When he saw her coming he balked and almost turned around. But too late. There she was with her tidy hat and jacket, sensible shoes, white ankles exposed below faded purple leggings that inched up as she moved. Her hair…was flyaway in the salty breeze, longer, a surprising ivory hue. She always looked tattered to him; he likely looked flawless to her, as ever. But the truth was their looks were secondary, always were.
He adjusted his face. Better a bit surprised than too nonchalant. She knew he tried to hide but if he didn’t look at her long…it was locked eyes he’d regretted after they’d first met. Her faint grey irises and bottomless pupils got to him. If she wasn’t psychic she was plain spooky, he’d thought then. But she was an artist, for one thing. And also knew how to reach in and find him.
Two summers ago they’d stumbled into each other at Kyra’s Killer Coffee on Beach Road. Literally–he pulled out his chair and she caught her bare toes on a leg, fell onto the table top, clipped his expresso and forearm. He caught his coffee in time to save it. Hers flew up, landed splat on the weathered pine floor, made a rivulet. Then, with apologies, she sat down. He did the same. But really–as if he’d invited her when his buddy was seated across from her.
“You another spoiled boy or a new sort of… summerling?” she’d asked.
He’d looked at his friend, who gave him a bad look. “Summerling?” he’d repeated, and she just threw her head back–with its bad teal blue hair–and laughed.
“That’s one bold, very strange girl,” they’d agreed as they left.
But his head tingling. “Huh,” he said. Her eyes, rapid-fire dry wit, that nerve.
So they got together; he felt he’d hit the jackpot, despite her odd blue-gone-muddy-hair, her stinging sarcasm at the ready, her pronounced lisp when excited. Altogether, the wrong girl. But that underplay of wrongness, the friction and foreignness: too good. For the summer, anyway. She lived at the beach with her wheelchair-bound mother. He visited a couple months at his grandparents’ weekend house.
When he left at end of his summer stay, she was calmer than expected. But in his case, he’d been ambushed by her intelligence, super-x-ray mind vision, velvety lips, clear eyes. Nobody had ever had the right to get to him; he didn’t allow it. He’d let his guard way down. But away from her, he drifted.
The next summer he visited cousins in Germany. When in winter he went to the beach it was to space out at a window, watch the stormy foaming surf, sit by the fire, sleep. He missed her sharp laugh, a hand holding his loosely, how they’d walked in sync since she was also tall. But he never sought her out. He’d been seeing a girl who entering university next year, pre-med, just as was he.
This summer was different. His parents had split up; he’d totaled his car in spring. He planned to enter university despite the head injury, a slow healing femur. He felt this was a last time to loaf, play chess and rummy with his grandparents, explore tidepools, be pampered some.
So when he saw her, he was both anxious and relieved. At last, they met again.
She came around the bend, arms swinging, chin tilted up, eyes forward. The gap between them closed fast, too late to turn back. He felt suddenly unsure, kept eyes to the path as they moved forward, then when they were two feet apart he slowed.
But she smacked his arm with a soft fist, thrust an envelope at him, and kept right on. He stared after her. She was not turning back. He bent to retrieve and open the envelope. Pulled out the stiff watercolor paper card.
It was a little painting she had made, a radiant miniature seascape with two tiny people. A man–was that him? yes–was moving out to sea, afloat on whitecaps, and she–yes, it was her– was standing on the bluff, waving, waving with a poppy colored handkerchief, all that pale hair free like a kite in bright wind, and the sky was so, so blue it hurt to look at it. But he kept looking until he was able to smile.
“No, no, no, no,” she responded and turned her back hard against her father, looking out his study window, letting her gaze follow the rolling yard as it met up with Kayla’s yard and house. “Not there, not now! Why would we do that with Meredith coming back in two months and…everything else?”
Iris didn’t say what she most wanted to; she seldom did when it came to thattopic, the missing mother matter. Chris Wells knew that; he didn’t say what he wanted to, either. It wasn’t appropriate to share such thoughts. He had a responsibility to two daughters, one smart and increasingly bold teenager, and one talented but more timid young woman soon to graduate with a Masters in Music Education. Who could a man talk to in this house? There was Ruffy, his aging half-wolf, half-German Shepherd companion, and Franklin-from university-and he got on well and…honestly, not many more wanted a good chat, much less an intimate one, with someone they had known as half a twosome for twenty years. Even if his wife–ex-wife– tended toward brash, more adventurous than he but easily bored and thus prickly, and remiss at home in ways he could not longer bear to well recall.
After almost two years, he had no wish to clearly recall anything of the life they had tried to build and turned into tinder.
So at this time, there was no one. He knew, as well, that Iris was still flailing and it wouldn’t be a picnic to trundle her off to the north woods. Despite the warming weather of late May, and their A-frame cabin and astonishing beauty of Lake Menatchee and its forests. Her mother had loved it there more than most places. And they had lasted only six days last year.
“Well,” Chris said calmly when Iris stamped her foot as if she was not sixteen but four, “it’s already settled. I need to get away to work on this book. So pack clothes and your other needs for two months.”
Iris threw him her deadly look as she rushed out the room. Wait until Kayla heard this one, they had had several plans. Good ones. And with that crushing thought, she raced downstairs, over to Kayla’s.
Chris sat back, hands locked behind his head; a tiny moan escaped, then he sat upright and poured over the last notes taken on the socioeconomic uses and meanings of color, his right knee bouncing in exasperation.
Iris sat on the deck, crushing a small dry pine cone with the toe of her sandal. This place–her parents and Meredith who had loved it’s lofty ceilings and great windows, the bright lake frontage. The cabin had been a jumping off point for her mother’s outdoor adventures, while a meditative haven for her father. But for Iris it was halfway between the two, and now neither when she didn’t want to be there. Like the other two years since she her mother left.
Iris was desperate for company and Kayla was pleased with the invitation, as ever, but declined with tons of apologies. The annual trip to her grandparents was coming up sooner than later– and who wouldn’t prefer San Francisco to the backwoods?
Meredith would eventually come; they got along in a distant sort of way. Though she might persuade their father to stay the whole summer. In the meantime, Iris was on her own. She kicked the brittle, flattened pine cone off the deck and stood, hands on hips, uncertain what she wanted to do then ran down to lake’s edge. A beaten trail wound down a steep slope so her body was driven downwards, propelled into shadiness and washes of light as enormous fir trees simultaneously comforted and loomed over her.
“This was our mother’s place, too, but she’s living on a boat in the Mediterranean with that, that–rich rat, that creep, that disgusting old guy!” she said to the dirt and the sky. She almost tripped as gravity and speed thrust her onward until her feet met with large stones and she skidded, breath coming hard, hands on knees as she bent over a minute. She took a break on the end of the dock, scanning the lake. Feeling calmer as the gentle waves lapped close to her toes.
Our row boat, she thought, I love that heap of a boat. She completed the padlock combination, opened a dilapidated shed door and narrowed her eyes to make out things in the murky space. There it was, set up on a blocks, its green paint faded and peeling in spots, oars hung on a wall along with faded orange lifesaving vests, fishing equipment, various hand and yard tools. She leaned against the coat’s hull and studied the clear green-blue waves several feet past the door. It felt good there, safer, and Iris was more at ease than she had felt in a week. She thought of the dock, how they all used to jump off and make shallow dives, then swim to the floating raft several yards out for more diving and playing. Her jackknife dives.
It all seemed long ago, and she felt older than she wanted to be, for once.
A dark shaggy head popped around the doorway and she was met by the grin of a stranger. She shrank back, then strode into the near-blinding sunshine, shutting the shed door. She glanced up to the A-frame for no good reason; her father was absorbed in his research.
“Hey, yourself, you’re standing on our beach–who are you?”
He stuck his hand deep into jeans pockets and shrugged. He looked a bit older than she was. His bare feet were late-spring-soft; it wasn’t easy to walk along a shore like that, the rocks were big, numerous. He wore a faded black T shirt with an ancient Jim Morrison photo on it. And on his right wrist was a worn piece of tied red yarn.
“We came early, staying awhile at Coan’s Cottages, over there. ” He pointed across the lake where there was a narrower width. Six pale shingled cottages sat in a row, a bit dreary but homey, one might deduct.
