"Vince-! The lingering smell of his fingertips on his letters; his hair on my pillow. For years his scent was woven into my tee shirts and deep in my dreams, like a campfire I couldn’t wash out of my hair. For the longest time all I had to do was open up my box of letters and I’d sink back into that summer like I’d never left it.
Not that he knew. I ducked my head away, trying to hide my smile. It was the big goofy one I always got around him, the one that made me look like a cartoon character, all gap-teeth and freckles, and if my fiance ever saw it, he’d never let me live it down.
“I’m sorry, I don’t mean to laugh, it’s just…” I could almost smell the pine needles, as cold and crisp as champagne.
“It’s good to see you too, Temple,” Vince said. He had this way of looking at you like he was inviting you into his secret world. Those transparent grey-blue eyes. I could almost imagine all the cold rivers inside him had only ever waited for my reflection; that all his shady lanes had paused all this time, waiting for me.
That he needed me, in order to complete his own wandering way.
But kingdoms come, kingdoms go. The truth was, the rivers and lanes of V hadn’t waited any more than mine had. We’d drifted apart, as even continents eventually do,
and the truth was I didn’t even think of him that often... "
-from Savages. for you.
July 4th, 2015.
Blue sky & sea, the flag snapping in the wood on a bamboo pole, all the boats lashed together, everybody swinging champagne. We're scrambling together up onto the prow, my sister and I, and my Christopher: a fabulous day, the end to a long, wild, lunatic weekend.
"You girls, man, I never met anybody vibing so hard, I love it," a sweet boy says to her, sitting down, and we all smile up at the sun-
Too much work, and then too much play-
I've been playing phone & email tag for days with my agent (still such a thrill to say that, my agent!!) and then a note from her as we're headed back to harbor:
I think it's time to begin submitting. I could nit-pick endlessly about this and that, but the bottom line is that you've answered beautifully my main problem with the ms: bringing Faye into the story in a more substantial way and explaining why Ada goes looking for her (and something I don't think I had asked you about which was does poor Jupiter ever get away from her horrible father). It feels much more fully developed now and satisfyingly ended.
Anyway, I'm literally going to be wearing my phone around my neck for the rest of the day, so please call me when you get a minute!
I've been waiting for 'go' since I turned in my revisions after my NOEPE residency on MV- checking my email so reflexively that I'm not always aware what I'm even looking for- so when her note jumped up at me I lost my shit. I'm jumping up and down squealing, so happy I couldn't even talk or breathe. "Did you sell your book?" one of the bikini goddesses says.
"No, oh gosh, that's still so far away, it's just going off to the editors now," I say, still manic with happiness. "But she likes my revisions."
Sometimes, amazingly, I forget how much I care.
Maybe you are wondering what a solar dancing flower is? It was me, all the way home.
I've got 200 pp on Savages now, going to put to the side again, make one last final pass on EL incorporating suggestions I've been given. I can keep fiddling with the thing while we submit, and will surely be asked to revise many times more. (Editors, publishers, publisher's editors.) But still- the train lurches forwards.
Andrew on the phone with his dad last night, grinning at me: "Paula's book is moving forward- so we're now at the third circle of anxiety hell-"
Six more to go...
Meanwhile, we hermit up, eyes on the prize.
July 6th, 2015.
Nine months since James died. My mom planted a crepe myrtle for him in the backyard, where they used to sit and watch the cardinals.
Here there are myrtle trees everywhere, and when I see them I will think of him.
I haven't posted the following journal entry yet-
Myrtle trees, candle flames. Nothing is lost. I want to believe that.
June 20th, 2015.
I think of my neighbor in the AME church, of her last hour, and how she must have worried so for those she knew she was leaving behind. I’m with Andrew and his parents- they're visiting- we're all at his warehouse, helping pack boxes, but I can’t stop thinking about it. The screaming and praying, the blood. Because of an unthinking hate-
I think of my own mother in a church, worried for her lost son. “Try not to think about it,” Loreta, Andrew's mother, says.
But later that day I post an ad on craigslist for Andrew, helping him to find warehouse help- and then I’m going through resumes, and of course you can recognize the lost ones. And I think of James, I think of him flailing. Trying with all his heart, but unable to surface.
I was at NOEPE on the six month anniversary of James' death, and while I was there I began to fixate on the possibility of there being pictures of the scene. Were there photographs taken? If there were, I wanted to know that they were destroyed, and if not, when they would be. I called the courthouse, got passed around, and it was so much harder than I expected to ask this question that, after being rerouted three times, I stopped for a while. I did not tell anyone.
But now I needed to know, I needed to do one last thing for him, needed to make sure he was safe.
Next day, Andrew ran to the grocery for eggs; his parents were coming over for breakfast. I ducked into the bedroom and called the last number they'd given me, back in April. I asked the questions in a voice that, all too suddenly, wasn’t mine. It was eggshell and blood and unanswerable grief.
But the voice on the other side, sweet ghost, was kind. She reassured me, saying words like procedure, security, if they exist at all, not accessible to anyone, will be destroyed, etc.
So he was safe.
Then she paused. “We've lost one too,” she said, finally.
“I am so sorry.”
"Hey-" she said, "take a smile with you."
Andrew came in then, found me. Rolling out dough for dinner on the boat later, weeping into the sink. Stupid, useless. He hugged me tight, I pulled myself together, his folks came in and I took his mom on a house tour on the Battery. They told us a story about the Middleton family burying their silver during the Civil War. In the tiny bathroom I took deep breaths. There are tiny birds painted delicately on the ceiling. Beauty and horror woven together everywhere.
Guilt. My terrible guilt. I keep it lit always for you, my brother; I let it lick at my ribs, I think of your face, your voice, and everything that should have been. All the good things you deserved to experience, you in your kindness, but it was so hard for you here, and at least we can know that you are not hurting now.
There are so many things that seem to be signs from you- messages reappearing on Facebook, my phone. Pieces of you, resurfacing: the boards and lost paintings of a sunken ship, and I cannot assemble all the things that I believe.
Loreta and I wandered downtown. I bought a shirt for Andrew, a happy eclectic blue. He wore it that night on K & E’s boat, and I'd put on the skirt he bought for me in NY- “it’s a magic skirt,” he said, giving it to me, and maybe it is.
Such pleasure, such refuge, in one another. My good man. That night, he made us all huevos rancheros, and we watch Chef’s Table, the episode on Francis Mallmann. Mallmann's got some astounding ideas & methods, a philosopher cook. Taken with him, wanting more, I read a review of the episode on Eater.com:
“Yet this freedom clearly has sharp edges. Mallmann admirably advocates complete honesty but illustrates the point by slaying a former friend. "I no longer enjoy talking to you," he says. In one sequence, he speaks of cutting off one of his gaucho chefs, the closest thing he has to daily family, just at the moment they feel closest to him. One doesn't get the feeling this eviction from the nest is accompanied for a concern about how the fledgling lands.
Mallmann, as one might expect, lives an unconventional private life as well. He is not like Matisse, daring on canvas, conventional at home. He is more like Picasso, uncompromising in pursuing his vision at work and in the configurations of his menage…
As awed as I was — and am — of Mallmann's devoted hedonism, as both a father of a son and a son of a father, what sticks with me is the wide wake of hurt and chaos the headlong pursuit of freedom leaves.”
But we have the music.
May 17th, 2015, Sunday
A lazy, lovely, voluptuous day. The both of us a little hungover.
“What are you thinking?” I say to Andrew.
He rolls over. “I’m thinking that the vessel in the middle of my head is a big one.”
I laugh, instantly gleeful, like a kid who’s found a wonderful stone. “Oh, I’m using that!” I say, emailing it to myself on my phone, and he smiles, pleased.
"How can you know who she is, if you don't read her work?" Christopher had said to him, a little fiercely, late in our party the night before.
We were all coming back from somewhere- the Royal American; a strange punk show, more people in the band than in the pit, a slow motion mosh pit of three, and then suddenly there was a fist fight- over what?- and everyone swept outside-
Andrew didn’t answer him, he was singing, swinging Aerie around on his back. I made some blurry excuse, everyone said goodnight. When the last of them had folded away, “I love you, I love you!” the thick, sleepy silence of our house without them seemed abrupt, aquatic. And then Andrew was snoring on the sofa, I couldn't move him.
He doesn't remember this part of things; now we're in the kitchen, talking about it.
