This means never sleeping with your boss. No matter how tempted you are.
You're twenty-seven years old and you're standing on the balcony with your boss's latest lay, sharing a cigarette. You roll the stick in your fingers, exhaling softly, the smoke curls sensuously from your lips. You haven't had one is so long. The girl is young, younger than most but old enough in so many ways. She's still wrapped in a sheet, choking on quiet sobs. You pass it to her, offering her a sympathetic smile. You know better than to play niceties with these women, but you can't resist feeling bad for this girl. When she leaves she tells you that you're the only truly honest person she's met in a long time, and you smile but you know even that's fake. You spray the room, and yourself, with Febreze to mask the smoky scent before leaving to find Mr. Stark. You're so tired of weekday mornings and sobbing girls.
You're twenty-eight years old and your boss takes you cave diving off the coast of Australia's Nullarbor Plain. This wasn't the first time you've been diving, but never before had you even been in such clear, blue water. The sun above is a faraway light, shimmering temptingly. You glide past a strip of reef, a rainbow of colors floating above it, chained to it by near invisible creatures. Long stalactites throw shrouds of shadows over you. As the blue darkness of the cave encroaches around you, you remember towering hoodoos and old dreams of drifting jellyfish. Your throat closes up, and you forget to breathe. Beginner's mistake. You begin to shoot upwards, struggling to maintain your current depth. The only way to sink is to breathe, in and out, and you always end up concentrating far too hard and inevitably end up holding your breath, floating back up. Mr. Stark sees you and comes to your aid, grabbing your hands and staring at you with his large, questioning brown eyes through his mask. You breathe together, him and you, and the two of you fall back into the darkness of the ocean floor.
You're twenty-nine years old and you're mother is gone. For the first time in your life you need her. Your brother hasn't returned your phone calls in 2 years, (he's usually the one hounding you with concerned calls) and a feeling deep inside of you knows he is dead. But you have no idea how to begin looking for him, so you never acknowledge this dark feeling. All of your friends are out East, and you just can't seem to find anyone with half a brain to hang out with in Malibu. You suspect your boss is becoming in alcoholic, and though you have no qualms about telling him off about some things, you're too cautious to broach this subject. You have exceeded your overtime hours to the max and yesterday morning you were slapped in the face by your boss's latest humiliated conquest. You haven't been laid in 5 months, and your last date mistook you for a woman he saw in a porno. And, to top it all off, you think you're in love with your boss.
You're thirty years old and you wonder why you're angry that Mr. Stark forgot your birthday. He forgets every year, but this time it settles heavily in your heart. You try to push it out of your mind as Rob pulls out your chair like a gentleman. It's your birthday, and the 'old you' feels like this restaurant is too good for you, but then you look at Rob and smile, you've deceived even him. You feel like a fraud. You've been dating him for almost a year, and you've been the happiest you've been in a long time, he's perfect for you. He owns one of the only used bookstores in the city, and during your lunch break you meet him there and curl up behind the counter with a book, as he sits beside you distractedly running a thumb over your hand while the other files inventory sheets. He makes you laugh and you love it when deep in the night he'll cover your body with his and laugh into your skin, just because he's happy. Tonight he asks you to marry him, and at the end of the night you walk out alone, heartbroken. The next day your boss gives you a birthday card that he made himself (you suspect it was originally just a doodle he made during a meeting) with a hurried decoration of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles screaming "Happy Birthday Dude!" on the cover. Sometimes you wonder whether or not he tries to make you fall in love with him on purpose.
You're thirty-one years old and your boss asks you to accompany him to the cemetery. You don't know where your parent's are buried, but you suspect it would be out in the middle of nowhere. They'd both like that. You stand next to him in front of the tombstones, the carved letters unable to reflect the people below. He's ashen-faced and solemn, you've never seen this side of him. He crouches down, ripping a clump of grass and plays with it in his fingers. You've never understood him more than at this moment. He asks you where you're parents are, he's surprised when you tell him they're dead, too. You doubt he actually even looked at your personal record when he hired you. When he gets up he slips his hand in yours, and looks at you differently from now on.