“I know where they are. I see people hanging out when we come up each summer. Never there long, though. So you’re new? Then you don’t know you have to get permission to cross other peoples’ lakefronts, I guess.”
“Sure, I know, but most people aren’t even at the lake yet, it’s not the week-end or summer. I didn’t know you were here until now.” He took his hands out of his pockets, scratched the back of his neck, slapped a forearm–a fleeing insect took off. “I’m Jax, anyhow.”
“Iris. Now you should leave, okay? I have things to do. Have a fun stay.”
Jax’s dark eyes flashed with a sharp humor; he motioned a sort of saluting goodbye with an index finger flicking off forehead. As he turned, all that mussed, longish hair flew away from his neck and he walked away, briefly into water as the shore disappeared, then past trees and bushes huddled close. She couldn’t see where he was going. But she was satisfied he was gone–for the time being.
During a long trek into green and teeming woods, she became acutely aware of chorusing birds, and flitting, sometimes biting insects and spring peepers and garter snakes escaping her feet and wildflowers in glowing groups here and there; scents of water, mud, rock, pine, life in its glory. She settled into herself and the landscape better. The young stranger crossed through her mind once and she shook him off.
When back on the deck, she could just make out a guy who looked a bit like Jax. He got out of a canoe, pulled it up by the Coan’s dock. Maybe he wasn’t walking, then. He’d just been on the lake, canoed over, pulled it ashore at the empty lot next door to her dad’s. To do nothing or mess around. She hoped it was an accident that he’d come upon her. She let go a shiver but it wasn’t fear, exactly. More like when Ruffy came up to her before she had seen or heard him, before she’d ever thought to call him.
Chris started dinner, tuna tossed with noodles, and a side salad. Food he thought pleased a teenager was often not what she wanted. She was back on the deck, he’d noticed. Seeing her there, light brown hair waving over her shoulders like her mother’s had…he winced. And what if Iris was miserable and he could never do anything about it? What if he couldn’t get his work done here, either?
She spun around, feeling his deep set eyes on her, waved and then to his surprise, smiled.
“What does the color red mean?” she asked him the next week. She could have looked it up but he knew certain things.
“It depends. It’s the color of blood, of course, and fire. It can symbolize energy, passion, strength, action. Courage. It is a powerful color, certainly. In the West we tend to think it means aggression or violence, but that is not the case in many places. I would say–“
Iris shifted in her chair and he went back to his book. Ruffy lay down between them on the floor before a cold fireplace, his movements fluid, front paws placed one over the other. He was a quiet dog, hence the nickname in jest as he rarely, despite his intimidating appearance, let loose a loud bark or a growl. Oddly, his ex-wife didn’t like him much, thought he was too stealthy, might turn against them, so Ruffy avoided her, taking to Chris and the kids easily from the start. They had long ago become family. The oft-imposing, elegant Ruffy released a little groan as Iris smoothed wiry fur on his handsome head.
“Okay, just what does a piece of red yarn or thread on the wrist mean?”
“It is worn for a few reasons–it depends on which wrist, too. The person. What they mean to gain from it. Why?”
“I just saw it. Tell me what you know.”
“Well, a red bracelet might be knotted seven times in the Kabbalah tradition, and a prayer is said when knotting it. It is for positive energy and protection, but men wear it on the wright wrist; on the left, women do. It is a sign also of purity, and it gets more technical if I go on, Iris. But it also is a a sort of talisman to some who wear it, that is, to ward off the evil eye and bad luck.”
“Oh. How interesting. As a kid I always wanted to wrap ribbons or colored tape or found thread around my wrists. But that just made me feel more fancy…Still, there was that ring.” She glanced at it on her finger and smiled.
She fell still, musing about what sorts of things people did to feel better. Safe. Like her wearing a silver ring with two floral shapes on it. She and Kayla had spotted in a grassy place by a creek. It was after her mother had left them. It fit, and somehow it helped to have found it and it went right on as if meant to be, so she hadn’t taken it off.
Chris nodded at her, shut his book and watched his daughter and dog resting.
“Is it uncomfortable being here without your mother?”
“Sometimes.” She rubbed her forehead. “Not really, anymore. It was and is our family vacation hideaway. I mean, Meredith and you and me, not just her.”
“But she was so into the great outdoors…”
“We all have been in different ways, if you think about it, Dad. Like your big bonfires and ghost stories and s’mores. Meredith’s sailing with her friends. Me in the woods and diving off the raft. You and me trying to fish…”
“And your mother hiking in the hills on her own, taking you girls on long rides in the rowboat or setting up the tent for you two, then you and your friends some nights.”
“No- you remember it wrong, Meredith and I set it up a lot more as we got older just for! Mom did like to sit in there all alone, at times–she called it her time out…usually after she got mad at us. She got so frustrated with us! But you–you taught us about the stars, Dad, and fire building and wild plants.” She patted Ruffy a last time as he rolled onto his side, then she jumped up. “I sorta hate being here and sorta am glad, I miss her a lot at times, but still feel angry and confused about her decision. But I am also okay.”
She grabbed strands of hair and wound them around her fingers, a nervous habit from childhood. She gave them a small yank and let go.
“Stop worrying so much or you’ll drive me nuts! I’m not a child, right? I can deal more than you think. Since we needed to come up north for more of your writing and researching time, I can cope for a month or two–we both have to… Anyway, we’re here now. Just us. And Ruffy. Okay, Dad?”
“Deal,” he said and went back to his place in the botany book. “But if it gets too sad or weird, let me know…” he mumbled at her back. He glanced at Ruffy. It’s you and me, us two guys, and you are like my own talisman. But Ruffy was snoring, there but not there. In his own nirvana… as he always seemed to be, awake or asleep.
Chris suddenly longed to hug his daughter but it was too late–at least now, this time.
Iris was stuck in a hallway, half-wanting to run back and jump on his lap, throw her arms around him and plant a kiss on his stubbly cheek. But she wasn’t that little girl, anymore, was she. A lump rose up in her throat and she unstuck herself. Grabbing binoculars she walked closer to the water, checked on Coans’ Cottages. How dumb of her to resort to that! She walked on, wondering how Kayla was doing, loneliness felt like a small stab. She checked in with her phone.
By the time she and her dad got out the rowboat it was a bit humid and looked a little like rain. Nothing much was forecast that they knew of, so they lifted and pulled and slid it in the water. He took the oars and rowed with gusto while she and Ruffy sat relaxed, faces to a damp gusty breeze. The water was choppier than when they had begun but it was a good ride along the lake shore, then in deeper water. Sunlight sparked the water then hid, then was flung as sheer ribbons across waves, then was gone. And still gone. The wind cooled. Ruffy sat with nose up, ears, sharp.
They were moving closer to shore in a few minutes, just in case, and were soon to pass Coans’ Cottages when the first rumbles filled the air. Chris rested, looked into the darkening sky. Ruffy stared at the increasingly metal gray water and then at the shoreline. He liked water but he was not a happy long distance swimmer.
“We haven’t far to go, about fifteen or tenty minutes back to our place, maybe, if I row hard. The wind will make it harder to row against the wave action.”
“I can take a turn if you want, I’m pretty strong!” She had to shout over the thunder and the rising wind.
“That’s alright, Iris, I can manage! Have to get at it now!”
The wind came up hard out of the northwest, that bass rumbling grew, and raindrops splashed on their skin, fur, the boat. Even Ruffy blinked in the heavier wetness. Then thunder rumbled so loud and deeply that he lifted his head and howled briefly. Lightning gashed the heavy pewter sky. The rain let loose.
“Got to go ashore, Iris, we’ll go to in here!”
In under five minutes they were there and Jax was already waiting, wading out with an older man. They pulled the rowboat ashore and hightailed it up to the cottage as torrents of rain lashed all animate and inanimate things, Ruffy racing ahead of them, big body stretched out, so lithe and fast, looking even more like a wolf on the run.
Stamping small rivulets from their legs and then shaking their wet heads and tossing shoes and jackets in a pile, they were soon greeted by a slow burning fire and a woman holding out bowls of chili.
“How about some food and drink? You, too, doggie. Or wolfie!”