"But I do know who you are, I know what's in your book," Andrew says, merrily. "Rape, suicide, death, death, more death- rape-"
"Well, Jesus," I say, a little taken aback; "I mean, yes, but that's like saying- I mean, plot is maybe the least important part of literature, that's like saying a dinner party is all about the seating arrangement; and maybe in one sense, it is- but really it's about the conversation-"
Yammering on as we put together breakfast. Croissants, a coconut from down the street. Blackest coffee. I want to loll about in the sunshine a bit, finishing Vineland, before we run out this afternoon to buy some chickens with our rooommate, he and Andrew have cobbled together a coop-
"Anyway, you know who I am," I say to him. But isn't this a lie? Is it possible to ever truly know all of someone? We can only, necessarily, see the facets they let us see- the facets we are able to see-
I have a scene about this in Evening’s Land:
I was only sixteen. Matthew was twenty. He had a motorcycle, his own house, everything. He knew who he was, where he was going. “What’s wrong?” he’d say.
“I’m confused. This happened so fast, how can you really know who I am? How can you really love me?”
He’d look wounded. “But that’s what we’re doing. We’re finding each other out. That’s what a relationship is.”
“But I mean, you can’t ever really know another person, can you? You just see a couple facets of them. But who they really are, that’s locked up.” I tapped my head. “Bone goblet, no key.”
“What are you saying?”
“I mean maybe the only way you can ever know someone is to grow up together. I think maybe I miss Ada.”
He shrugged. “So call her.”
“What are you doing?”
He was rolling an undershirt into his ball-cap. “Packing,” he said. “Let’s take a trip. You and me. I have to go to Colorado to see a guy, you want to come?”
“They gotta to do a count before they send the courier, I gotta take him this.” Matthew put money in my hand. “What do you think of that?” He grinned, watching my face. “That’s twenty K, how’s it feel?”
I’m hardly in a position to be acting affronted though. It was a great party, we all overdid it- especially me. Our friends chanting, “Paula Paula balla’ balla’ balla’!!”- at one point I was lurching around in the kitchen trying to explain to a lovely, articulate and especially empathetic friend how it would be so much easier if their elderly dogs died.
This is me: “You guys, spend the night!”
T: “Ah, we’d love to, but we have to get home and let the dogs out.”
Me: “Nooo. Wait, wait- I was thinking, do you ever just want them to die? I mean, it would be so much easier, you’d be free…”
T was appalled, but hid it well… “But you see, they’re our children…”
“I mean, I know, but-” Now, what I was trying to work towards was to tell him about this realization I’d had about freedom back in April, when we were dogsitting their sweet pups. I wrote about it:
April 25th, Saturday:
" ...Suddenly it occurred to me, guiltily, how much easier, how much free-er, their lives would be if their dogs were to die. Then they could travel at a moments notice, guilt-free. But conversely, I thought, stirring the pot of syrup, how much less of a home you have, without any animals. And then I realized that to be really and utterly free is to be without a home, without any root in the world.
How sad- really, how lonely, true freedom would be. It is our obligations that weave us to locus, to place."
Of course, what came out instead was “Hrr! Dogs die!”
Foot in mouth… fortunately, most of what I say to my dear, long-suffering friends hardly makes sense anyway, so maybe he took it in stride.
What a funny entry. Am a bit young to be self-referential!
Anyway. With a cold to keep me honest, I was relatively responsible this past weekend: got all on top of office work, so can spend most of the day today working on Savages, which is coming along in fits and starts. Trying to keep myself distracted while feedback on EL trickles slooowly in... want to have a full spectrum of responses to consider when/ if I'm told to revisit it. And patience is not my strong suit...
I've been loving hot, gooey 6 minute eggs for breakfast (amazingly my boiling privileges have not been revoked) but forgot them in the sink all morning and now, having found them again, they are cold... sadness.
Finished smoothing in all the new stuff yesterday, and rejiggered the ending. This new ending was slow in coming, so hard to wait for, because if you've got a shitty, disappointing ending, no matter how delicious the preceding pages, well you've got a shitty, disappointing book. (The Club Dumas, The Man Who was Thursday*, I'm looking at you.) *Andrew read this to me out loud when we first started dating :) o, his radio voice!
So I hope this one's more satisfying (haunting). We'll see. I've started sending the thing off to friendly eyes. So now I bite my nails, play frantic catch up with my day job. Maybe pick up on Savages again. I've been told to check out Don Winslow's handling of a big cast of characters first, so will have to read that soon.
Anyway, I learned some cool stuff when I was squirreling around, trying to figure out how to rejigger my ending. In our world, as you know, we have a podcast for everything, and I am the podcast queen. This one started off kind of slow, but towards the ending it had all kinds of ideas going off in my head. Some key points in it for me were:
1. You want an unexpected but inevitable ending (Flannery O'Connor)
2. The ending is already written in your book somewhere.
3. For shapely fiction, don't remove the sense of conflict and tension at the end. This should live on to haunt your reader- but you still need to tie up your narrative arc.
4. Last of all, and the scariest: The last line should be a flashlight; when you reach it, it should illuminate the whole thing.
So how about a little something from my book to leave you with, huh?
This is from Chapter 7, one of the new ones written from Faye's perspective. (I had to change her name to Faye from Nell, as there were two N-starting names in EL.)
April 9th, 2011
So Ada’d gotten in a fight at school with Jenna Hazel because Jenna had called her a freaky-eyed slut, and at the end of it Ada had a black eye, but Jenna had two. After that, Ada was instant friends with Jenna’s ex, an older boy named Matthew Blue we’d heard legends about for years, and now we were at his party.
The other guy who lived there called himself Witchhazel. The two of them were small time pot dealers: glass and charred buds were everywhere, but their place smelled meaty and herbal from smudged sage, and an incongruously good pottery collection was ranged along the tops of the adobe walls. Mobiles of driftwood and dried chiles hung from all the doorways, and a big cougar-colored cat bellied up to everyone as they came in through the door.
Ada picked the cat up and snuggled him against her as we stood there, looking into the dark. The house was cool and cave like. There was a humidifier, blankets and beanbags. A small television crouched in one corner, an old Nintendo spidering out in front of it, and Witchhazel, some scary chola girls I didn’t know, and Matthew Blue were all sitting there, hiding their hands.
"Nice place," Ada said, into the room. Her black eye looked kind of jaunty and she knew it.
Matthew Blue was curved low in his chair, as long and thin as a bean, his blue watch cap tugged rakishly over one eye. He nodded over at us faintly, too cool to stand up.
“The sugarbears are here!” Witchhazel said. He came over for a hug, and I saw he had a nasal strip wrapped around one finger as a band-aid. He smelled like mildew. I made myself small in his arms, trying not to touch him.
“Ain’t we sugarbears?” one of the cholas said from the beanbags. Picking at her long, pierced nails. “Mijo, please.”
“Nice shiner, girl,” Witchhazel said, ignoring her.
“Thanks,” Ada said.
In one of the back rooms I could see people with spoons and needles. I kept looking all around me, everywhere except the single place I wanted to look.
He was at ASU now, but the stories about him still trickled through high school like blowing sand. He was one of those beautiful, wolfish boys who always seem to be ranging along the perimeters, infamous for coming up with one crazy scheme after another. In grade school you used to hear about him stealing candy from the concession stand, selling it to everybody at half price. He led the kids in Barrio Hollywood in making a conveyer system through the sewer drains from pulleys and skateboards.
They’d spent that whole summer rolling through their neighborhoods blasting super-soakers in through the windows of passing cars - and then it became a high speed weed delivery system, which led to Matthew’s first run-in with the cops. Everybody said that when they’d caught him, and the officer asked him what he had to say for himself - Matthew had reached out and tickled the man’s belly.
His dad was a lawyer who collected fine wines; Matthew filched them to drink in the secret hallway behind the theatre room. He used to tag all the cool kids to go back there with him between classes.
Matthew loved to test his limits like a wolf loves to run. And here we were, a couple lambs running to slaughter. More people came in and the music cranked up. Witch poured us a drink and Ada went off somewhere, and I was sucked into a confused conversation with some stoners about caving. Finally I skittered outside and found her again. I had begun to feel so anxious that I felt inhuman and buoyant, my body filling with beating wings. I could hardly hear what anyone was saying anymore.
Ada was with Matthew, the two of them standing close, sucking down cigarettes, laughing hard. A knob of painted wire was sticking out from the adobe wall and I pulled on it shyly, watching them together. They made a matched set. The both of them Homecoming Court pretty, but in their feral ways: Matthew lean and tall, with sly brown eyes like he wasn’t quite ever letting you in; Ada with her slinky ticks, her knowing gaze, her laugh as sharp as a blade. Oh, she was terrifyingly pretty, even with that muddied eye. Suddenly I wondered that we’d even been able to find one another in the first place.
