Sasha hates sixth grade. Her walk home across the college campus to her house is the only break she gets, because she also hates her narcissistic, hateful, intellectual snob of a mother. Nerisha hasn’t packed a lunch for her since kindergarten and seems to believe that she will raise herself, clothe herself, bathe herself, get herself through school and homework and will suddenly emerge a person of interest when she’s eighteen and smart enough to talk to.
The grass is still brown and there are clumps of dirty snow scattered here and there, but the warmth in the air and the sight of the students leaping absurdly for a neon orange plastic Frisbee causes Sasha to stop a moment and breathe in. It’s only February, but this is her idea of spring. The 1970s aren’t all that exciting so far, but the students at this college seem to hang onto that free, loving, hippie atmosphere of the 60s.
Sasha’s mother turned on her the week before with particular venom for speaking out of turn at a dinner party. It wasn’t that Sasha had spoken above her station, it’s that what she said wasn’t clever enough. Children were meant to be seen and not heard, unless, of course, they could keep up with the big boys. Nerisha waited until company left to knock on Sasha’s door. She was just drifting off to sleep when her mother appeared in the doorway, her gauzy purple and blue butterfly dress spread wide by her arms, as her hands rested on either side of the doorframe above her head. The ensuing wings were backlit by the hall light. She said, her voice terrible, “Sasha darling, the key in life is to know when to keep your mouth shut. Next time, listen and learn.”
The ghastly butterfly-winged image vanished from her doorway when her mother closed the door and Sasha couldn’t summon an appropriate response. She settled for crying herself to sleep. For the next five days, Nerisha cut all dialogue with her daughter.
Sasha finds spaces in between sixth grade and home to escape both mini-hells. The walk across campus is one of them.
A voice startles her. “Well if it isn’t young Alexandra…”
Unused to anyone actually talking to her, Sasha only manages to look up and step back. When she sees her mother’s sophomore student, Stephen, she is at once relieved and electrified. She has an all-consuming crush on the guy and angst quickly gives way to jitters.
He says, “Walk with me, Alexandra.” She hates that her mother uses her Christian name persistently, but it doesn’t sound so bad coming from Stephen.
Rather than actually coming up with something clever to say, she falls in step with him. They walk quite a way before either say anything. Stephen clearly has something on his mind.
He says, “How’s school?”
His laugh is more of a yelp. Sasha blushes. He says, “I know what you mean. What grade are you in now? Let me guess…” He squints at her, as if assessing her. “Eighth?”
Sasha flushes with the compliment. Abnormally tall for her age, she is often mistaken for older, but it makes her self-conscious. Why it’s a compliment from him and an insult from others, she isn’t sure.
She says, “Sixth.”
“And then worse…” he trails off.
They’ve hit a rise in the hill and the grass levels out a bit. Stephen plops on the ground with a grunt. The sheer weight of him is alarming. He has the mass that she yearns for: the ability to navigate the planet as a true moving part of it, rather than being in constant danger of flying off into space. He possesses the ground on which he sits. She shifts her feet, increasingly aware of her lightness and the fact that she’s wearing a flimsy polyester Catholic school uniform in the midst of real people in real clothing. Stephen is balance and presence.
“Sit with me awhile.” He holds his hand up to her. She doesn’t know if she should take it, so she plops to the ground next to him, hands still in her pockets. The ground is a little damp and starts to seep through her skirt and she finds it difficult to sit without exposing her underwear. She opts for a cross-legged position, so the skirt hangs down over her ankles like a loincloth, her bony knees sticking out either side.
Students sit in a circle around one bearded guy who plays guitar. He looks so warm and fuzzy and happy. Some day, she thinks. Somewhere far away. Sixth grade will be a foggy memory. Right? And her parents. Her parents.
Stephen lights a cigarette. She likes the smell of clove cigarettes. Plain ones always made her think of her parents’ boozy older friends. Cloves were youth and freedom and something unknown.