You're thirty-two years old and you've just received the 20th call on your cell since you left Malibu. You know whom it's from, there's only one person who cares enough to call you these days. You're in first-class; white-knuckling the armrests despite the frequent flying experience you've had in the past few years. You were never comfortable in these things, and the vibration of your cell serves only to make you tenser. You're still afraid of cell phone frequencies interfering with navigational equipment, or whatever the fuck the flight attendant said. He's worried about you; this is the first vacation time you've taken since working for him. You told him you were headed to a spa in Vermont, but in reality you were going to Argentina. Catamarca, Argentina, was slightly more difficult to explain to your boss then saying you were headed to a luxury resort up north. Especially when you didn't want him to pry too deeply into your life. You sigh and close your eyes, breathing deeply. In two more hours you will arrive in the bustling, hot city, and be greeted by the last woman your brother ever loved, and the little girl born 8 months after his death. You know the woman's name is Sofia, and has spent nearly every scant penny she saved to track you down, only to end up seeing a photograph of you in an American tabloid. You can't recall crying harder that day a year and half ago when she called to tell you about the accident that took the life of Peter the Frog Prophet, and the arrival of your beautiful copper-haired niece named Virginia, a name descended from a long line of wandering women. She'll grow up to hate it too. Your fingers loosen as the sun flashes into pink hues, and through the small window you see a line of smoke emerge between the straight lines of farmland down below. You smile, because you know your sad big brother died with love in his heart.
You're thirty-three years old, and this time you find yourself in a different passenger seat, with Happy trying vainly to comfort you as you sit hunched over, sobbing. It's your birthday, again, and Tony is gone. A passionate wave of loss sweeps over you, and you know that your tears aren't just for him. While Happy runs outside briefly in a desperate search for Kleenex or toilet paper or anything, you see the reflection of your angular face flitting in the tinted window by the flicker of the green 7/11 signpost. You're your old self, again, for a brief second. The wanderer, the fraud, the perpetual drifter. You're alone. You're not sure if you're afraid of the old you or the present you. But you realize then that both selves are desperately, madly in love with Tony Stark.
You're thirty-four years old and you're using tweezers to pick out tiny shards of glass embedded under Tony's eyebrows. The bright fluorescent lights glimmer off his discarded metal suit, and he twitches his lips as you pull out a particularly deep shard. Not once does he take his eyes off of yours. You maintain an impassive look, the same look you've had whenever you had to escort one of his "dates" the morning after, the same look you had every time your mama left for months at a time, the same look you had when you were told your mother was dead. Impermeability. He catches your wrist, and pulls you into his embrace while you try to hold back a shuddering sob. You can't lose him too. When you're released you share a long look with him, before suddenly commenting that he had the eyes of a jersey cow. He does, you've always thought it, and now you've finally admitted it. He gives you a look of surprise before bursting into laughter, swiftly pulling you in for a heated, chuckling kiss. He loves you.
You're thirty-five years old and it's your birthday, again. You're plaiting Virginia's thin red hair into a braid while she wriggles in your lap, both giggling as Rhodey tries to flirt with your niece's mother. Tony tracked down where they buried your mother, what the fuck your mother was doing in Wyoming, you'll never know. It was a surprise, taking you here, to celebrate your birthday near your mother's presence. It was a further surprise to see many of your close friends waiting for you, at this stretch of land where she was buried, somewhere amongst the fields of flax. Old friends you used to play with in crammed joints were now playing just for you, guitar strings sliding into the prairie breeze. Dinner was a joy, a long oak table set up in this abandoned acre, Tony intently listening as tales of your past were passed around the table along with the food. You sip your water (wishing it were wine) as his hand slides over your swollen womb; he's learning more about you in the last three hours than in the past ten years. You're no longer afraid. You feel the presence of your family surround you, and for the first time in your life you feel completely safe, and loved. Your summer dress whips in the gentle wind. He's done all this for you, and your sadness drifts away like a sad song. You love him.
You're still thirty-five years old and you're bathing your infant son in the sink, gently dropping soap bubbles through his clasping hangs, his giggles reverberating along the metal contours that surround him. He smiles joyously up at you, and you coo at him lovingly. You've named him Peter, after the Frog Prophet, even though he's nothing like your sad-eyed brother. But the happiness that shines in the dark eyes staring up at you is what Peter deserved his whole life, and so you feel the name is rightfully given. He claps his hands over the stretch of water around him, shrieking with laughter as the bubbles splash all around. You laugh and roll up your sleeves a bit further. This is when your husband comes in, laughingly asking why you don't use the $200 Baby bathtub he got you. You're surprised, you've completely forgot about it. You shrug and smile, turning your attention back to the little man who demands your utmost concentration. Without a doubt the son of Tony Stark. You feel your husbands hands slide around your waist, thumbs clasping into the loops of your jeans. He leans his head into the crook of your neck and breathes you in, your head turning to give him better access. He sways your body along with his as you both gaze at your son. You know you should probably wait until you're on your deathbed before concluding that your life has come full circle, but you've already lived a thousand lives, and you're ready to live a thousand more. The sun shattered into the dark bottom that was once your life, and you swam to it gratefully. You are complete.
This was intended to be a companion piece to my last story "Secondary Highways', but could also act as a standalone.
Pepper's history was never really explained in the movie (I've never read the comics) and I liked the fact that she was almost entirely a blank slate.
Please give a tired author a review, please, pretty please? :) Thanks!