How many people never find their missing piece, never even know she exists? You could be walking right past her every day and never even realize. Never even recognize her, your other half, your very closest of friends.
But in that heartbeat it began to seem to me that there was an unimpeachable gulf between Ada and I after all. She was handling this, was made for this. Cool college parties, talking to older boys in the dark. And I was not. I was frozen somewhere outside myself, witnessing myself there as if I were only half real. I turned to go back in, maybe even to leave.
Then Matthew Blue glanced over at me. “Hey, it’s Faye, right?” he said. As easy as that.
I nodded, wrapping my arms around myself with a shimmering happiness. “Can I have one of those?” I said, joining them.
Matthew’s eyebrows slid up and one side of his face went into a smile. It was a habit of his, that lopsided smile. We were just kids, but his habit was already starting to crease his face in a way that made me think of old-school Westerns; men wearing stars and black hats.
“You smoke?” he said, incredulous.
“Oh, I’m just an opportunist,” I said, shyly, taking one.
“Kids these days,” he said.
Ada grinned at me around her hand and the floating ember of her cigarette lit up like a firefly. She had these deliciously secretive ways of doing everything, Ada could make eating a cheeseburger seem mysterious. “You have to watch out for Faye, she’s a wild one,” she said to Matthew. “She bites.” Smiling, I copied the way Ada was holding her smoke, leaning towards her, and she lit mine with hers. “Go easy,” she said, and she wasn’t just talking about the cigarette.
But I pretended not to know what she meant. She wanted Matthew for herself, but Ada was always reeling in boys. There was something about Matthew that made me feel both still and trembly inside. A new feeling. I wanted to know what it was.
“What’s this, you bite too?” Matthew said to me. “Jesus christ, and here I had you pegged as a sweet little angel, my mistake…”
“You have no idea.” Ada grinned and rolled her eyes up at the sky, and I knew she’d decided to let me have him.
“Oh, god,” I said, inhaling tentatively. The smoke tasted strange, poisonous. I felt it curl all through my veins, and dizzy little sparks went off in my head. The side of the adobe looked rheumy in the dark; thick and milky, like a spiked milkshake, as if decades of people had stood here smoking in the dark. I wondered if the place had ever been clean.
“Okay, well first off- I’ve always loved biting people,” I said, and Matthew laughed.
We were drinking wine out of red plastic cups, and he poured some of his into mine, smiling.
“That moment when you first sink your teeth in,” I said, covering my glass with my hand to stop him, laughing, “I used to have these passionate dreams about it. Chasing my enemies down and just sinking my teeth into them. It was incredibly satisfying. Biting slow and deep into somebody who’s all springy, slightly resistant; hot, salty.”
“You’re a cannibal,” Matthew said, and wasn’t sure what to do with his face.
“Men for breakfast, lunch and dinner,” Ada said. She looked careless and abstracted, shoving her hand through her red hair. Hardly listening. She’d heard this story a million times before. She knew how much I liked to tell it, though.
“So maybe I was some kind of jungle thing in a past life- okay, anyway, so we’re on the playground, Ada and me, and out of nowhere I just turn and attack this kid-
“Robbie,” Ada said.
“-like, I flew at him, at Robbie, the back of his head, and knock him to the ground. And I bit him really hard, and then I kind of came to, and he’s screaming and crying, and then I remember just standing there, sort of astonished at the fact of my own brutal efficacy, the way I’d just- bam!-dispatched him. Like in my dreams, you know? I think maybe that was the first time I ever got in trouble in my whole life. Ms. Hernandez, she was crazy-appalled. She yelled at me, put me in time-out. The way they did that in Catholic school, you had to stand next to the chain link fence and hold on to it for the rest of recess. Remember, Ada?”
“Yeah. Pretty sure I bleached out a couple of the rungs, they made me stand there so many times.”
“So I’m standing there crying, while Robbie goes limping back to kickball, all like, shocked and shaky. I mean, nobody saw that coming, I straight up leapt on him out of nowhere.”
“In sum, you’re a psycho,” Matthew said, his eyes soft.
“I guess, man. Little bit.”
“With an angel’s face. I think I like that.” He blew smoke at me, smiled. There were tiny smile lines etched at the corners of his eyes. "I'm surprised you girls came here, you know? This isn’t the kind of place a guy usually meets girls like you.”
"We like to say yes," I said, and Ada was silent, letting me talk. She knew why I’d bitten Robbie, what had happened to me the night before.
"I'll try to make it so you never have to say no, then," Christopher said, seriously.
“What makes you think you know anything about me?"
"I'm in the business of knowing about people," Matthew said. He looked at me, smiling lazily, and then he looked up at the sky. “The first girl I ever loved was crazy.”
“Jenna?” Ada said.
“Hazel? No, Jenna was just-” he waved his hand. “You guys don’t know her. This is a girl, she and I were kids together. She broke my heart, fair and square.”
“I think once you’ve experienced love, you should just push it away. So that it never becomes tainted, you know? Love is like a drug. You get addicted. You start to need it, and then you get weak, you get vulnerable,” I said. But I could already feel things inside me rearranging themselves as I looked at him, and I knew I was lying.
“No, I think love is selfless,” Matthew said, slowly. “I think that’s the point. It’s not about pleasure or even pain. It’s about giving yourself up to something larger-”
“Sounds very impressive, Mr. Blue,” Ada said.
“But that sounds like an addiction,” I said. “And what if you choose the wrong person, and then you waste your whole life loving them, refusing to see that your person is nothing like what you believe them to be?”
“But you can’t always try to control things, mama,” Ada said. “We can’t control anything. The moment you realize that is the moment you get the real power. Being comfortable with uncertainty, being able to operate that way, when everything around you is in chaos. To be able to take events in hand…”
I didn’t know what she was talking about.
“No one’s perfect,” Matthew said, waving her words to the side. He was talking just to me, I realized. Intently, as if it were just the two of us, standing there in the warm dark.
“People aren’t archetypes,” he said. “I mean, you don’t know me well, so maybe I seem that way to you now. I’m just a fucking drug dealer, right? But we’re all just people, in the end. And the flaws are what is important, maybe what’s most important of all—because once you decide to look past the flaws and love the person that’s there inside—and they love you in return, in that same way—you’ve both crossed this kind of threshold; you’ve found real love. And then you go on holding up your image of them like a flame, because you love them so much. You show them their best self and help them rise up to fulfill their potential. And whether or not they ever actually achieve their full potential doesn’t matter; it’s the journey, learning how to love, how to become, that’s the point.”
I smiled at him. The scent of creosote hung in the air between us, and somewhere a bird was singing out its night cry again and again.
“We live in a world of non-love, that’s why people are so obsessed with it, that’s why we see it so clearly,” Ada said, looking around. She shook her hair and then began to stack it on top of her head in a lopsided bun, the ash from her cigarette tilting wildly.
I reached for her just as her hand went back down safely. Her hair fell over her face and she grinned happily.
"We should celebrate," she said. "Just us and old Reverend Moon. There's something happening here. Right? Something about this place, the two of you. You kids. This moment." She lifted her cigarette and moved it in a sign of the cross in front of us. “Don’t ever forget this.”
“Let’s get you some water,” Matthew said. He moved back and held open the door, grinning at her fondly. Then we we were all standing around blinking in the kitchen, and it was like returning to earth after having thought maybe you’d escaped it.
Witchhazel was sitting on the oven, talking to a chola girl. He was wearing yellow ostrich cowboy boots.
“Can we shower?” Ada said to him, abruptly.
Witch blushed. “Of course, just go through there. But it’s, um, kind of a mess.”
“That’s cool,” she said, and I had to follow her.
I hoped Matthew was behind us. For a while I felt him there; his gaze on my neck, and then it fell away, and I knew she and I were alone.
The rafters in Witch’s bedroom were strung with drying herbs and there was some weird kind of altar above his mattress. Action figures, skulls. Dirty black sheets, his bed unmade, cheesy tapestries pinned over the windows. And Matthew was gone.
Witch’s bathroom didn’t have a door. I slid up onto the bathroom counter and squirted toothpaste on my finger while Ada examined the shower skeptically.
I could see from where I sat that it looked slimy. Long black hairs were pasted on all the walls and on the soap. The shampoo was uncapped, lying empty on the shower floor next to a dead, knotted-up spider.
"Huh," Ada said.
She was instantly herself again now that we were alone, and I realized that her stony act had been to get me away from Matthew. Had I made her jealous?