He takes a drag before he begins, squinting as he speaks out the smoke in puffs, “I don’t know…I’m just. Love is kind of messed up, you know?”
She straightens her too-long legs and digs her heels into the grass in an attempt at casualness. It gives off a fresh earthy smell. She says, “Yeah.”
“You ever been in love?”
Aside from right now? Not really. She stares at him. Say something. Say something.
He saves her. “Naw, I guess I didn’t really get my heart broken for the first time until the eighth grade. You’re really too young to be interested in boys anyway, aren’t you?”
He takes a drag of his cigarette. “Sucks.” God, she loves the way he talks out the smoke with that squint in his eyes. He pushes his hair out of his face.
She stares at him, taking in every detail and texture so as not to forget. His cheeks are pink, flushed with the cold, but he has a deeper peachy amber color to him. He has a few days’ growth of hair on his face; Sasha sees some blonde hairs mixed in with brown. His pea coat is frayed around the cuffs and is missing a button. The blue plaid scarf around his neck is one of those two dollar numbers you buy in New York. Underneath, he wears an ancient cotton men’s shirt, unironed and missing a button in the middle where, when he leans over, a few solitary hairs are revealed on his smooth, concave chest. The combat boots are worn, a red sock working its way through a hole in the top. Sasha thinks of that worm in the Richard Scarry books, but she blinks hard to bring herself back to where she is.
This is important. Pay attention.
He says “I just don’t understand her, you know? I love her, she loves me, what else is there, I mean…” Drag. “…there really shouldn’t be anything else.” He flops back, lying on the ground. Sasha sits there awkwardly, uncertain what to do. She feels, suddenly, all over again, extremely uncool.
He puts his hand over his eyes and squints up at her, his cigarette hanging out of his mouth. “Women are a mystery, you know?”
Her heart starts pounding. Does he mean he thinks of her as a woman or does he somehow think of her as a guy like himself, stuck dealing with the complexities of women? Either way, Sasha feels all grown up and somehow useful to this…guy. This “bloke,” as he would call himself.
Stephen lets out a belly-low groan. “Unhhhhhhhhhhh!’ He grabs his knees, rocks on his back and rises to his feet. He says, “I. Must. Find. Some. Beer. Come with me.”
He thrusts his hand out to her and she looks at him, the sunlight catching on his hair, his shadow looming above her. She has no choice but to take his hand and, as he pulls her up, she can smell his clothes, the wool, the clove cigarettes, centuries old beer and the slight odor of Spearmint gum. It all seems to be wrapped up in what he is.
Sasha is sitting on the front stoop of the package store feeling pretty much like a dork. She’s not allowed in, she’s too young and even Stephen’s plea that she was a younger sister wouldn’t convince the owner. An older, more established couple step over her to get past. Package stores make her nervous anyway.
Sasha’s father drinks because of her mother. She’s sure of this. Nerisha is only interested in fellow intellectuals and students. People who can carry on conversations at her “level.” Sasha does not fit into this category. Sadly, Thomas, the Russian Professor, Thomas, her father, no longer fits into that category either. He used to, but he gave up on his wife about a decade before and started self-medicating with his PhD-specific drink–vodka. Fortunately for Sasha, he’s a friendly drunk. Unfortunately for her, he’s a hopeless drunk. Sasha gauges her time with her father carefully. A certain wobble to the head, a slur of the word or an intensity of smell of vodka-pickled flesh and she knows he isn’t fit to talk to. If she catches him late enough in the morning that he isn’t terribly hung over, or after only one or two drinks, they can have some pretty terrific conversations. If she makes him laugh, she’s won a small sliver of light against the growing dark and sad that seem to consume her life.