It was Garth and Kath Ruskin, Jax’s uncle and aunt, who welcomed them so readily. As they gathered on benches around a heavy trestle table they were soon jabbering as if they had known one another more than a few minutes. Chris and Jax thought separately how crisis did that, even if it was just a sudden spring storm, it made strangers into friendly partners in problem solving, or it maybe just felt safer huddling together. After the chili came more endless adult talk about work, economics and sports and Lake Menatchee as compared to other lakes so that finally Jax bent his head toward Iris, who slumped with chin on a hand.
“Want to move over to the couch?”
“That sounds… risky.” She smiled and rolled her eyes.
He acted shy and even blushed, she thought– his skin was tanner than she’d realized, it was hard to tell–and they moved themselves off the table bench and to the couch by the fireplace. Ruffy roused himself from beneath the table and trotted after them, his long tail hanging low.
“Wolf dog, eh? A good one.”
“Yes, he is. How did you know so fast?”
“Well, he looks wolf, and a neighbor had one. Not so good, killed all the chickens they had and rabbits, but he had a sister in crime.” He gave a shrug, eyebrows up. “That’s how that goes. We have lots of dogs on the reservation as well as other animals.”
She turned to look at him better then averted her eyes, embarrassed. She may not have guessed he was Native American–isn’t that what he meant? She wasn’t going to ask.
“I never liked rabbits, the’re rodents, I think.”
“Not at all, they’re both mammals but rabbits are only rabbits, harmless.”
“One bit me as a kid.”
“You handled it wrong?”
“True, I did.” She stuck her feet out toward sizzling red and orange flames. “Why are you here with your aunt and uncle, if I can ask.”
“I live with them. Auntie Kath is my mom’s sister…mom was white. I’m half Odawa, the reservation is in northwestern Michigan, not too far. But I’ve lived with my aunt and uncle for three years now. I might go back, don’t know yet. Depends on me and my dad…”
He placed one foot and then another on top of Ruffy’s back. Iris tensed, thinking the dog would rouse and be irritated but he didn’t move. Jax had said his mother was white, so she must have died, she thought.
“My mom lives on a boat, so she’s also, well, gone.”
“That’s kinda cool, though–nearby?”
“In the Mediterranean.”
He let out a low, quiet whistle and Ruffy lifted his head a second, put it back down.
“Yea, left with some idiot she met at a gaming table. She likes to gamble…”
“Huh, my dad likes to gamble but not lately. He drinks too much to gamble well. But he makes good art still.”
“Why? Oh, never mind, sorry.”
“It’s okay. She was climbing, on a narrow path in Idaho’s Rockies–after visiting her parents–and slipped, fell. My dad, he hasn’t gotten over it, I guess. No one has.” He touched the red yarn bracelet with his fingertips, put hand over heart. At his neck hung a cord with a black stone she hadn’t seen before. He caught her glance. “Obsidian, it grounds me more.” He touched her hand. “Nice ring. You might like pink opal- it helps heal.”
She bit her lip, breathed in and out slowly through her nose, it always helped.
Jax saw her then with a sweeping look: her open face; her hands which she used to talk; her bare feet, the square toenails –and fingernails– free of polish. Eyes that did not look away but noted him, too. He let his head lower and he watched the dance of flames. The soothing fire crackled. The adults’ talk had begun to be only a low drone, and they heard beer cans fizzing as they opened one by one.
“It’s stopped raining,” Jax said.
They got up, opened the door to press their hands against the screen door that remained shut.
“The perfume of it all, you know? So fresh out now,” she said.
“Yeah, good, isn’t it?” he said as he pushed the screen door wide open.
Ruffy followed them out the door as Chris, Garth and Kath found an easy lull in the conversation. They watched the young people; Kath nodded at her husband and he smiled back.
“Thanks, you two, what life savers,” Chris declared with beer can raised high. “Welcome to Lake Menatchee. Come by next week for the first bonfire of the season.”
“We’ll be there,” Kath and Garth agreed.
Jax, Iris and Ruffy were down the lake shore by then, skipping stones, Ruffy chasing them into the water. They later sat with knees pulled up on the dock and watched the sky. Venus blinked and shone, Mars took its reddish flare to its usual spot. The sun slipped lower and lower, then there appeared as if by magic brush the tender colors of a stormy day ending, the vast silvered and navy dome above waves rushing and hushing, trees swaying, and soon the air seemed lit with rose and coral and hues so delicate, so entwined it was hard to know where one left off and another began.
The fire was steadily burning, a comfort to see even from a distance. As Virginia Li Taft, better known as Gin-Li, took her place in the half-circle about it, she found the group smaller than expected. Or it just felt that way, tightly drawn of six kids she’d known to one degree or another her whole life. They sat shoulder to shoulder; you had to squeeze your way in if you weren’t one of the gang–she’d seen that happen.
She thought some must have paired off, left for other places. It was the last of the afternoon, and without thinking she glanced to see if Robbie was there. Of course not. He’d be the last one in; his snowboard was about everything to him. Who could compete? Good thing she didn’t need to; she and Robbie were best friends. Just like she and Liz were, though Robbie was a male, yes. Some of the other girls said, “No, that one’s an actual man, right?” and then further emphasized with eyes widening that they were pleased one of the guys finally was. Gin-Li had noticed but it wasn’t relevant; Robbie was just Robbie. They were all sixteen or seventeen and it was true, though, that plenty of guys acted and looked like they’d gotten stuck in mid-to-late middle school. If Gin-Li was there, they didn’t bother her with speculations about him. He was single the past months but she was immune to his charms and there was no help for that.
Gin-Li felt relief change her limbs into jelly when she scooted closer to the mammoth fireplace. Sinuous flames flick light across shadowed skin. She sank into the rise and fall of laughter and chatter, though she remained quiet. Quietness, even stillness (despite the fact that she was a decent athlete) that caught people’s attention, was a hallmark of her personality–and as defining of who she was as her sleek, dark hair and almond eyes.
Or so her mother said often enough. The statement sometimes held a resentful, even sharp edge, as if every time she saw Gin-Li she had to be reminded of her father, long gone, sorely if sadly remembered. As if Gin-Li was responsible for her continued irritation. But then it would pass as she spoke of other things–until next time. He’d been her mother’s hero, “The One”, until he’d left for the ill-fated rafting trip in Peru. He drowned and left Marley Taft, Gin-Li’s mother, pregnant and unmarried. Mostly Chinese and a tad this and that, John Li was a respected biologist and eager adventurer. Marley Taft, his fiancée, was a geology professor at UCLA. Things changed fast after his death. And after twelve years, Gin-Li had no memories and Marley had fewer good ones of California but they had fashioned a very good life in Colorado. Even though Marley hadn’t yet found another partner that seemed worth keeping.
Arch Mountain Ski Resort was close to the city so a bunch of kids piled into a couple of vehicles with parents at the wheel (they’d drive at least one more year, they all agreed). It got to be a regular trip on week-ends for some, even most of the time for Gin-Li and Liz. They weren’t, perhaps, top-notch skiers but enjoyed it. Gin-Li loved snowboarding and was getting pretty good at it. But they also liked the group camaraderie as they hit the runs, reconvening during breaks. It was a feast for the senses up there, the work out fun, even amazing. You could see the Continental Divide and the brisk sharp air revived Gin-Li even on her less thrilled days. Her mother skied, too, they noted each other in passing which was more than enough.
“You want a coffee or tea?” Liz asked as her elbow poked her friend’s ribs.
Gin-Li shrugged and she stared at the fire. Liz was getting on her nerves lately, always talking about Phil or Denny or Gavin. She knew Liz was going to get caught up in talk if she spotted one of those older boys; Gin-Li might not get her tea until it cooled off.
“Okay, peppermint tea, thanks.”
Then Frieda pressed a shoulder into hers as the semi-circle closed in Liz’s absence. “Frieda the Needy One”, Gin-Li often thought but she could be fun.
“Gin-Li, I’d watch out for Liz if I were you,” she hissed in her ear. “She’s going the wrong direction with those other guys. Better to stick with what we know, right? At least when we’re in school.” She winked. “I saw a guy from Newfield last summer awhile, a senior!”
“She’ll do what she wants. Liz has strong preferences.”
“Yeah, older and wilder. Not like Robbie who is about as mellow as you can get, right?”
She threw Frieda a questioning look. “Well, he’s my best friend.”