“I think maybe ol’ Witch isn’t really a showering kind of guy, you know?” she said.
"I don’t know, but no fucking way am I going in there,” I said.
“Dude, we have to. We smell like pot, your mom will kill us.”
She turned on the faucet.
“Why, do you want to go home already? It’s not even-” I flapped my hands around. I didn’t know what time it was.
The water groaned through the pipes and came out smelling sour. The room began to fill with steam as Ada undressed.
“So what do you think of Matthew?” she said, innocently.
I wriggled, grinning helplessly. I folded my legs up, dropped them again.
“He’s... a city I’d like to visit,” I said.
Ada smiled to herself quietly. “He likes you,” she said.
Then I saw the long, angry cuts on Ada’s legs, high on her thighs. They were purple at their edges, and deep.
“Ada… what the fuck? You fucking promised!”
“Jesus.” She turned away. “I have. It was just-” She stepped into the shower, waving her hand at me. “Sometimes I still need to, that’s all.”
“Whatever.” I slipped out, pissed. As I left she was still talking, making promises. Assuming I would be still standing there. Like always. Ada would never have imagined I’d just walk away from her like that. I never had before. But the things rearranging themselves in me, one of them was a long thin cord, and it had snapped. It truly creeped me out, her fucking cutting.
“I’m not sick,” she’d say; but it was. She was tempting out a beast I knew by name. That ashy dreamless sea drawn down by girls with their knives, by men with blackened spoons- and by the end of this story I will be sundered there, but Ada was always made for the bright shore.
I didn’t want the darkness for her. For her to slip and fall, irretrievable, into my sea. I used to worry sometimes that I’d somehow infected her, that what was bad in me had found her out, too.
When I first learned about Ada’s cutting- swapping dresses, a warm spring day- she cried and cried, and then we talked about it for hours. She promised me she would stop, but she never did. We’d talk about it again. And again. Now, buzzing with something I knew wasn’t entirely anger, I stood in the bedroom doorway, looking for Matthew.
He was in the kitchen, talking to some Latina I didn’t recognize. She looked like she was from Phoenix; a beautiful, tea-colored Barbie with a tight-packed bounce beneath her micro-dress. Her long, glossy black hair was curled into shapely ringlets, twin wrist dermals glinted delicately against her perfect skin. They were laughing, standing close.
What was he saying to her, I’ll make it so you never have to say no-?
Hot-faced, I turned back into the bedroom, feeling like an idiot. Then suddenly someone had my hand, was winding his fingers into it. Matthew. I threw his hand away.
“Don’t go,” he said, pulling me to him.
The pressure in the hallway seemed to change around us as if the floor had dropped out and he were breathing up all my air. “Just-”
"Dance with me, Faye," he said.
"It wasn't a question. I'm trying to make it so you never have to say no. Remember?"
“You’re a fucking player,” I muttered, but Matthew knew what he was doing. He fitted me to him gently and folded his arm around me so that I automatically curled into his arms, just as if I belonged there. Then he lifted his arm again, so that I spun, and we were dancing, stepping, turning, laughing, and the girl in the kitchen watched us quietly.
His face, when it touched mine, was very warm. "You're beautiful," he said. "Tell me about a time when you were happy." We were electrically close. "Tell me," he said.
I tried to think, shook my head. "I’m happy now,” I murmured. Because I didn’t deserve this, whatever was happening- although- would it be crazy to enjoy it while it lasted? Or would that only make it all worse?
"You're running from something," he said. "Something in your head. Or is it… something in your future? What is it that you don’t want to do?"
"Please don't... tell me about myself. Stop."
He touched my face again. This time he didn’t take his hand away. "Hey, it’s okay. I won’t. We're all running from something. But how old are you, anyway?"
I tried to laugh. It sounded fake and dumb. "I'm growing up as fast as I can," I said. Then I tried to pull away again, but he still wouldn't let me, as if I were a bird he’d caught with his bare hands.
"You're young. You're so young."
"I know. I know." I shook myself free. “You keep telling me about myself, why do you-”
"I can take you home. Do you want me to take you home? Let me do that."
“I don’t want to go home.”
"There’s a lot of people here. Let's go somewhere," he said.
Matthew’s bedroom was cleaner than Witch’s. He had books, maps. More than one laptop open on his desk, I’d never seen anyone with more than one laptop.
"Little lost Faye," he said. He kissed each of my eyelids.
"I'm not any of those things," I said, but I was saying one thing and doing another, and he wasn’t listening to a word I said.
"What, you’re not even a Faye? You're cute." He stroked my hair, and pleasure slipped through me. He felt so good.
"You were going to tell me about something happy," Matthew said.
"You're insistent, is what you are," I said.
"Don't you know about me? I get what I want.”
"And what you want now is a bedtime story?" I murmured.
He squeezed me.
"I'm not good at stories. You want Ada for that."
"Story," he said, snuggling me. “And the one I want is you. Not Ada.”
"I remember... being nine or ten. With Ada.”
“We were at her grandparents place in the country for a week or something, and her dad sent us out with this big bag and some scissors. We were supposed to cut down musk thistles. This invasive species, you know? But we found this creek instead, and some tadpoles, and then there was this cow skull, too, and she was telling me about how one time, she’d been out there all alone and she found all these massive bodies, all lying in a row- cows that had been struck by lightning. Then all at once it was really late, and there was a storm coming in. You know how you can feel it in the air sometimes? And we were totally, completely lost."
"Wait, what, this is a happy story?" Matthew said.
I laughed. "Worried you won't get what you want?"
"Never. I always get what I want. Trust me."
"Hush then. So we're out there all alone, and the wind's picking up. It's dark, and we're crossing this huge mud bank, because Ada is sure it's a shortcut back to the cabin, and what do I know, right? So there's all this mud, and the moon, and us, and these coyotes start crying and screaming. And they sounded loud, like they were really close by, and Ada starts fucking telling me this story about how sometimes coyotes do come after little kids, which I didn’t know. So then we're terrified, right? We’re running, and our shoes get sucked off in the mud. And there was something, right then, about that moment that was perfect. That's my moment. Running through the mud, not knowing what was going to happen. I felt utterly alive."
"Maybe you like to be lost," he said.
"Maybe I do."
All my life I’ve wanted be somewhere else; someone else. I did like to be lost. When I was lost I forgot who I was. I could be anyone. As a kid I used to walk around reading a book until I didn’t know where I was.
I wanted to be so lost that when I looked up, I couldn’t recognize anything around me. This meant I had to walk a long time. Then I had to give in and knock on people’s doors to ask them if they would take me home. You’d be surprised how happy you can make people when you ask them to come to your rescue, if you just ask for it in just the right way, so who was I to deprive them?
I had other hobbies, too. I’d slide into unlocked cars whenever I found them. Sit at the wheel, breathing what it felt to be someone else. I stole things. Kept them, looked at them, knowing how my own action had unfastened that of someone else’s, turning theirs loose in the world to float like a ghost. Secrets, lost actions. A true map of the world would show all the lies.
"Lucky me." Matthew kissed me lightly. "You've got a lovely taste," he said, "and a lovely touch, and I'm glad I found you.” He kissed me again, and I kept my eyes open, watching him. His expression was so tender I couldn't believe it. With his eyes closed he looked young and sweet and his lips were like wine. Somehow he sucked all my breath away and the next thing I knew we were crushed together. I felt my heart tremble wildly.
“I wonder what will happen next?" He touched my mouth softly, as if I were a rare and delicate flower he did not want to crush, and then he bit his thumb. “I think I know.”
“You’re such a hippie,” I said.
Someone pounded on his door. We ignored it.
The pounding got louder.
“What?” Matthew said, sharply.
And then I could tell we both had the same thought at the same time, that maybe the cops were here. I looked at his window and wondered if there were cacti underneath it, because somehow I’d lost my shoes.
“It’s Ada, let me in!”
“Uh-” Matthew said.
I looked at him. “It’s fine, mamacita, I-”
Ada threw open the door. Her face was hot and wild like I’d never seen it. “What the fuck? You ditched me- there wasn’t a door, and some fucking guy came in.” She was close to tears. Her shirt was soaked. I could picture the scene. Some handsy drunk guy, and Ada trying to fend him off, to dress herself and escape. Alone and vulnerable. Because of me.
“Oh gosh, I’m sorry, I didn’t-”
She flung my hands away. “It was fucked up. I’m going home.”
I didn’t say anything.