The bell on the door jingles as Stephen pops out and Sasha’s heart thuds as she sees a bottle wrapped in a brown paper bag under his arm. It definitely isn’t beer. He winks at her and aims his fingers like a gun, making a “ch-ch” sound with his teeth. She smiles, tenses as he drapes his arm over her shoulders in a comradely fashion, “Want to see something really cool?” She shrugs. She should be getting home pretty soon, she can tell by the fading light in the sky that it’s almost dinner.
He senses her hesitance, “Oh, don’t let me down, darlin’…”
She pauses, but smiles and nods. He runs into the brush immediately behind the store and Sasha runs after him. They are on the lam together; from what, she can’t be sure. But she’s getting away with something. They walk into the administration building and she mimics Stephen’s forced-sober face as they walk past security. They are down a hallway and he’s ducking through a doorway. He grabs her arm and pulls her after him.
It’s pitch black in this room and smells of cleaning agents and old mops. They are very close for a moment and Sasha gets the giddy feeling she’s about to be kissed, although she knows better. She hears boots on metal for five hollow steps and suddenly, glaring sunlight bursts through. There’s a metal ladder in front of her leading up to a trap door and Stephen’s pea coat and boots make him look like a pirate as he swooshes up and out into the light. Sasha follows him, a bit panicked that he could have leaped off into space or something and left her, stranded, somewhere she shouldn’t be.
He calls down into the black pit of a room, “Sasha, come see the view, it’s amazing.”
When she steps through the trap door at the top of the ladder she sees him sitting on a low wall with nothing but sky behind him, perched precariously on the edge of nothingness.
Sasha feels a sense of vertigo for the first time, seeing him, feet dangling, so high above the earth. They’re in the clock tower, in a sort of balcony under the cube of four-faced clock. Surely this entrance exists only to service the clock, but now it seems a world in and of itself. She cat-steps forward when he yells, startling her.
He says, “Isolde!” Sasha doesn’t know what he’s yelling about or who it’s addressed to when he shrieks, like a possessed gargoyle, “Isolde the fair! Look up! It is your Tristan!”
Sasha hears a thin, but definitely mature female student voice cut through the cold air. “Stephen? Are you crazy?”
“Only for your flowing hair, the curve of your face, the scent of your…”
Isolde yells, “Get down from there before you break your neck!”
“Now he is come unto the chamber-door,” He rises to his feet, balancing dangerously on the ledge holding onto the rafter above him. Sasha hears the girls scream. Her own voice is caught in her throat.
“That shuts him from the heaven of his thought…”
“Stephen! Get down!” She’s angry now.
“Which with a yielding latch, and with no more,” he swings his leg over the ledge. Sasha gasps.
“Hath barr’d him from the blessed thing he sought.”
Now Isolde…or whatever her real name is…is screaming. “Get. Some. Help.” She walks off and Sasha can hear her murmuring with her friend as they walk away.
Sasha says, “Now that’s smart.” She can’t believe a halfway decent statement came out of her.
With a swoop of his coat, Stephen drops to a more manageable sitting position again.
“Gotcha.” He’s staring at her. It’s only when he snaps his fingers in front of her face that she realizes she’s been standing there, gaping.
She walks slowly toward him…she feels a sense that if she gets too close, he will pull her over the edge.
He leans his head into hers, squints one eye and points.
He says, “Right there.”
“Or the house of the beautiful princess, held by an evil ogre.”
Sasha says, “My Dad’s not an ogre…”
He laughs dully and says, “How dangerously we tango around the truth.” He grimaces, reaching into his pocket and pulling out the bottle.
Don’t drink. Please. You’ll spoil it.
The freedom, the headiness of the moment shifts as Stephen unscrews the lid of the bottle and takesa swig. It’s strong, whatever it is. It smells sweeter than vodka. You’d think she’d know her alcohol by now, but vodka is her only solid reference.
He holds out the bottle. Sasha shakes her head. He wipes the lid and proffers it again.
She says, too firmly, “No thanks.”
“Smart girl.” He tips the bottle at her–cheers–and takes another swig. “Your parents drink too much.”