“What? More a best friend than Liz? You’ve known her since third grade. You give preferential treatment, too!” and giggled her childish giggle.
Gin-Li hunched her shoulders, hugged her knees and let her hair fall forward to blot out Frieda. She was the kind of person who could make something of nothing with little encouragement and Gin-Li chose to ignore her a bit as years went by, though Frieda was nice to her. She in fact told her she got smarter and more pretty every week; their school lockers were just two apart so she was hard to ignore. Liz suggested archly that maybe Frieda was flirting with her but Gin-Li knew she was lonely and wanted to be noticed. She didn’t have close friends as she gossiped a lot or maybe that was why she did, thinking people valued her speculations when the opposite was ultimately true. But she skied well and was a good sport. People liked that, Gin-Li did, too, even though her alluding to her bi-racial features–Frieda just had to use the adjective “exotic” more than once– could burn inside her. It was how it was. Some people never understood and how could they? Gin-Li was who she was and, in fact, that wasn’t entirely clear to her sometimes. Good thing she had a couple of truly trusted friends, who knew her insides about as well as she did.
“Here’s your tea,” Liz said as she made her place in the loosened group before the fire. A few had clearly gone back to the slopes. “I saw Robbie about to come in, from what I could see from the window. But he sure looked good out there–we all know he’s talented.”
Gin-Li smiled to herself and sipped. He’d taught her a few things that improved her own form and speed. He’d show her a few more things before they left, or tomorrow if they both came back. They’d dissect the moves and tricks, even into the early morning hours if they felt like crazy insomniacs. She yawned; Liz followed with a bigger one. It was either get back out there soon or get drowsier but the fire was so welcoming. If she was going to return tomorrow, she might as well rest now.
“I’m done being lazy, up and at ’em!” Frieda said as she rose and started toward the door.
“Watch this,” Liz leaned her head sharply toward the other girl. “Have you even seen this yet?”
Frieda nearly ran right into Robbie and she apologized with great flair, her hand on his shoulder, her face upturned. He looked down, briefly smiled back and kept on walking. Frieda scowled at his back and left.
Gin-Li saw it, drank her tea. When he got to them the piney mountain air came with him and she shivered with pleasure.
“Hey, you guys, more snow coming in!”
His voice boomed and others looked his way, waving, calling out.
“I want you to come out again Gin-Li, to show you something.”
“I’m tired. Maybe I’m getting a cold.”
“Of course you aren’t, you’re just out of condition, just coming twice last week. A trial to start over this winter, I get it.” He crouched down to her level, the snow melting, water beading and rolling off his pants. “The powder remains excellent and the lights are now on!” he added with a gentle force he used trying to persuade her. “Everything is blue and white out there, see? You know you love that, come on, slouchy girl!”
Gin-Li looked at his chiseled and pinked cheekbones, his lively blue eyes and almost got up. “Nope, six hours off and on is enough today, are you trying to make me suffer? You’re the snowboarding addict so go for it.” She gave him raised eyebrows with a smirk and inched toward the fire’s magnetic heat.
“Party pooper! You should let yourself give in, you’ve got such talent.”
His palm slid across her shoulders then lightly smacked her back so she reached out and slapped him on the leg as he moved away.
“Hey, Robbie, wait up!” Ted from the end of the line called out.
“Yeah, we’re coming.” Two more got up. The small group broke apart like a natural phenomenon.
“Did you notice he didn’t ask me?” Liz gave a short laugh. “I’d be left behind so fast he’d forget I was ever there, I’d be lost in the spray.” She got up, looked around. “Where did Frieda go?”
Gin-Li stood, as well, then walked to the huge glass wall of windows where she could see all. Evening draped the snow in a watery but deep blue. She could track Robbie going up the slope and she suddenly wished she’d joined him. But there would be tomorrow. She would see him dazzle his way down soon. Meanwhile, her mother was just calling it day and chatting with others. Frieda and a bunch of girls had their heads together, all animated, then they started for the lift. She was half in- and half-out the circle, ever seeking her place. Gin-Li was glad she felt mostly at home with what and who she knew and loved. She had learned that during last winter, an event she tried to not think about, anymore.
When she searched for Liz, she saw her at a table with a plate of burger and fries. Gin-Li wasn’t hungry yet but she was warmed up, felt strong and limber even if her muscles and joints did ache a bit. She really could snowboard more, should have taken Robbie up on his tutoring.
But she took in the mountains’ jagged peaks, the snow bright and dark as electric lights more fully illuminated the scene, and that wide star-embroidered sky and all those people, and she was thinking of her father and how she might not have inherited his gene for daring, after all. Or maybe it would light her up tomorrow or next year or in her twenties. Wasn’t he twenty-six when he took off for Peru? Was he thinking that he’d be glad to hurry back to her mother or was he thinking nothing of the sort, only living in each moment until…he could no longer do so? She should try that, embrace it all more heartily rather than just sit with the moment. She wasn’t afraid, though. She was observing. For one example, for drawings she would make later in her candle lit room after her mother turned in. She would take all this and make it open up and tell her secrets as her hand was moved by the pencil. Or so it seemed.
What would John Li think of it? He’d kept travel journals, made sketches of what he saw, too. She had taken one from her mother’s old trunk, hidden it in her closet. It was what she had of him. His eyes and hair, yes, but even more, those rich words and pictures. So she could imagine him just a little better, live what he lived.
The scene below was perfect, astonishing in its beauty and it gave her the tingling feeling that told Gin-Li the whole universe was alive and busy with mystery. And then in the center of that expanse of opulent snow one person appeared in the distance and came forward and down and down and then a singular action multiplied and transformed into something else.
A snowboarder had completed a frontside 360 off a kicker, then landed wrong. Thudded–she could almost hear the body and snowboard, feel the vibrations enter the earth–and bounced once and slid and crumpled hard on the fast descent. Her hot hands pressed against the chill glass and she could hear shouts inside and out. Down the slope the body tumbled and then it stopped.
That unearthly stillness.
Gin-Li grabbed her jacket and raced out the building before Liz could call to her and Gin-Li down the stairs and out the doors, past her mother without seeing her and then slogged through snow partway up the slope where so many had stopped and were looking, gawking, reaching down and recoiling.
“No, don’t come close, we’ve called for help, stay back!” someone yelled at her and then more shouted but she knew what she saw and she was not stopping.
“Robbie!” she cried out and knelt in a twilit pillow of snow beside him, his body all zigzag. With three bare fingertips she smoothed away tiny crusts of ice like snowflake tattoos on the hair on his forehead, along his jaw.
His lips were perfect, chapped. His eyes were closed and his gaunt face, white as the moon but for flaring cheeks, said nothing to her but pain. He was hovering, she knew it, she had felt this last year after her bad car accident, such pain lifts you to another plane and leaves you there when all around people are doing things or not doing anything. Robbie was quieter than a hiding fox, quieter than the snow falling. More still than ever he had been unless he was sleeping in the ratty hammock or tents they’d set up in the woods and even then, she watched him breathe.
More still even than when he’d come last year to sit in the hospital with her, to keep watch as her own agony leaked out, as she ranted and raged about the meanness of rehab therapists. But she did not believe he could die, not now. She held him in her heart and told him so.
“He’s breathing, eyelids are twitching.”
Gin-Li took his freezing hand in hers and blew on it. Where was his glove? Robbie did not speak to her but he was telling her to just hold on, he was only floating nearby. Sudden lights flashed like mad carnival colors on whiteness. The siren wound down.
“Move aside, miss,” the EMTs said and touched him to find where and what things were doing as his eyes started to move behind his eyelids, as he started to come back to the pain.
She let go with the cry of an alarmed bird.
“Come, Gin-Li,” her mother said, arm about her. “We’ll follow the ambulance.” She had to keep blinking to not see John Li’s face looking back at her before he left for Peru. She squeezed her daughter’s hand and prayed.
Liz barely kept up with them she shook so hard. Not again, not another friend she might lose.
After the back surgery to put things together that threatened to come apart via fractured vertebrae and left shin that cracked, he came uneasily into consciousness. In the recovery room she stood behind his parents but Gin-Li kept well away from his bed to let his mother weep his father twist his cap. She was waiting until he could spot her and knew it might take a while. She waited all night and into early morning as her mother fretted, exhausted, with Liz in the waiting room. She now realized how her daughter felt. She so feared they would lose this good and kind one, too–her father, now Robbie. But Liz said she knew better, she felt it would be okay and Marley held onto this small thing.