“Okay,” Ada said. “You’re staying.” She looked at Matthew and then back at me, her eyes hardening into golden nails. “Okay, fuck you, bye.”
She closed the door. Quietly, and that was worst of all. I felt like eggshell. We’d never had a fight before.
But I was mad at her, too. Because now, after all, she was the one ditching me, and I turned to Matthew shakily, I wanted to grind myself against someone’s metal, wear myself down.
"You said you knew what would happen next," I said. “Tell me.”
“Are you okay?” he said.
"Whatever. I have to go."
He grabbed me, laughing. "Hey princess, wait.”
“Do not call me that.”
“No, stay with me, she’ll be fine. How about this? I'll write it down. I'll write down everything that's going to happen. But you have to promise me you won't read it yet."
I paused. "Okay."
He took one look at me and laughed. I was still hot-eyed and pissed, distracted.
"Ah... jesus. You girls. You'll read it as soon as you have your hot little paws on it, just for something to do. So I’ll tell you what. I'll write it down and then I’ll mail it to myself tomorrow. So you can see from the postmark that I really wrote it all down, like I said I would. And when it's time, I'll give it you."
"How will I know it's the same envelope?"
"You can kiss the seal."
He had to go out into the kitchen to find paper. When he told people what he was doing, the beautiful girl loaned me her lipstick. "I hope it's something really nice," she said.
"Thanks. Me too."
Matthew sat at the table, writing. He smiled at me.
"He's cute," she whispered. “I think he really likes you.” She had wide-set eyes and a clear, innocent expression. What were all of us doing there, at that dirty place in the dark?
"I like him," I said, suddenly aware of how I must look to her. Dishevelled, pale-faced, barefoot. I don’t know. Maybe they thought I belonged there.
Matthew stood up and walked over, folding the paper into the envelope, and the way he did it with such precision without even needing to look down gave me little butterflies- oh, good with his hands- and he gave me the paper to kiss, and I did.
My heart was drenched in wine. I stayed and stayed.
Best ever inbox today, but for now I'll keep that to myself... !
Meanwhile, still editing the ms. into past tense, just came across the following passage. Must have done it late at night, because I only half remember writing it:
"I pulled down the red leather box and rinsed my shoulder with rubbing alcohol. The stinging went deep, all the way into the bones of my arms. Finally, I slid my shoulder under the tap. The cold faucet pressed uncomfortably into my skin as the water dredged icily through the ragged marks, carrying threads of blood down the sides of my arm.
There had always been a portion of me that loved pain. Pain was shelter. It focused my mind, bringing me clarity; a quiet that tilted through me like ice. Pain was my drug, and I watched myself now, waiting for the old feeling in me to rise up and take its taste. But the rush never came. I was numb.
I greased the cuts with long snail trails of Neosporin, and then, walking back to bed, I saw the frostwork of old scars on my thighs peeking up curiously at me from beneath the hem of my sleep-shirt. Who was I becoming?"
Dark & lovely, that's how I like it.
"Grinning wryly, he opens the door to the library across the hall from my bedroom. But I skitter through the door in front of him, re-wrapping my towel around me.
“Oh, after you,” he says.
“Yes.” I love my father’s library. Sway-bellied bookshelves frame the big chesterfield pushed up against the far wall, and the fireplace is reflected in leaded glass windows that extend from the gleaming floorboards all the way up to the pressed-tin ceiling. During the day, the whole room is washed in tides of light and leaf shadow; at night, when dusk becomes a smoky reef across the room, it is as if the walls fold back and separations between objects dissolve: the world is unmasked as the indivisible water it is. If libraries are aquariums for dreams, and for dreamers, reading itself is the removal of the glass."
Yup, I'm editing the whole thing. Again. All over again.
I've got the full manuscript out with (!) a dozen agents now, and one suggested I do a run through for tense, as there's a couple passages that are unclear.
And... you know what... I realized that the whole novel, except for the flash-back chapters, is better as present tense. So.
Fuck. Shit. Here I go. Again. And of course, I find myself editing other things as well.
You've seen the above passage before in its earlier incarnation. The difference between that version and the one above- well, that pretty much explains what I'm up to right now.
So Savages is on hold again, and pretty much everything else, too. But... it's ravishingly gorgeous porch weather. And the pages fold back... and the separations between objects dissolve... and pretty soon I'll be finished again.
.... are you curious about the rest of the chapter, though?
"I go towards the sofa, where a book of Caravaggio’s paintings is cocked across one arm of the sofa. Niall picks it up and flips through its pages. It’s one of Dad’s favorites, littered all through with pen doodles and coffee rings. One of his favorite ways to get ideas is to sit down with a pile of art books and tech magazines.
“You spend a lot of time in this room, Miss Walker?” Niall says.
I flop down onto the sofa.
“Sure.” Braiding my hair out of my face, I wriggle back into one corner of the sofa and fold my legs up beneath me.
“Mind if I smoke?” he says, and I smile.
“Open a window first.”
He does and then begins crumbling tobacco from a pouch into the bowl of a pipe, which has materialized from the pocket of his jacket. He sits beside me, letting his leg fall against mine as he presses tobacco into the bowl with the stained pads of his fingers. When he’s tamped the pipe full, he lights the thatch of tobacco with two matches, drawing once before letting it go out, creating an insulating layer of ash.
“It’s got a ceremony to it, doesn’t it. Pipe smoking.”
“Oh yes,” Niall says. Tamping the ash with his finger, he settles down to smoke, taking slow draws while he moves his match around the bowl, sipping fire into the tobacco.
“An old ceremony. Men have always liked fire. We learned to make fire before we learned to speak. Strange, isn’t it? To think of anatomically modern humans, sitting silently around the first campfires.” He smiles, blue smoke pluming around him. “Sitting there. Just staring at each other.”
Niall shakes out the matches and drops them into a mug on the table. The room is colored green from the streetlights through the magnolias; now and again, a bolt of lightning makes the lamps shudder.
“But maybe what they wanted to say didn’t need words at all. Maybe words have just gotten in the way of everything.”
“That’s one way to think of things, certainly,” he says.
“Hm.” I slide my fingers down between the couch cushions and tug up a flask. “Brandy?”
“Nice stash, but none for me, thank you, Ada.”
The blade-sharp sweetness, lighting first my throat and then my head. I soften, lean back.
“Ah.” Niall snaps his fingers, watching me. “That’s why you were out in the rain- you are Drunk, young lady, drunk, with a capital D.”
“Maybe. And what about you?”
A creeping electricity begins to move over my arms, and I look up to see a boy-sized shadow at the window.
“Ada. Get away from him,” the boy says. The ghost.
I close my eyes, casting my thoughts to him. “You just want me to see you- you get stronger when I see you. That’s why you keep coming through to me, isn’t it?”
Go away. Leave me for now, I don’t want you.”
“Wonderful storm,” Niall says, watching me.
“Yes, it is. A wonderful storm.”
“You’re an unusual girl. But then isn’t everyone, once you get to know them.”
“Some people are boring,” I say.
Niall’s pipe lights in his hand, as strongly as if he’s drawn on it.
“Must be a breeze in the room,” I say. “These old houses.”
“Maybe you aren’t asking the right questions, then,” he says. “Everybody, absolutely everybody, has a story. Some might surprise you.”
“You really believe that?”
He re-crosses his legs. “I surely do.”
Creek cold fingers run through the underside of my hair, gently undoing my braid. My spine tingles as the boy, invisible to Niall, strokes my hair down over the arm of the sofa. When I don’t react, he won't let go of my hair, and I have to stretch back, casually lifting my arms up behind my head, batting at his hands.
“Stop,” I say to him, silently.
“Maybe I don’t make such a good pet after all,” the ghost says, bitterly. I feel his breath at the side of my face and then he comes around the sofa on his knees, looking at me searchingly. He kisses the hollow of my neck and rests his face alongside mine.
I look at Niall. Surely he’s felt the temperature drop in the room. But Niall only draws concentratedly on his pipe, looking at our bookshelves.
“Listen to me,” the boy says, intently. “Niall is not what he seems. You have to get away from him. Listen to me. Now.”
I struggle free of him, brushing my hair indifferently over one shoulder.
“Yet you dislike parties,” I say to Niall, my voice uneven. I’m still shaken by the idea that the ghost might be using me, instead of the other way around.
“I don’t have the right touch. Party talk takes a happy frivolity, which I don’t possess,” Niall says, watching me keenly.
The boy flickers, growing weaker, and then slips away. Whether he’ll admit it or not, I know that I’ve figured out he does become weaker when I ignore him. Which means that he must become stronger every time that I call on him, too.