Wait. No. I mean, wait. He’s not allowed to talk about that.
But Stephen doesn’t seem to notice what he said or that it might matter. He says, “Don’t ever fall in love, young Alexandra.”
“Roger.” Dork. She said one thing that was almost cool and now…
He puts his head back, eyes clenched, “I don’t mean that. Fall in love! That’s an order, do you understand?”
“Uh?” She is still processing the fact that he is drinking. Now he’s offering her advice. Pay attention. She can’t put a finger on their proximity. It is sudden and close at once, uncomfortable and exhilarating.
He says, “It is the sweetest, most beautiful pain available in this life, you know? It’s all one pain or another, but love, love is definitely the sweetest.” He drinks again, looking at the house in the distance. “If it doesn’t kill you.”
He sits for a moment, brooding, a dark cloud over his face. There’s something accusing in his tone, when he says,
“But in the midst of his unfruitful prayer,
Having solicited th’eternal power
That his foul thoughts might compass his fair fair,
And they would stand auspicious to the hour.”
Sasha growls, as she’s heard her father do so many times before, “English majors!”
Stephen looks at her for a moment. The twinkle comes back into his large brown eyes. He laughs. “You. Are. How old are you again?”
He pitches forward onto his boots and says, “Hoo….watch out! Let’s get you home, minor in a bell tower with a ne’er do well.” His head ducks into his shoulders, sheepish, “I offered you a drink!” He giggles. He lets this next phrase roll off his tongue, tasting it. “Jail. Bait.” Sasha has heard the term before, but she’s never quite pinned down its meaning.
Stephen walks toward the trap door and leaps in the air, vanishing into the darkness below. Sasha hears a clank and a scramble on the ladder. Then a thud and a groan. She rushes anxiously to the edge and sees him, tossing his honey hair back to squint up at her.
“Wounded, but not dead, sire…”
Once they pass through the tunnel that runs under the science building and her house comes into view, Stephen stops. He stares across the street at her house for a moment.
He turns on his heel, “Right. I’m off.”
He chucks her on the shoulder. “Til we meet again, comrade.”
“Bye.” Why can’t she think of anything clever to say?
With that he is out through the archway, his coat billowing behind him.
Sasha smiles. Bemused. That had been…unusual. But good. It almost smells like snow.
Dread encroaches as she mounts the steps to her house.
She hopes her mother sees fit to speak to her at dinner.
She hopes her parents don’t fight tonight.
Two weeks pass and Sasha’s stomach does a dance every time she gets off the bus and heads home across campus. If she lingers long enough, she might see him again. Every pea coat that passes or certain slouch in a student walk gets her hopes up again. But no sign. She wonders if Tristan caught up with his Isolde.
Winter has reclaimed its possession of the season, but her mother is once again exchanging pleasantries with her, which makes her days at home more bearable. Bearable, not wonderful as her parents are fighting more. She wonders if she has somehow caused this.
Today, she takes extra time walking home from the bus stop and for once, Stephen’s not the first thing on her mind. The persistent torments of the sixth grade class do things to a girl. It isn’t the whole class, it’s mostly five of them, Jimmy and his two henchmen and of course Kristin and Suzanne. But the rest of the class stands by as the torment continues: spitballs, fake love notes, name calling. Even the strongest weirdo in the world couldn’t withstand the relentless picking and humiliation. And Sasha isn’t the strongest by a long shot. She wishes she could be in college already.
The snow is just deep enough to seep into the tops of her shoes and through her regulation-blue tights. She’s cold and wet. But that smell is there, and the warm breeze is melting the snow and if she doesn’t ever get home, it won’t matter so much. It’ll probably take her mother a day before she notices that she’s gone and a few days more before she calls the police. Sasha could drop to her knees, dead in the sopping wet snow. Wild animals could nibble at her…
Her masochistic reverie is interrupted by a brief surge of hope. Is it him?