It was just going to be like this, Gin-Li saw that at last. The difficult things he insisted on doing, the happy abandon he gave to all because he was an optimist. The risk taking. The near misses, downright failures and eager new beginnings. He wanted to find and push limits, “pursue the heart of living”, he’d confided in her as they’d hiked along a ridge that felt close to the sun. And she was willing to be there, cruising or working alongside him or quietly watching, whatever worked best, because she believed in him and he, in her.
He’d told her this last year after her own accident. And now she could not deny it.
“Gin-Li?” Robbie’s groggy voice made its way to her.
“I’m right here for you, my daredevil friend, dear Robbie,” she said as she leaned over, touched her lips to his forehead. His eyelids lowered; he smiled and slept. It was likely that she embraced all these possibilities because she was Gin-Li, the only honorable daughter of John Li, respected biologist and cheerful explorer of wild places (who missed her even now, as she missed him).
They’d known each other long and well enough that they kept secret the odd bits about each other’s parents. And how they really felt about cartoons or when they got a “C” or worse on a paper. What was special to them about each season. Little and bigger things. For example, she knew Quinn’s father smoked cherry tobacco for the last twenty years because it was what his father and grandfather smoked; it was the only good thing they’d handed down to him, he’d told Quinn. Which obviously wasn’t so great. And he knew that Marley felt it wasn’t just disappointing to get an average mark, it was her absolute duty to get straight “As” since she was the one in the family most likely to get into a top college–if she didn’t, what was the point of the dreaming and working?
“Spring, just like every year, has that loud raspy hum of the mowers, and somebody hammering away on a roof, this year it’s the Lee’s,” he said. “I could lie there all morning and listen to that. But then Benny barges in and jumps up and down on my bed so I have to whack him with my pillow until he leaves. Then the spell is broken, natch.”
Quinn crammed another six chips into his mouth, chewed and swallowed with the help of a long swig of canned vegetable juice. His Adam’s apple jumped up and down with each swallow. Afterwards he licked his full lips clean as if he had satisfied a terrible thirst.
Marley was fascinated by this even as she was vaguely repelled. “How can you eat this for breakfast? It’s gross. Try the juice with scrambled eggs and bacon.”
He leaned against the gnarled trunk of their–they claimed it long ago– London plane tree at the park across from his house, running his fingers through wavy black hair. He’d been up an hour. Marley had trotted over after spotting him from her bedroom window. She lived on the other side of the park that was on the boulevard’s green space. A few kids were spinning the merry-go-round, one little boy just hanging on as it gained speed.
“I hate scrambled eggs, as you know, so clumpy yet jiggly. So what do you like best this year?”
She pulled shoulders up high and held them there a minute to stretch kinks out. She’d slept wrong on her pillow. A headache was starting from the long muscles that tied into neck muscles that held up her head. Quinn reached up to squeeze, rather hard, on both sides until she swatted at him.
“I forget now–you spoiled it. Let me think. I guess it’s robins and the breeze that sneaks in my open window. Lilac perfume. The giant bush is starting to bloom.”
“Hmm.” He looked at her, smiled, then half-closed his eyes. She hadn’t brushed her reddish brown hair, either; it was still a wispy halo about her face, how he liked it but had never mentioned. “You leave your window open all seasons, I know that–I’ve advised against it. Not that safe.”
“Have to breathe fresh air! Don’t I share my room with Dee? It gets clogged up, her smelly eau de toilette and stuff. Or her slow moving thoughts just hanging there. I can find her trail by scent alone.”
“You’re a little reactive, maybe, but I agree your sister needs to move out. She’s nineteen, what’s she waiting for? I’d be long gone.” He pulled up a blade of grass, stuck it in the gap between his front teeth and sucked on it.
“She will. She’s even saving fat tips from waitressing. And what about Benny? Isn’t he going to have to move in with you when the baby arrives? Bunk beds or what?”
She shouldn’t have said that; he did not want to talk about that. His mother didn’t talk about it, either, as if it was the worst news even though Quinn’s dad seemed pleased, telling all it was another boy. But Denny was eight and Quinn was fourteen and his mother was getting older. “A bonus baby,” her own mother had said with left eyebrow arched, and Marla figured that was not that good. They had four kids in their own family; that was a lot. Her parents said they sure had other plans than more kids, like starting a nest egg for themselves one of these days, or seeing Tuscany when they retired. Like it was some real life plan. But they actually liked each other and their kids.
He picked up a twig and flipped it at her, then another which she fended off with her palm. “All we need is another kid. You know Mom can barely keep up with us as it is. She’s always working, taking extra shifts at the hospital. She has to quit sometime in summer to have it. Him. Dad complained this morning that the laundry hasn’t been done in two weeks and that old argument got hot before ten. I slipped out, of course.”
“You do it, then, that might be a help–no, wait–you’d screw it up without lessons first. Your dad would have your hide, mom, too.”
“You do it, dodo, I do garden work!” He rustled her hair; his little finger caught.
Marla shook her head and pulled away. “Yeah, like you know how to raise good veggies, you just consume them, vegan freak!”
He softly tackled her to the ground. “Hee-yaa! Watch out! Don’t you talk bad about veggies!”
“What’s up, wanta fight, bean pole?”
She smacked him on the back with both hands as they rolled and tussled. His body felt bulky and loose-limbed like a big dog’s, his breath damp and soft on her cheek and slightly acrid. She laughed at him even when they squashed against each other, even when his lips slipped onto her cheek. Then she flipped him off with a sudden shove. Stood right up. Marla planted her bare foot on his chest. She was breathing hard as he looked up with surprise, then grabbed her ankle.
The sheer morning light hit his eyes so the gold around his hazel irises shimmered. Marley couldn’t stop looking. Couldn’t stop a feeling of dizziness, a sensation of falling though she had excellent balance and knew she wouldn’t. He didn’t blink, mouth opened as if he might say something but Quinn lost any words, his eyes stayed on hers, then moved over her flushed, strong jawed face and skimmed her length. He held onto her smooth, strong ankle and waited for her to move. If she wanted to get loose she might have to yank. But she just stood still, then shivered as if something electric had passed through her. She looked at the merry-go-round.
“Let’s show those kids how to get a good ride going!”
And he let go of her. He stood up and they ran to the merry-go-round, spun it hard and fast and got the kids screeching until they, too, jumped on and held tight, their hair flying, their eyes watering in the wind, the pandemonium they’d generated a good way to state the week-end.
Marley sat by her bedroom window watching stars blink, pen poised over her diary. No one ever thought to ask how fourteen year old girls felt. They wrote about twelve or thirteen year olds as if that was the most important turning point of girls’ lives. They wrote about turning sixteen and it seemed like everyone needed a rockin’ party or if lucky got a new car with a bow on it. Being fourteen was being in between, it didn’t mean a rite of passage or a fantastic journey of discovery. It was only to be endured, she thought–unpredictable skin, legs and arms too long and hair that never did the right thing. It was all that, alright, but it was more. It was like living in a cave, mostly. You were in a small space and a portion of time that seems to go on forever, and you’re still too young but too big to stand up tall and if you did, you might bump against stuff you’d never seen before and get scared. So you had to keep your head down and your eyes on a dim path and just try to get through it until there was freedom and more air again.
She wrote on the blank page.
I feel captive in my body and mind. I think if I could identify just who I am and make sense of all the experiences, I might be free. Instead, my face and feelings, wishes and fears are all mashed together into one crazy mess, some weird thing I’m living but don’t quite want to claim.
But then there’s Quinn. Both the key to some of the puzzle and the essential problem. I am so myself with him. But I am a stranger with him, too. And now I don’t know if I can ever really know who he is even after knowing him for six whole years of my life. But maybe I am the only one who does…and there will be more, I think.
Marley flipped the pen between forefinger and middle finger; it hit the page rhythmically as she pondered.
In the morning her eyes had opened wide and she felt clear and awake, for once. The day was fully ripe as soon as she got up. It was bursting with bold colors and nature songs and her finicky Siamese cat, Zelda, smiled up at her. All was brimming with possibility. After a shower she had put on a long orange skirt with a sleeveless white cotton top and sandals. Small golden hoop earrings. She’d let her close-to-auburn, shoulder length hair air-dry even though the waves turned frizzy. Nothing on her face but a dab of glossy lip tint.