Will the same hold true for Nell? -if I can find her.
“But Jo is excellent at it. Party talk,” Niall says.
“So you think your wife is frivolous?” I tip back the brandy as lightning ghosts over the room. The lamps flare.
“Mm,” he says.
“Maybe what you want to say doesn’t require questions at all,” I say, laughing.
“I think you’re a little young for me,” he says.
“That’s not what I meant-”
Niall shifts closer, and I feel a strange bloom come inside me that is like the flaring of the lamps- and the boy returns, so faint this time that I can hardly see him at all.
He grabs at my wrists with a rapidly eroding grace. “Ada, get away from him, don’t you see that this is not a game?”
“You think I’m coming on to you, Niall? We’re only talking…” I stand carelessly and go towards the windows to look out at the storm, my pulse racing.
I can see Niall’s reflection studying the small of my back.
“Maybe the thing, the problem here, is the brandy. Too much brandy,” I say, and pretend to drink again.
The bloom fades back. “I remember my first drink,” Niall says. “You feel it running along under your skin, just as if it were loosening flesh from bone, yet it’s wonderful, completely wonderful.”
He taps his pipe gently.
“You know, some people hate it. To feel that straitjacket of inhibitions just sliding away. Losing control, making mistakes.”
The boy brushes my cheek faintly. “I can’t stay any longer. Promise me you’ll be careful. Promise me you’ll leave.”
“You really are a professor, aren’t you, huh?” I say.
“I’m a researcher, truly, but the term doesn’t quite roll off the tongue, shall we say, in nearly the same—”
“What do you research?”
“Just garbage. Philosophy, books to ruin your life, make you question everything that you cherish and believe in.” He smiles wolfishly. “In the end it all comes down to a single idea. A man is just a man and no more. Anyway.”
“Anyway is a strange word, when you think about it. It’s a secret passage of a word. ‘Anyway’- it always takes you from here to there.”
“Ada, my dear, you are fascinating, and I have forgotten myself. It’s late. You should go on to bed. I can show myself out. Your parents probably don’t even realize I’m still here.”
“You haven’t finished your pipe.”
I feel the brandy in me coming on as a delicious, slow swimming-up. Niall still holds his pipe between his fingers and I touch it experimentally, testing its warmth.
“Good night, Ada,” he says, and goes quickly down the stairs.
Neil Gaiman's repeated warnings about the horror in his latest book, Trigger Warning, has me revisiting mine :D EL is pretty dark in places.
More full requests! Still waiting...
Meanwhile, I've been working on Savages in longhand, filling up notebooks. Aiming to have a sturdy full draft in hand for my residency at Martha's Vineyard this spring.
I've been writing & publishing under an additional pen name, making some extra scrilla. And time drifts... but I'll be back.
Last month I did yet another full rewrite on Evening's Land. Putting everything into first POV, adding tension, more of a backstory. I think I've got the first two thirds in pretty good shape. But now the final third is comparatively blah.
I'll revisit it in December or January and then relaunch my efforts with agents... still have a few that are pending, thinking about what I sent, I guess. With the holidays there's an understandable slowdown. I'm just hoping I can get one to bite hard so I can nudge all the others and hopefully then achieve a cascade effect... only one of them has the newest version, and I'd really like them all to see it, as I think that'd make a helluva difference. But you're not supposed to nudge unless you get an offer of representation. And so. I work & wait.
Since I'm planning to neglect you really, really terribly now, I'm going to leave you with the new opening to the book. You can see I reordered some of the chapters, and you can see the new voice of the main narrator. (Jesus Christ, I can't wait to get back to working on Savages....)
I'll paste in a little bit of the old intro as well, so you can see the differences.
⇥ Evening’s Land ⇤
“The glacier knocks in the cupboard,
The desert sighs in the bed,
And the crack in the tea-cup opens
A lane to the land of the dead….”
====== Chapter 1 ==================================================
Roy Northcutt had been drinking High Life ever since uncle Bake slapped a cold one in his hand on the first and only morning Bake ever took him noodling for catfish. His uncle was a big, barrel-chested autocross champion with a scrim of curly red hair that could have upholstered a sofa, and dancing ladies tattooed up his arms- so when Bake winked and said, “Son, this here’s the champagne of beers, the breakfast of champions,” Roy drank it down. He was ten.
The first gulp was like blood and nickels, and the next came sweet and bready and light and suddenly it was going down like Missouri sunshine. The lakewater sparkled as Bake launched over the side and slapped the boat, wading them towards a nest of cattails.
“Now this is what you call a very old technique, kiddo,” he said.
Roy listened. He was looking out for cottonmouths because his mother had warned him that Bake sometimes got “fast and loose.”
“Men been catching fish this way for damn near eons. When you grab hold of your first bad boy its like catching hold of where you came from, you understand me?” Bake grinned. His hair was thin and orange in the sun.
“Yes sir,” Roy said, although he didn’t understand.
“Now, these stumps here, this’n’s where a lot of holes is, and the catfish, they like to belly on in and hole up, see? They feed at night and sleep during the day. So I’m gonna stick my hand in and feel around. If you don’t feel anything that feels like a catfish, son, you just bolt right the hell on back, all right, cause like as not its a snake or turtle. They all like the same holes.”
And Roy felt a little scared, but he nodded.
He shook his head.
Bake guffawed. “That’s all right, this time you can just watch. Here, give me another.”
Roy did, shyly taking another for himself. Bake opened one and then the other with his teeth, spitting the caps into the boat. Ping. Ping.
“All right. Mother fucking yee-haw, right kid? You and me, we should do this more often. So I’m gonna reach down in there and haul me up a catfish. Trick is, you want him to take yore hand as bait and then you reach in and grab his gills, kind of hook your hand in, you know what I’m saying? And then you tug him out.” Bake whacked the boat again. “Here I go. See you soon, kid.”
He slid under. For a moment Roy could still see him, his uncle’s broad curly-haired back luminescently pale beneath the silky green water. But Bake must have finger walked deeper, towards more interesting and lesser known holes, turning his back to the friendly shore. The water sealed above him, smooth as glass, and Bake disappeared.
It must have looked for all the world as though Roy were out there alone on the lake, a kid high on his first beers. The afternoon buzzed. Somewhere a frog jumped in. It began, gradually, to seem as though Bake had been gone an awfully long time, although he didn’t know how long noodling should take, or how long Bake could hold his breath. He listened to water lap hungrily at the boat.
(fast and loose, that’s what his mother had said)
But Bake never came up again. Roy didn’t know how to start the engine, so he leapt off into the cold lake and flailed to shore. Every slip of algae against his legs made the blood beat hard in his throat; any moment he expected a heavy, cold strand to close over his ankle, to pull him down into the dark. He plunged through the cat tails, his toes sliding in the warm, bristly mud. He was screaming now- maybe he’d been screaming all along.
“Bake! Uncle Bake!”
But the lake was silent, staring accusingly back at him like a big green eye in the earth as Roy stood on the shore, his heart shrieking in his chest. He ran up to the road to flag down a truck. Then it was hours later, there was a crowd and flashing lights, he was still standing there shivering down by the lake in a policewoman’s blanket when they finally drug up poor old Bake’s body out of the miserable goddamn water, and Bake was bloated and cold and incontestably dead.
The skin on one of his uncle’s big freckled forearms was sawed through.
“That was one great big catfish, yes it was,” some cop had said.
And that was uncle Bake. Murdered by a catfish in a sunlit pond. Just 28 years old. Bake had been just a kid then, too, but of course Roy had no way of knowing that then. Now, some thirty odd years later, older than Bake would ever be, whenever Roy Northcutt drank a beer, he drank High Life.
He was on his third of the evening, enjoying the fine porch weather of early April in Charleston, South Carolina when an alarm in St. Philips, a gated colonial era church across the street, began to shrill. St. Phillips. He shot to his feet.
Those big wrought iron gates were locked every weekday at four-thirty, smack on the dot. There was no way some tourist could have bumbled in to trip the thing off. Roy quickfooted it into the kitchen, snatching his 40 cal Glock from the drawer and his walkie talkie from the counter. He ran outside, calling dispatch as he dropped into the street.
“Unit 1 to dispatch.” Trying not to pant. Those Millers had nailed him.
A woman’s voice crackled. “Unit 1.”
“This is the Chief. I’ll be responding to an audible alarm at 142 Church Street. The church.”
“Copy, Chief,” she said.
The gate was hanging open. Jesus. Roy lit up the stairs and kicked the door; it swung in on dark pews. “Unit 1 to dispatch, there is an open door.”