She looks over to the science tower and sees Stephen standing in the sandstone archway leading to the tunnel and her heart lurches. He looks dramatic, the collar to his pea coat pulled up over his ears. He’s a spy waiting to divulge secret information and she’s in the mood for an adventure. Some sort of escape.
Sasha trots across the street, avoiding traffic, but trying to look cool. Her school shoes betray her and she goes down before she gets to the curb, wet snow quickly seeping through her tights and soaking the back of her school skirt.
She gets up, doing her best, but slips again. Stephen steps out and grabs her elbow and they engage in a bizarre dance as he steadies her as she slips and slides to the curb. She’s had enough humiliation at school, she doesn’t need this. It’s somewhat unnatural how he can hold up her enormous frame with one arm. She doesn’t feel so huge right now, more like a daddy long-legs out of control.
She smells a very familiar odor, which belongs on her father rather than Stephen: vodka. Not that “I just grabbed a drink” vodka smell, but the kind that has soaked into the skin for at least a day and had a chance to work itself into his sweat, his cells. She’s moved from hope to humiliation to a very distinct and familiar sadness.
She takes the chipper route, “Hey, you.” Damn. Too intimate.
“Yeah.” He’s obviously thinking of something he needs to say. For lack of a better gesture, he lights a cigarette.
“Jumped off any roofs lately?” She’s trying desperately to get back the casual closeness they had that day in the tower–to get through whatever this fog is that seems to enshroud him.
He says, “Heh. Heh. Right.”
She stands watching him try to pull himself together. His cheeks are flushed with cold or with alcohol, she can’t tell. When he speaks, she knows for sure.
“I had a quesshion for you…”
She says, “Yeah?”
“What are you all doing this weekend?”
“’You all’ like you’re from the South or ‘you all’ as in the Brown family?”
“Definitely, the latter.” The vodka is making him randomly punch his words. He sounds as if he’s trying to make a definite point, but the emphasis is in all the wrong places. Sasha’s Dad is notorious for this: it’s almost his signature.
“We’re going up to Rhinebeck.”
There’s a silence she tries to fill in with chatter.
“The Bierneys live up there? They’re family friends and we see them every few months at Mount Cristo. It sounds totally dorky, but that’s their name for it and it’s pretty cool actually. It’s because they live on Cristo Lane and they have this massive place with lots of…”
Steven waves her off—she’s talking too much. She feels like an idiot and she doesn’t know how to extract herself from whatever is going on here. The truth is, she doesn’t want to know what’s really up with Stephen. She wants to keep him at that comfortable closeness/distance. This is starting to feel horrible and she doesn’t want to find out why. She stares at some freshly spray-painted graffiti on the slate floor: Phil loves Cynthia immensely. There’s something sort of beautiful and incongruous about that. Somebody, somewhere is having a lovely life. Some young couple in love is sharing the same time and space as Sasha, having an entirely different experience.
She hears the coarse noise of coat against sandstone with a clomp of boots. Sasha can’t tell if he’s fallen on purpose or not.
She says, “Are you okay?”
Crap. What do you do when someone is like this and it’s not Dad?
She says, “Do you want me to call someone? I can go get my mom.”
This causes him to laugh, which echoes through the tunnel. He says, “No. No. Don’t do that.”
Sasha looks anxiously at the house. The cold wetness of her blue wool tights is starting to become truly unpleasant. She can feel a chill starting in and if she stands just so, her wet skirt doesn’t stick to the back of her legs, but she can’t decide whether it’s warmer with the skirt sticking, or off the legs, allowing the cold air more direct access through her tights.
She says, “I’ve gotta…go?”
He looks at her as if he’s really seen her for the first time. “Oh, no, no, no. This won’t do. A pox upon me for a clumsy lout.”
He stumbles to his feet, takes off his coat and wraps it around her.