Her mother handed her a glass of cranberry juice as always. “You look how I always wish you’d look, sort of… well, it’s good on you. So what’s going on today?”
“Oh? Where’s this one?”
“At a state park, I forget right now. You signed the permission slip last week.”
Her mother stood with hands on her hips. “Right. You’re going like that? Granted, it’s going to get into the seventies later but that skirt will catch on everything.”
Marley laughed lightly. “I don’t care! I feel like it’s a fairy sort of day, you know, like I’m a wood sprite.”
“Okay, got it.”
Then Dee whistled at her as she ran out the door to work, the nut case.
Her younger brothers, Charles and Doughy, were fighting over the last piece of toast and jam and stopped to stare at her a moment before Dougy snatched the prize, then took off upstairs with Charles flying after him.
Her mother sighed and turned back to the sink. “Want a snack for the trip? One more banana, better get it now. And take a sweater in case. The woods can be chillier than you think.”
They were both in Mr. Hector’s science class, she and Quinn, and they were relieved to be outside all day. No dissecting, no vital tables to memorize. They’d be talking about insects and fungi and trees and the native plants the park protected. She spotted birds and wildflowers which he liked but was less impressed with. He stopped for nurse logs and kept an eye out for small mammals, but especially the elusive coyote. She agreed about the coyote. They were at the edge of the middle of their class and lagged at times, others passing them with an impatient nudge. One girl asked from what trash heap she’d picked up her “weird hippie costume”; another told her she looked beautiful, could she borrow the skirt sometime? Quinn had given her a lopsided smile with a frown when he’d seen her. That was just fine with Marley as he had absolutely no sense of style. It was for her own pleasure. More or less.
The first hour was a long walking tour plus mini-lectures. They’d stop every now and then, gather around their teacher, listening and fidgeting. Volunteer parents chatted among themselves, exclaimed over a butterfly, a bird flying low–they seemed thrilled to be away from pressing chores and important boring meetings. Mr. Hector was a good teacher and they paid attention at first. But as time went on, they lost enthusiasm for his clinical speech and droning voice.
“Let’s get out of here,” he whispered.
“I just mean take another trail over there,” he said with a nod to the right. “We can lag a little more and then slip off when they stop again.”
“I don’t think the parents will let us get away for one minute!” she hissed back and yanked on his arm when he looked over his shoulder.
“Aw, come on, Marley…”
Mr. Hector stopped. “Are you two engaged in a more interesting conversation than we are up front? Maybe you missed my best lecture.”
“Maybe…” Marley agreed, blushing, as the others laughed.
“Quinn, any idea what I said?”
“No. But maybe we can have a treasure hunt sort of thing on the trails?”
A few of the boys gave high fives.
“Smart guy,” Mr. Hector said, “as that’s just what you’re going to do. I want you each to take this illustrated list with you and pair off with lab partners. See how many you can find. Take pictures with your phones for proof, please. Then return to this area in forty five minutes. Call someone or the park center if you get lost.”
They cheered, rustled about, found their partners and split up. Marley and Quinn set off together.
It was the best afternoon of her life so far. And the worst. They found twelve items on the list together within the first half hour: lichen, ferns and ivy, and different flowers and bugs. Quinn noted a garter snake rippling across the path right in front of them when they were squatting to better inspect an insect, name unknown, busy on a marsh marigold. Marley found the first trilliums, a trio of white, three-petaled beauties, and took more pictures than necessary.
“I want to blow up one and hang it in my room.”
“Cool, you’re coming to my side, the plant side, I see.”
“I’ve always loved science, dummy–you know that. I might become a botanist. And you need good protein if you want to get much taller than me.”
“I know. And your brilliance is noted, genius.”
He put his hand on the ground to steady himself and in the process his fingers touched her bare toes, the bright blue painted toenails flashing in the light. That glimmering spring light. It was all about them, it stole the shadows from their faces, set the trees aglow, burnished the green of thick mosses clinging to knotty branches. Only the birds spoke, and in musical tongues. A woodpecker hammered at a tree but it was soon lost in swoops of wings and more avian song. Marley and Quinn heard bees hovering and zipping past. The wind stirred upper reaches of tree tops, setting leaves aflutter like verdant flags.
They both just stood up, then put their arms about the warm, generous life of each other, her head finding a spot right below his shoulder, his pressed against the top of her wild hair, which he loved to feel. She felt that dizziness again, as if she could topple over and he could, too. They would fly away, find the passageway into a place, a time, where everything was meant to be good and true and nothing could touch them. Wait, wait–was she completely mad? This was Quinn, her best friend for ages. This was Quinn…and he let out a small sound of happiness as she held him so his heart and her heart were side by side like perfect twins. His hands found the small of her back and hers found his shoulders and she pulled away just to find his eyes, his lips. He bent down close to meet her and–
“Quinn O’Keefe, release Marley Barrett and go back to the meeting spot! Right now.”
Mr. Newman was standing five feet away, with Mrs. Carter behind him.
Quinn stepped away and his arms flapped to his sides. Eyes flicked to hers; she saw his anger, then anxiety.
“Aw, really? I mean, we were just, we’re only best friends, we were just…”
“Marley, you alright, dear?”
She ran her sweaty palms down her skirt.”Of course I’m okay! It’s like he said, we’re besties, anyway, we–”
“You both come along right now.”
There wasn’t much more to it. Mr. Hector was informed so he took them aside and warned them to watch their step and keep apart from now on, looking at Quinn as if he’d come to a new conclusion. Their teacher didn’t look at her at all, as if seriously disappointed. Marley felt embarrassed–for each of them.
But it felt worse than that. As if what she had hoped for them was crudely exposed, made ridiculous. Marley let her pen slip from her hand. She studied the waxing moon. It looked back at her as if she were a tiny, pitiful creature unable to make sense of the most obvious things. As if all the heavens were waiting for her to get a real clue, take hold of herself. She wished she could more than anything else in the world. But everything had been rearranged. Not even her usual faith in life seemed to hold her steady. She needed more courage. Smarts. Time with Quinn.
Six days after the field trip Marley was awakened by her sister shaking her shoulders with both hands.
“Wake up, Marley! You have to get up! They’ve got Quinn!”
Marley threw the covers off and stood up.
“Who? What do you mean?”
“They arrested Quinn…for…for…” Dee’s large blue eyes filled with tears that spilled over and coursed down her face.
“Dee.” Marley whispered. “What’s happened to Quinn…?”
But Dee just wept, then their mother came into the bedroom and shut the door hard, her back against it and hands flattening on it.
“Mom?” Marley moved toward her.
Her mother held open her arms but Marley did not enter them.
“They arrested Quinn this morning for a hit and run accident last night.” She said it fast then bit her bottom lip hard.
“What? That’s crazy. He doesn’t even know how to drive, not really!”
“He got drunk, took his dad’s car out last night. He hit an elderly lady who stepped off the curb…she may not live, baby, she may not make it…”
Marley backed away. “What is this? No, Mom, he doesn’t even drink! I would know if he drank, you know I would know that. He drank once a year ago and got sick. We both did…so you’re wrong, just dead wrong! Quinn would not do that…not ever!” And her voice ended on a note so loud she didn’t feel it hers. “They made a terrible mistake!”
“He is in jail, honey…It was Quinn. I’m so sorry!” Silent tears fell onto her lavender robe. “They have a photo of him from the surveillance camera. When he ran a red light, ran over the curb.” There was a heavy finality to her words. “Arlene, his mom, she called. She knew you would be so…well, he had a bad argument with his dad. I don’t know more than this.”
Dee and their mother came to her, enfolded her in their arms and then everything ripped apart. The room disappeared. Marley found herself swallowed up in the recesses of that dark cave where there was no way out. Not even Quinn would come now. Maybe never again.