“All units transmitting on Channel 1, standby.”
He had his Glock out, crossing his right hand over the left one that held the walkie talkie. Smell of candle wax and dust, Jesus Christ, why were all churches so fucking creepy? The statues of saints were the brightest points of lights in the place. He swept his gun from side to side, his body packed solid with adrenaline. There. Someone was kneeling at the altar, a youngish long-haired man in a black coat. Praying?
“Police! Put your hands in the air! Dispatch, there is someone in the church.”
“Are you 04?” Dispatch said, as the man turned slowly and smiled, his pale, hooded eyes seeming to deepen as they fixed on Roy Northcutt.
“Hands in the air! Is there anyone else in here?”
The man’s hair was the color of toasted malt, and he brushed it back from his handsome face carelessly as he stood, still holding Roy’s eyes.
“I repeat, is there anyone else in this church!”
“Oh, yes. The Holy Spirit, officer.”
Roy relaxed, trying not to laugh. Fantastic. A crazy man. He lowered his gun slightly.
“Are you 04?” Dispatch said again.
“Yeah, we’ve got a six-seven,” Roy said.
A sound tufted behind him. He knew that sound; knew it instantaneously even as the bullet ripped through him. Shot. He was shot. He went down. Blood, carpet, it all went black.
“Shot fired! Are you 04? 322 Edward, start en route to 142 Church Street. Requesting all additional officers en route to 142 Church Street. Officer, are you 04?”
The blonde man stood at the altar, studying Roy’s body with interest. He glanced up as the shooter loped out from the back of the church and down the aisle, his long, olive-colored coat flying open behind him as he crossed through the pews, away from the blood, to the other side of the church.
“Officer, are you 04?” Dispatch said.
Sirens wailed from the dead man’s walkie talkie as additional officers signed on.
The man in black turned, crashing over a statue of Mary with a gloved hand. Her head rolled onto the floor; he lobbed it through a stained glass window. The shooter rapped out the remaining glass in the pane with his gun. There was an explosion of sound, instantly stoppered by the grass outside as abruptly as metal chimes stopped by a hand.
“After you, sir,” he said.
The walkie talkie crackled behind them on the wet red carpet. “Chief! Are you 04?”
He leapt free into the yard.
=========== Chapter 2: There was a Girl,============================
======================== and there was a Ghost====================
Three Years Later:
June 7th, 2014
My dreams smell like fire; paper lanterns drifting apart in the hot light of day, harmless as balls of dust. But at night I’m caught inside them. I close my eyes, my mind rises into lanterns of smoke and fire, into shadow worlds of sleep. My friend is there, faceless as a cloud, and doors pull me through again and again into my past.
Into a white room that is filled with blood, and her letters.
A man’s smile, floating there like an errant moon- he reaches to grab me. To pull us both back into the car. His hands are so cold they sear through to my bones, and I can’t scream. I can’t scream and I can’t wake up, and it hurts when I finally do. The lanterns come apart and I slide free of my tangled sheets, cold with sweat, and stare at the dust circling in the light from the street.
Sleep waits in my bed like a man with a gun.
Even now, wrapping myself in a towel, I can almost believe it waits behind the fog in the mirror, too. My voice clicks in my throat, loud in the silence. I cut the fog clear with the edge of my hand, but the mirror’s surface only clouds again, swallowing the reflection of my earrings like golden fish sinking deeper into a pond. Long earrings, bronze like my eyes. I don’t look at my eyes, though.
I dress in my room beside the old fireplace, looking out the leaded glass windows into the street. It’s summertime and the bricks are flooded with bicyclists, tourists. The occasional car or carriage tour is welded down there, too: the multi-colored gridlock staring up admiringly at all the colonial-era houses.
A couple years ago my parents were doing the same thing. He bought this place for her on a lark. That’s what they called it, but we knew it was his final, last-exit stab to try to save their marriage. They’ve been fixing the house up these last couple of months while I started college. But that didn’t exactly work out, so here I am. Just the three of us, like before. Locked together in free-fall, like always.
Just outside my bedroom is a door that opens onto the second-floor gallery into magnolia trees. When you sit there you’re almost completely hidden from the street, like you’re in a treehouse. Leaf-filtered sunlight and wisteria is sweet in the air around you, and the soft, creaky floorboards are covered in golden pollen and warm from the sun. Nell would have loved it.
I see it again, my last memory of her, in a hard wash of light like a camera’s flash. The post-it note, wilting down from the warm bathroom door, covered with Nell’s big, scratchy handwriting-
Ada don’t come in.
Our dorm room carpet was slushy with bathwater under my bare feet as I tore open the door. There was blood in the water and half-dissolved pain pills coming apart in the water like tiny little yellow pom-poms all around her. She would have gotten a minor kick out of that, the pom-poms.
I wonder about those men in the car, the terrifying darkness that lived inside them. I wonder what it was about us that made them select us out of the crowd. For a long time afterwards, the darkness that lived in them seemed to be inside everything. Even the desert sunlight. Even the sunlight, began to seem glittering, ruthless. We couldn’t take it.
We’d retreated into our room like the drying tide, Nell and I. We were gonna wait things out with cigarettes, booze, anime cartoons. That was the plan. We were gonna wait it out together until we felt better. Until people bumping into us by accident in a crowd didn’t seem like icy hands, like floating smiles- I mean, we hadn’t even told our parents yet. Nell didn’t have the best relationship with hers.
In the end, I had to tell them alone. Mrs. Taillefer’s face in the dorm’s hallway, stretching tight as a balloon. By then it was a crime scene. Mrs. Taillefer kept repeating the words I said to her, as if she were trying to use them to climb out of something, the unimaginable dark hole that was swallowing us both. “She just-couldn’t anymore. She was tired, she was tired.”
I pick up my tobacco and go out onto the porch to roll a cigarette. And sitting there within the envelope of drowsy light coming down through the trees, it still seemed so strange to be alive, to be real, when Nell was not and never would be again.
Still, I wanted a cigarette. And so long as you can keep your wantin’ pants on, you’re still in the game. That’s what my mom says. Anyway, that’s what she used to say, before they started treating me like some kind of terminal case.
I pull out a sheet of transparent paper and drizzle threads of tobacco into the crease, rolling and compacting them carefully into a whiskey-colored ridge. The air around me is soft and full, carrying rain, and the warm floorboards are gritty with pollen under my feet. The tobacco smells sweet on my fingers, like wood shavings. The crackle of the papers is a sound as pleasant as the turning of a page. I finish the roll, licking it closed from end to end, and start to file it into the old silver makeup compact I use for a cigarette case, but I light up instead and sit there, listening to fire eat away at my tobacco, the way daylight singes at the edges of a dream.
I’m rolling another when I notice the paper beginning to soften in my hands, and the air cools slightly. Rain starts clicking through the trees, echoing off the cobblestone street. People shout and run to their cars.
I can’t get used to it, all this rain. In Tucson, the summer downbursts couldn’t ever cover the whole city at the same time. You could see a storm on the horizon and follow it along in the distance with your finger, like a hair-comb coming down from the sky to make neat, dark furrows across the city. You could smell the creosote bushes on the wetted air and the rain was like bathwater. Big, lazy drops you could follow all the way down your windowpane. And after an hour or so, the sun came through again, drying out the air.
Here in Charleston, it rains hard for days at a time, sometimes weeks. The air never dries out, not completely. Sometimes you can even feel condensation gather between your fingers when you walk. The streets swell with rainwater, floating up cars, and college kids paddle down the streets on their surfboards and kayaks.
I went inside and opened my windows. I had to push hard to get the panes to lift; it was an old house, and the property had been abandoned for years before my parents bought it.
Something to do with an unlucky death, the realtor said. And when the rain clicked down on the trees outside, you got this feeling like the house itself was remembering its secrets. When rain fell, strange noises lived in the walls, and shadows came unfixed, while outside the magnolias clawed to be let in, out of the rain; the falling towers and balconies of unending rain that fall on summertime South Carolina. Yet the floorboards were warm to my feet, and the rooms smelled like vanilla and books in the sun. In watery sunlight I lay in bed, reading shadows on the walls.
And from there we go downstairs and meet her parents, and then when Ada goes to sleep everything goes sideways.
Here's the way the beginning used to go:
⇥ Evening’s Land ⇤
“The glacier knocks in the cupboard,
The desert sighs in the bed,
And the crack in the tea-cup opens
A lane to the land of the dead….”