She says, “No, you’ll freeze.”
He’s wearing a thin cotton T-shirt.
“I would never let a lady freeze…” he pauses, searching for words. Sasha is well schooled in waiting for the end of a sentence from listening to her father after he’d had a few.
“…who had crossed the street to talk to me.”
The coat smells more strongly of clove cigarettes than alcohol. It’s dry and toasty, like stepping into a warm room.
“I’m just not quite certain…” he trails off with a swagger and once again finds the words, “…how to proceed.”
She would ask him, “with what?” But she doesn’t want to know. She looks at him. Listening will do for now.
“I have this love like a pain…like a hunger and the lady is no longer receiving me!” He stops. This seems to be all. The sound of running water gushes in the sewer beneath the street. Sasha can see her breath in the air. Home is so close.
She says, “If I can make a suggestion…”
“Please, wise elf, tell me how to proceed.”
Sasha would take offense at the word “elf” if it all weren’t so sad. She says, “I don’t know, but I just know that if it’s someone you’re having a problem with? I would go home and…” She clears her throat, but he seems to be listening openly, “go to bed and maybe the morning would be a better time. Clear head. You know.”
He stares at her, his head swaying as if he might careen into her. She feels very small in the big coat and in the shadow of this wavering tower of a person.
This is taking too long. She worries he’s going to pass out.
She smiles, relieved. She goes to take off his coat, but he has already galloped off down the tunnel, his boots clomping with an unnatural loudness on the leaves and slate. The echo makes it sound like a two-legged horse is passing by.
But he’s skidding on the slushy mud outside of the tunnel and is off up the stairs. “Thank you!” He hollers when he’s so far away that she can’t be sure if he’s talking to her.
After a three hour drive up to Rhinebeck during which her parents get lost not once, but twice, they arrive at the Bierneys’ house. Nerisha and Thomas aren’t speaking to each other by the time they get there, but they put on a good show for the Bierneys. Emily Bierney is warm and kind to Sasha, which is really nice.
That night, Sasha pretends to watch a movie in the den while she listens to the grownups get drunk and drunker in the next room. The louder and more raucous they become, the more she wants to disappear. But she turns up the movie and falls asleep on one of the sofas. At one point she wakes up to the sound of her parents fighting. Her mother is using that careful condescending tone she has sharpened on Thomas over the past year. But the argument moves and fades upstairs and she goes back to sleep.
Sasha startles awake to find the television off and the dawn breaking the gray sky. She sits up suddenly and feels a weight sliding off of her. A heavy quilt has been spread over her. She blinks in the light. It’s that half-light that makes everything outside seem clearer than it does in the day, but makes everything right in front of you invisible. She smells a sickly familiar odor of processed alcohol and smoke and hears snoring coming from the sofa adjacent to hers. She knows it’s her father, but as wide as she opens her eyes she can’t see him. Her parents fight was worse than usual, then.
She used to love the sensation of waking up in an unfamiliar, then familiar place and this house had been that place many times. But now, something is askew.
She’s startled by the sound of crunching footsteps up the drive outside the window. She looks out into the quickly lightening dawn and sees a familiar silhouette trudging through the now frozen slush. At first she doesn’t react, she just stares at the odd profile advancing across the landscape and then her heart leaps in an absurdly happy recognition. Is he here for her? But when she really processes who she’s looking at and why he’s likely here, she gasps and runs for the front door, opening it quietly and slipping outside.
It’s freezing cold in just her shirtsleeves and her breath feels sharp in her nose and throat. Her eyes burn and she realizes she doesn’t have any shoes on, but she has to stop him before he gets to the house or…she’s not sure what. She just has to stop him. She has a growing sick feeling that she knows what this might involve, but she doesn’t want to think about it just yet.
If nothing else, she has a dead on certainty that this is about her mother and she has to protect her father—who sleeps behind a window not five feet from Stephen–from whatever this is.