Marley set down her diary. There was nothing she could write tonight. She opened her window wider, pushed on the screen with all her might, her body’s full force behind it. The screen relented, fell onto the ground. Marley climbed onto the sill and then jumped down, landing on cool thick grass, bare feet prickled. She pulled her hoodie close and walked across the street. The park was vacant as an empty field, faded by moonlight, still and patient under tree branches as if it knew she was coming. She sat under the plane tree they had hung out so often, Like the day when they’d wrestled and known something was happening to them. It felt terribly long ago, a different time zone when nothing bad had happened and all was sweet, gentle or brash on their lips. Beautiful or silly in their minds. New. It was going to get so good. But not anymore. He had done something she could not have imagined. Not that, nothing like that. Maybe truancy. Maybe a fist fight with someone; he could flame with anger. And his dad, yeah, the man was harsh, he said things like You think too much, feel too much, go lift some weights or punch a punching bag–come here, boy, try me. The ignoramus!
But then Quinn did this? Why why why? There seemed no good answer for something so strange that her very best friend, well, her only Someone, could have done. But Quinn had somehow kept secrets from her, in the end, hadn’t shared vital information. Hadn’t called her first–or last–that night. She’d have gone to him like that!
She could have stopped him, couldn’t she?
Unbearable. Everything withered inside a grip of pain.
Marley got up, walked to the merry-go-round, started it turning, slowly at first, gaining speed little by little, until she leapt on. Hung on with one hand, her tender-tough body flying outward and the other arm flailing, head agog with the moonlit night, soul stuffed with sorrow. Her being taut with blood-deep aching. But there was a small safe place where his heart had found hers long ago.
“Quiiinn!” she called, voice wobbling through treetops. “Quiiinn!”
And through the simmering darkness he did answer her. Marley heard him clear as anything and she understood this much: he would always answer her, no matter what was to come or where they might be. No matter what he had madly done. And could not now be undone.
I was there, yeah. If I had to get technical about it, I’d say I was across the foyer messing around in the music room. That’s where the records are organized and shelved. I was looking for an Eartha Kitt LP. I had a good stack of tunes selected so was only half-listening to the action across the way. Then I turned off the phonograph. Because my Aunt Adriana was involved in something pretty strange across the foyer.
That’s Adriana Whelton, the woman who married Nathan Clees, that’s right, the same Clees who was charged with art fraud. So she divorced him–but she’d never changed her family name. Why would she? “Whelton” means power and money, and the name unlocks doors, then locks down. That happened before I, her niece, was old enough to care. We’ve moved in different circles, as my mom puts it, so it’s taken time.
It was long before this thing happened. I got involved in her personal situation when I was in need of some help. Things would have been different if I hadn’t gone along with her offer. I’d have missed a lot.
Aunt Adriana and I got closer after my father, her brother Grant, died. I was eight. She’d send presents for my birthday and Christmas and she visited between boarding school, then college and travelling. Then came charity work. It seemed odd my father, Grant Whelton, and she were related. He was an odd limb on that tree of royalty, some said. So much Whelton money was disappeared by him that he got cut off the year he married my mother. It occurred to me much later that the Whelton family probably didn’t approve of Mom, either. But Aunt Adriana was her own person and we were okay by her.
Dad had been a gambler, so was possessed by that itch to blow more in the blind hope of winning more. I vaguely remember he had a way with people and me, of course. He took me ice skating on the city rink and pushed me in many park swings. He loved music more than anything and played drums in a pick up band The Haven. He was good, I guess, and his beats sneaked up on my mind now and again. Music might have cemented our bond if he had lived. But no, there was the car accident and that’s all I have to say about that.
So. Aunt Adriana was there. We got tighter. She’d take me out for lunch, not a fancy sit-down place but delis, downtown grills or steak houses, places I loved to eat but seldom did. We went to concerts and museums for “edification” and to open air markets and garden parties for “socialization.” I was a quick study. We’d shop, too. She bought me fire engine red Mary Janes one time. Mom got mad.
“What on earth goes with red?” she asked. “I appreciate it but black or brown ones, please, Adriana.”
“Everything Leelee likes has some red. Plus, it’s more versatile than you think. It pairs well with tan, black, white, grey, navy, yellow, green–”
“No yellow!” I objected.
“Not green, not Christmas combos,” Mom murmured.
“Exactly, she can wear them many occasions. You love them, yes, Leelee?”
“Her name is Leeann, dear.”
“Leelee.” I put a hand on a jutted hip, made a face and was lucky my aunt was there so I avoided a slap on the behind.
Aunt Adriana tried to smooth my edges so I’d “grow up congenial, not just grate on everyone”, but by the time I was fourteen I had stopped seeing her much. I had things to do, new friends to make. Friends who understood my underground anger and newfound laziness, who joined me in small acts of rebellion. Nothing big, just nighttime trespassing on country club grounds (the same one I’d been inside of many times) or stealing objects that fit neatly in pockets like drugstore lipstick or gum or a necklace.
We’d take turns trying to steal celebrity magazines. Only one girl got away with it, and then the pharmacist started after her as she left, magazines rolled under each arm. Three of us were across the street on a park bench so just watched her run like a rabbit. She wasn’t caught. But I wasn’t so keen on reading them later. I kept seeing that man, leaning over with hands on knees, shaking his pale bald head, panting. I knew all the filched stuff cost him. You have to know right from wrong to grow up in one piece. I wished I could be somebody seriously good. But meantime I tried out a wilder side; tough girls weren’t boring. It distracted me from my mother and her new guy. I felt you had to check out things not so good for you to be clear about what’s better. You have to take risks to learn, right?
I asked that of Aunt Adriana. She pressed her long finger tipped with a silvery nail into her dimpled cheek, then squinted at me. “I think you’re looking for a reason to justify behavior you shouldn’t be doing.”
“Don’t ‘what’ me, Leelee. You’re up to something sketchy. I don’t see you enough.”
“I’m fine, Aunt Adriana. Good friends, doing fine in, forming my own identity!” I knew that sounded good.
“Nonsense. Your grades may be okay for now but word is your friends are trouble. How can you go to a school that has nearly two thousand students and pluck out three who are bad apples? You have no good reason for this. Your mom’s boyfriend, while not the man I would choose for her, is okay and she is not your problem, either. You are. Time’s wasting, Leelee. I need you near me this summer.”
“Summer? That’s when I can actually have fun, when my friends and me–”
–friends and ‘I’–”
“–we can play tennis, swim every day, hang out, uh, maybe study boys.”
“You’ll do all that at my place. It’s settled. You’re coming to the city and after you demonstrate the capacity to revert to a more courteous, mentally engaged, capable young woman–only then will I consider taking you somewhere fabulous.” She winked at me, a thing we did. “You know I play great tennis and swim. We’ll go to the club. There are a few good-looking boys there, too, if you care.”
“Really, they’re mostly stupid. But…I guess.”
My aunt informed her. “Leelee needs firm but gentle correcting, not harsher rules. Hand her over to me and I’ll see to it.”
I was surprised it was that simple, my mom fed up then my aunt taking control. There was no good way out and frankly, it was a relief. I had dreaded nothing much good happening, getting in more fixes in the end. But I sulked about it, anyway.
And I loved her spacious, pretty house, though I never made a fuss about it to her face.
“I can manage without your help.”
Aunt Adriana crossed her arms over a crisp white blouse–she looked so good in something that simple–swept up to the armchair I was wedged in and loomed over me.
“You’re about to learn finer points of living well, Miss Leeann. It starts June 26 and ends August 26. Sit up straight. I’ll get us iced teas with fresh lemon. We have plans to discuss.”
Seventeen years older than me, youngish but also old enough to take an upper hand and get away with it. She worried about me, showered me with attention as she saw fit and encouraged me. My old friends wished they could have such an aunt. The new ones thought she was snob who wouldn’t recognize real life even if it was spelled out in bold letters.
We had over two good weeks of outdoor activities. I helped her with a charity event, too. We went out for breakfast every couple days and she loaned me grown up books. We both had the start of sweet tans from daily swims in her pool. I wondered why I’d avoided her for a couple of years and she wondered why she’d let me. I even listened to her advice–she had ideas, experiences that were fascinating. But I didn’t understand one thing she said.
“Leelee, you are the kid I will probably never have…I just couldn’t do this full-time…and you know I love you. So keep in mind that we have to bear with each other sometimes, be patient with our faults.”
I was in the pool so shaded my eyes to better see her face. There was a shadow of sadness making her forehead crease, but it passed.