Silence waited in the house like a man with a gun, watching the rain slip in. For the boy belonged now to Silence as flies belong to the web that kills them.
But Christopher hid himself in dreams.
=========== Chapter 1: There was a Girl,=============================
======================= and there was a Ghost=========
Ada’s dreams smelled like fire; paper lanterns that drifted away if she didn’t write them down. She had to trap them with a pen. That was how it started. She wrote them down.
The boy was always there now when she went to sleep, his touch shivering through her, licking cold into the doors of her bones. His floating smile like an errant moon beside. Even now, as she wrapped herself in a towel, she almost believed he was behind the fog in her mirror.
“Who are you?” Ada whispered, cutting the fog with her hand.
The mirror only clouded, swallowing the reflection of her earrings. Earrings bronze like her eyes. Gypsy eyes, her father called them. And she was alone.
She dressed in her room beside the old fireplace made cheerful by the leaded glass windows surrounding it. Standing at the windows, she looked down into the street, flooded with bicyclists and carriage tours admiring the colonial era houses. And just outside her bedroom door was a second-floor portico that opened into magnolia trees— Ada loved her room, though it was changeful.
The property had been abandoned for years before her family arrived. Left to go wild in the center of Charleston, South Carolina, it was something to do with an unlucky death, the realtor said. But when it rained, the house remembered its secrets.
When it rained strange noises lived in the air of the house. Shadows came unfixed, while outside the magnolias clawed to be let in, out of the rain; the falling towers and balconies of unending rain that fell on summertime South Carolina.
Yet the floorboards were warm to Ada's feet, and the rooms smelled like vanilla and books in the sun. In pale sunlight she lay in bed, reading her dreams.
“Dinner…?” Tobias said.
“Mom said to make sure you ate.”
“Of course, of course. Well, have you eaten? I’ll bring home something.”
“No, daddy, we have roast beef here. Come home, I’m lonely. I’ve been alone all day.”
“Did you finish your report?” he said.
Dr. Walker was wonderful that way— he kept a notebook of things to ask people about. Once he’d left it unguarded beside her in the car. Ada: silverwork, bicycle, college apps.
“Almost,” she said.
At nine o’clock, he came in the door to lay his newest flavor of IceAir on the kitchen counter. Ada tasted a disc. “It’s fizzy, salty... caramel, or something. Mmm. Not quite caramel. More than caramel.”
“Do you love it?”
She kissed his rumpled forehead. “I love it.”
“You always say that.” Beaming, Tobias sat back at the scarred kitchen table, crossing his long legs. He’d forgotten to wear socks, and his ankles were marbled like expensive cheese.
“Do I?” She dolloped roast into their bowls.
“What shall we call it?”
“Lovely, cherie. I’ll run it by Mike tomorrow. Now tell me about your report. It’s, ah, about voodoo, isn't it?”
“It’s about lots of things,” Ada said, pulling off her rings, arranging them on the table. She picked up the arrowhead, tracing it over the lines of her palm. "I’m going to incorporate this thing about Muhammad Ali, the boxer? He was explaining how he maintained focus during a fight; he says he goes into a room, daddy, a little room he keeps in his mind."
"Is that right?"
"He goes into this room and there's a mask on the wall. A warrior’s mask. And he takes it down and puts it on. Just during fights."
"Becoming the mask," Tobias said. "Marvelous. I wonder what sort of masks you and I should keep in mind. Ha ha."
"You could have one with crazy Einstein hair."
Tobias touched his hair absently— for some reason Ada had it in her head that Albert Einstein was his boyhood hero. Over the years she’d given him Einstein mugs and Einstein calendars and Einstein shirts and aprons, none of which he ever remembered to use. “Mm?”
"To help you be smart. And divorce mom.”
“Jesus, Ada. Yours would be someone with tact, I hope."
"No. With confidence." An elaborate sigh.
"Did you ride your bike downtown today, gingersnap?"
"Maybe tomorrow. When I start up school again, I was thinking I'd do homework at coffee shops. You know, to meet people."
“The coffee houses will be full of frat boys.”
“You mean writers, artists… cafe life...”
Her father rolled his eyes.
“Oh, you hate everyone,” she said. “Such an elitist.”
“I’m not. Just— specific. Listen, I know it's summer, honey, but what if you began your studies early? We could find a group, you could check in with them… Your cousins homeschool year round."
“I am studying. I’m doing this report, remember?”
“That hardly constitutes—”
“I thought you wanted me to follow my interest? I am. I’m ok so far, aren’t I? Daddy, make me a love potion.”
Tobias leaned back. “But how would you feel if your mother and I—”
“You’re saying you think you could?”
“I can do anything. I can even customize it so you fall in love with Mike.”
“I love these little conversations of ours. Mike’s great. He’s nice.”
“Just what I always wanted. The guy who picks his nose with his pinkie.”
“You could do worse, homeschool.” Tobias rumpled her hair. “He said to tell you hello, by the way.”
She ducked his hand, fixing her hair reflexively. “Have you found an assistant here yet?” Tobias shook his head, picking up one of Ada’s rings as his wife came into the kitchen, grocery bags braceleted over her arms. She kicked the door closed, and on second thought turned to see if she’d marked it.
“Fuck. Oops. Well, that’ll buff out, don’t you think…?” Then Mary was shaking groceries onto the counter; lentils, butter, spices; wet, flopsy slabs folded into butcher’s envelopes. Thinking: what if she began using her maiden name again?
“Where have you been?” Tobias said.
Mary: date nights—
“… I went out with the boys. The interns,” Mary said. Birlant-Walker; it was like poetry. “The fish you can get out here, just incredible. It doesn’t even smell like fish.” She held an envelope to his nose. “Smell.”
Her smile too quick, too wide. Mary turned away, slamming cupboards, shoving in groceries. That smile. “They’re doing a story on diners and dives. How’s the roast?”
Ada pressed her toes into the rug.
“But we said we’d take a break from the station. Make a fresh start.” Tobias reached for his wife.
“‘We?” She danced away, shining. “You mean I’ll take a break. While you go on as you always have— I’m the one who’s supposed to stop everything. Remember? Well, how nice for—”
“We moved across the fucking country to do this again? Mary, goddamn—”
Ada picked up the plates and went up to bed.
A movement in the air— a lingering drift, hovering over her. The house circled, while Ada waited under the covers, breathing wildly. What was that?
(just a dream, a horrible dream)
She slid out from under her quilt, feeling foolish. Funny how colors looked different in the dark. Her quilt was like a negative of itself.
But that wasn’t right. Something was wrong. That sound, it was the one from her dream— something else was in her room. It came onto the bed. Ada scrambled back, too frightened to make a sound, and the thing drew over her, otherworldly, monstrous.
Snuffling at her neck. Oh, horribly real. She shrank back, trying to level into the sheets. What to do? Hit it with a candle? A book? But she couldn’t even scream, and the way it moved— Heavy, so fast!— with such long, oily teeth—
Shadows poured into the air.
And friends, if you're still with me here, thank you.
Hold your dear ones close this holiday. Be understanding of those who seem disquieted or are difficult to be with. You never know what someone else is carrying. Shame, loss, grief- pain wears strange faces. But we are all in this together, at least for a little while longer. Be kind, love hard, and breathe deep. After all, what do you have to be scared of?
Check these out- there's a few photos of the Miles Brewton house I've never seen before.
“Now, the first stair is steeper than it appears. May I?” He took her hand. “About my house. It’s one of the finest in Charleston from the colonial period. Built in 1765. Occupied twice now, once during the Revolution, and again during the War of the Northern Aggression.” He looked rueful. “The downside of having a house that draws the eye is, mainly, that it draws the eye. There’s one or two interesting doodles the soldiers left behind, if you’ll remind me to show you…”
The upper floor was a mirror of the one below. The same wide, stemlike hallway, the same museum of rooms sheaving darkly to either side. They walked quietly, Roamery’s candelabra coaxing shadows over the walls. “... and this is the ballroom….” (from Evening's Land)
Also... the photo archives of a South Carolina socialite who was an OSS operative during World War II... and a noted explorer... and a big-game hunter... AND an environmentalist? AND a plantation owner? Yes please...
Pauline West's first novel, EVENING’S LAND, is a Library Journal Self-e Selection, winner of the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation Award and recipient of the Carol Marie Smith Memorial Scholarship for the NOEPE Center of Literary Arts.
Pauline West's books on Goodreads
Candlemoth: A Holy City Romance
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Candlemoth Volume 2: How To Spend It
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Candlemoth Book 3: A Twist of Fate
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Stalker: A Gothic Thriller
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