She looks down and sees a pair of Emily’s gardening clogs which she slips on before she runs out into the snow. It is icy.
“Alexandra, my friend!”
He’s hollering. Shit. She runs as fast as she can to get to him.
“Happy to see me?!”
Not as much as she thought she was. After an impossible amount of time she finally gets to him, grabbing his arm, “Shhh!”
His volume does not change.
“Right. We wouldn’t want to wake anybody.”
Stephen looks awful. The sparkle is gone from his eyes and there’s a dangerous, determined glitter in them she’s never seen in them. The flicker of darkness she saw around the edges before has settled in and taken over. He has rings under his eyes and he smells as if he hasn’t bathed in a few days. And something is different.
She says, “What’s up?” Nice opener, nimrod.
Stephen laughs, darkly. “The unflappable Sasha Brown. The unsinkable Sasha Brown.” He snorts a giggle at this. All the time he’s looking over her shoulder past her to the house. He says, “Where is she?” His voice cracks with longing when he says it.
“We can’t just stand out here…” She looks around and drags him by the arm toward the woods. She knows who his lady love is. Her mother has slept with this guy. This student. This kid young enough to be her son.
He says, “Where are you taking me?”
“Somewhere to talk.”
The playhouse has gotten a little ramshackle since she last saw it, its sweetness giving way to a sad look. With its clapboard walls and front columns crawling with vines, it looks like something out of the South in the Civil War. It’s built to look two stories high from the outside, with a second story of windows, but is really just one room. Despite the weathering of its paint, its windows are still intact, as is its lock.
Sasha feels for the key on the roof and finds it easily. She unlocks the door and goes in. Stephen stands on the front porch, staring at the house oddly.
He stoops, but finds he has to get to his knees to fit in the door. Sasha looks back feeling like Alice after having eaten the cake — eat me— and wonders how she got into the house so easily.
Stephen sits in a corner, waiting like an obedient child while Sasha tests the space heater. It still works. The light probably does, too, but she doesn’t want to risk being seen from the house.
Stephen looks around him, “This place is insane.”
“Mr. Bierney built this when Jean—my friend–was two. He had just lost his job and had a lot of time on his hands.”
Stephen is looking at the wallpapered walls, the built in breakfast nook and bookshelves. Sasha’s favorite was the window seat, now too small for her, but one time just the right size to curl up and sulk. Or read. Now she hopes it still holds a few extra blankets. It does. She pulls out one for herself and throws one to Stephen.
There’s an awkward silence. Stephen tries a gallant voice: “You may have gotten me here, but I’ll never talk.”
His humor rings hollow in the rawness of the early morning light. The little room is starting to warm up, but they can still see their breath.
She says, “How did you get here?”
“How did you know where to come?”
He says, “And I quote: ‘Mount Cristo. It sounds kind of dorky but that’s the name because they live on Cristo Lane and they have this massive place…’”
Sasha can’t tell if there is a tone of mockery in his voice, but she’s beginning to feel this is somehow all her fault. No. No. No.
She says, “What are you doing here?”
He puts on an actorly desperate tone, “I had to see you on a matter of utmost importance.”
“I’m sorry. I tried to call after you, but you ran off. I meant to return it, but we were leaving…”
He puts up his hand to stop her. She feels foolish. Of course it’s not about his coat. But she doesn’t have time to kick herself over this, because Stephen’s face is doing the most horrible thing. It’s contorting itself and wrenching itself into…
Oh, God, tell me he is not going to cry.
The tears come quickly and Stephen pulls his knees up to his chin, an overgrown child.
He wails, “What am I going to do?”
“Oh, God, um. Oh, man. Don’t…” She looks around her desperately as if to find the right thing to give to a grown person—a guy who has collapsed into tears. But there’s nothing.