Then one more carefree, bright day arrived and brought with it a man. Douglas. He picked her up for lunch. She hadn’t warned me. In fact, she’d only mentioned him in passing, one more name among others on her contacts list. I was working on some dance moves in front of my closet mirror when the door chimes peeled out. Muffled voices drifted up.
I peered down from a curved balcony above the foyer. A man with a gaunt face and wide jaw, wearing tan slacks, a black polo shirt straining against his pecs, black loafers on big feet. He took up the whole doorway. Who was this clown? An eyebrow rose as he glanced up, saw me, put his arm about her waist. Obnoxious, the whole thing.
“Come down, Leelee–meet Douglas!” Aunt Adriana called out to me with a cheery voice.
Too chirpy for her, I thought, but dutifully descended the staircase and held out my hand. He shook mine as if it was a man’s. You might say he was a caricature, aka “right hand thug of mob boss but better manners”. Better dressed. As he walked I noticed as he had a sort of natural, wild grace; I imagined he was athletic. But he smiled at me without showing teeth.
Douglas felt all wrong being close to my aunt and eyeing the place.
They saw each other every Tuesday and Thursday for lunch after that, and sometimes Sunday nights. I didn’t mind her being gone–I had things to do. I didn’t trust him. Not with my aunt.
So why did she?
She told me after the third time they went out: “He’s a tennis pro at Westside Club but he also has an economics degree. He is trying to start up a business. For now he’s a hoot to hang out with.”
I looked up from the magazine I was reading, gave a big fake smile. “He’s, um…different. Not right for you.”
Her mouth twisted as if she was biting back words but she only said: “It’s a summer thing, Leelee, a few laughs. I can do that; I’m a grown up.”
“But maybe he has another agenda.” I liked getting to use that word.
“How frank of you to allude to money right up front.”
“Well? Big surprise!”
“You know so little about the male of the species, Leelee.”
“And I should watch you and learn all about it?” I really wanted to tell her she was stupid to spend one more minute with him, he was a goon, so felt good about holding back.
“Don’t be rude! He’s just a…well, he’s a very attractive man!” She flounced off, coral and white dress swishing as she hurried up the stairs.
Time passed. They got chummier. I felt like chunks of our family time were falling off the calendar. That man was sure trying to get on her good side. But I had sports, a couple of friends at the club, three books to read just because. It was a huge gift to be there. How could you not love so much free fun? Except for golf, which I truly and deeply resented despite my aunt wanting to convert me.
Aunt Adriana seemed distracted a little more after each date but said nothing. She had her private life despite my claim on her. It was another world she inhabited; I was a visitor in it. But an anxious feeling trailed her at times. I worried, then let it go. I was only the Teen-ager; she, the Adult.
One Sunday night Douglas came by and I chatted with them before they left. He seemed impatient; she seemed bothered. Up close I noticed he had a dark half-moon scar on his right cheek; his tan was too tan, as if covering up more. On his right hand was a gold ring with a chunky diamond. Had that always been there? I wondered if she’d given it to him.
They took off. I reheated spaghetti and meatballs from the night before. We had gone to Salvatore’s. Aunt Adriana and I had talked over where we’d go before school since she determined I’d improved my ways. She’d suggested Chicago for school shopping and I was floored.
Then I asked her. “How’s it going with ole Douglas?”
Her blue, hooded eyes blinked. “Why? He’s fine.” She took a taste of her wine, then a gulp. “Just dandy.”
I backed off and she chattered about how glorious “windy city” was and soon we’d be there for a whole week-end. That was serious cause to keep behaving.
So, then. That night it was about ten o-clock when I headed to the music room. I searched through my aunt’s huge collection for Eartha Kitt, a forbidden singer in my house where Sinatra and Rosemary Clooney reigned or, worse, cheesy classical. I had developed a taste for classic jazz and blues due to my aunt’s interest. It spoke to me lately. I was studying liner notes when the front door opened and Aunt Adriana’s high heels clicked along the marble floor. I thought about going out to say hello. The room’s French doors were partly open and I didn’t hide, I was just looking at records. They moved toward the formal living room, a surprise since they usually went to the library or kitchen. His voice was a bass rumble. Hers was louder as she asked a question–her words ended on an upswing. Then silence. I found my LP but realized it was Billie Holiday I was looking for, after all. The song, “Good Morning Heartache.” A winner.
Their voices rose as I turned on the vintage stereo so I stopped. Douglas was yelling at her and she yelled back, her voice a sharp stab in the air. It was a shock to hear her; for a second I thought another woman had slipped in the place. I moved to the doors, opened them more and was still.
“I am not giving you any more. You make your own. You will have to invest your own. I have my priorities and you are not one of my charities despite your delusion. And I am not a loan officer.” Aunt Adriana gave each word weight, as if explaining something to a kid.
“But from the start you knew the situation. You knew I needed more to move forward. You were interested! You kept me on a leash all this time? And now you’re going to tell me to sit and beg–or kiss off?”
“I have had better behaved dogs–you’re totally incorrigible!”
“You listen to me, Adriana Whelton–my time is well overdue!”
There were muffled sounds, a pause, massive thud against a wall. My skin prickled. I opened the doors, entered the glossy foyer.
“A deal is a deal!”
“Douglas, I did not plan on this, was barely even an interested party!”
“But I owe too much!”
“Oh, well! As I told my brother, tough luck, not one bit is that my problem. Not one cent.” Her voice came out a growl, and it carried across the foyer with gale force. As if she was the mob boss in this scene.
“Aw, come on!”
I decided I should just let her deal with him. She knew plenty about money and gambling and men; she could handle things. But Douglas scared me more, his size, his anger. Then the crash came, objects breaking, then Aunt Adriana’s scream. Another thud, another crash. My heart squeezed as I grabbed a candelabra from a side table and dashed across the slick marble floor, sliding right into the wood-floored living room and nearly falling. I caught myself and stood strong as I could.
I thought I’d find her sprawled on the floor. But it was him. In her right hand was a big shard from a tall heavy glass vase, the one that had held white peonies and blue hydrangeas atop the fireplace mantle. He lay moaning opposite her, one leg falling off the sofa, head bloodied. Fear snagged my breath.
I pulled at her forearm, the one being tatooed by thin red lines of blood. But she stood as if deaf. Pale high heels set apart as if cemented to that spot, lacy sweater falling off her diminutive shoulders, chin pushed up. Her mind and body were prepared for a charging beast but there were none. He now sat on the Persian carpet next to the ruined vase, holding a handkerchief to his forehead. He did not look near death; his face bore astonishment.
This was a woman I did not know, either, even when she turned her head to me, until her mouth formed a tiny acknowledging smile. I shivered, felt a bit faint with relief and shock.
“Do not call the police, dear Leelee. Douglas is leaving the premises of his own accord.”
He got to his feet slowly and backed away from her, shouting things I will not repeat. My aunt tossed him a black shiny wallet which apparently he had taken out in gleeful anticipation. He glowered but was glumly silent as she pointed to the front door, her injured hand aloft as if dripping with fine family jewels, not rivulets of life blood.
That was it. I helped her clean and bandage her hand, less serious than it had looked. She reassured me Douglas would go home and do the same, then lick his proverbial wounds; he wasn’t a complete fool. She was rid of him, she had the power and influence to get him fired, to puncture his dreams of being an entrepreneur if she chose. She was so certain of her victory that I relaxed. My aunt soon calmed, seemed herself as we drank tea on her bedroom balcony.
She smoothed my hair back from my face and sighed. “I have a weakness for trouble, too, Leelee. Well, for men who can be trouble…There you have it. I haven’t learned all I should yet. I suspect it takes a lifetime.”
But in bed that night I lay wide awake, wondering about her. Who she really was. How she managed to do what she did. I hadn’t quite sorted it out, the right and wrong of things. But she had stood up for herself, warded off danger. I wanted that confidence at the very least. She’d been so good to me and others but she could be that badass as needed, right? Well, that’s my Adriana, and I’m her niece so we share genes. This is part of our story, thus far. I sure am ready for more.
An imperturbable demeanor comes from perfect patience. Quiet minds cannot be perplexed or frightened, but go on in fortune and misfortune at their own private pace like a clock during a thunderstorm.—Robert Louis Stevenson
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