Real crying isn’t like it is in the movies. There have been no moments in her life in which Sasha has found herself with a normal expression, tears poetically dripping down her cheeks. Real crying comes from deep inside and involves ugliness, mouth agape, coloring blotched and, sadly, snot. Even though she knows this, Sasha can’t quite handle the sight this guy has become. Gone is all his swaggering, his bravado, his allure. He’s just a kid. Older than her, and definitely bigger, but a kid.
Not knowing what else to do, she sits next to him and puts her arm gingerly on his shoulders. Much to her surprise and horror, he throws his arms around her and sobs openly, his hot breath a little too wet on her neck.
She pats him vaguely on the back. “Shhh, shhh…”
“I just love her so fucking much. And she’s. She’s killing me.”
Oh. Shit. She kind of knew this was coming, but now that it’s here…
“It’s not like…” He’s struggling for words, “She approached me. And now she’s acting like…like. God, like I’m nothing to her! Like the whole past year was a lie. Like I’m intruding on her life. Like I’m a child.”
She wishes she could unhear everything he’s just said. That she could go back inside and lie down on the sofa and pull the quilt up and go back to the happy bliss of yesterday where she hated her mother for all the usual reasons.
But here is Steven there’s nothing to do but wait. She’s never been this close to anyone crying this hard. This is something people ordinarily do alone.
He slowly starts to pull himself together. He’s becoming aware of the world around him. He sits up suddenly and pulls away from Sasha. He scrambles pushing himself back to the opposite wall, wiping his nose on his sleeve. The tears look kind of absurd with the whiskers, but something about thethe way he looks reminds her of her primary sixth grade tormenter Jimmy when his ears turn red. This emotional storm has come from somewhere else and has overtaken its victim, still alarmed by its sudden attack.
He says, “I’m sorry…I…”
Sasha takes a deep breath before she speaks. “What do you. What do you want?” She pauses and adds as if to make her question less accusing, “Really?”
Stephen takes a moment and looks at the ceiling. “I want. I need. I need her to talk to me.” He looks at Sasha with new intensity and purpose. “She has to talk to me. After what we shared…how close we were, to cut me off without a word.” He starts welling up.
Sasha gets to her feet and stops him before he goes off again. “I’ll get her.” He nods briefly and sets his chin, looking into the distance. He’s working on what he’s going to say.
Blanket still around her, Sasha crunches through the snow toward the house. All is still quiet and she’s unsure of what to do, but she promised him. She looks back to the playhouse to find Stephen’s head visible in the second story window, going back and forth as he paces the four steps the house will allow him. She tries tiptoeing when she gets to the gravel drive, but there’s no way to accomplish this without making some noise. She prays her father will sleep awhile longer. Go a little longer before he finds out.
She opens the door quietly and goes in, listening. The place is so quiet all she can hear is the extraordinarily loud ticking of the grandfather clock and a faint ringing in her ears. She closes the door as quietly as she can and makes her way to the stairs, listening for the rhythmic snoring of her father in the study. She assumes her mother is upstairs in the back bedroom.
The stairs make entirely too much noise and she doesn’t know this house well enough to avoid the squeaky floorboards. She tries sliding her sock feet down the hallway, to distribute her weight evenly, but an absurdly loud board in the middle of the hallway calls her out. She pauses. Still, no new noise.
She stops outside her mother’s door, hand on the doorknob, trying to think of any way out of this. But she’s not old enough to drive yet and if she doesn’t get her mother out there, Stephen will come into the house and things will be worse. For her Dad. For her. Things will be worse.
She opens the door quickly, leaving no room to change her mind.
Kate Maruyama‘s novel HARROWGATE was published by 47North. Her short work has appeared in Arcadia, Stoneboat, Whistling Shade and on Salon, The Rumpus, Duende and Entropy as well as in two anthologies: Winter Horror Days and Phantasma: Stories. She teaches in the BA and MFA Program at Antioch University Los Angeles as well as for Writing Workshops Los Angeles and inspiration2publication.