1,15 - tess
Why do I think about that night so often now? Picturing moments from it, recalling impressions, feelings, as if I could reach through remembrance and retrieve myself from the past. These snapshot memories: Zach watching me, his hair across his face again, as I talked about my year in the city; the benches at Coma Jump, wood worn smooth, next to my leg an MW+KD ‘89 etched inside a scratched-on heart; night sky dark blue out to the edges, L.A. alive with light below.
We were there, Zach and I, talking for hours, looking out over the city. And then the sun rose. It feels like a dream of us. Happy together, oblivious. And that’s why I think about it, remembering. Look at us. We don’t know anything yet. It’s the other side of all that happened after.
Sometimes I want to go back to that night but I know I can’t. I want to close my eyes. I can’t.
When I remember everything it comes to life again. All of it living on now nowhere else except right here.
Let’s face it the “date” with Zach was a failure, not at all a romantic evening out but something else, something that, after all, I think I liked better. And it was probably my fault. I hadn’t planned on telling him so much. I don’t even know why it happened. Maybe I understood that Zach would listen. Maybe I just needed to tell the story, to hear myself tell it to another person. Ever since I’d come back to Park Heights I hadn’t even considered dating or been interested in anyone. It was like it was a necessity, telling Zach about L.A.—and maybe then, after I’d finished the story, maybe I’d be able to re-start this part of me I’d been forced to shut down and pack away. And I was right about Zach. He followed everything I said so intently, the perfect listener, the perfect confessor. He took my hand and we held hands for a long time.
Even after my major downer soliloquy the two of us kept on talking. It was easy. We talked about movies, music. He talked about his Senior year. I talked about the customers I met at my job. A shift had taken place throughout the night, in me at least—I wasn’t sure what he was feeling—but I knew now that I wasn’t in love with him, I knew I would never fall in love with him. It didn’t matter. We were close in some other way now, and that was what I wanted.
The dawn was done—we had watched the sun come up, a quiet unfolding of yellow-red light into low, pale clouds—and the day was brighter now, too bright and too harsh for the two of us who’d been up all night. We were making our way back to Zach’s car, holding hands like little kids.
“Thank you,” I said to him.
“You’re welcome?” he said uncertainly. “For what?”
“I don’t know what that was, to tell you the truth.”
“It was great.”
He was shaking his head. “But it wasn’t really a date.”
“No, it wasn’t.” I looked at him. “Does that bother you?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know. Not really. I don’t think I’ve ever just spent time like that… with someone like you.”
“As messed up as me, you mean.”
“No, of course I don’t mean that. You’re a deep person. You’re really something. That’s what I mean.”
When we got to his car I stopped him and pulled him closer. We kissed. Or rather, I kissed him, and I think he was surprised by it. I’m not sure why I did it. To show him what the night meant to me. Maybe even to test what I felt, to give that spark between us one last chance to kindle into something.
And the kiss was chaste. It was sweet; it was tender. It would be the one and only kiss we’d have and I’m sure we both knew it.
“Thank you,” I said, brushing the hair back from his eyes. “I mean it.”
Zach didn’t say anything. He started his car and drove me home.
I wouldn’t see him again until the night of the fundraiser at Arcyn.
A few days later I opened the mailbox at home to find an invitation to the fundraiser. It was a beautiful thing, a heavy cream-colored envelope with my name written in flowing calligraphy across the front. Inside there was a thick card, the invitation itself, also written in sweeping, graceful strokes of jet-black ink.
For the Wellness Centre
Admittance: Tess Bellamy
My iPhone started ringing at almost the exact moment the invitation was out of the envelope and in my hand. It was Linna.
“Did you get it?” she said.
“If you’re talking about the invitation to Nightfall, yes,” I said, “yes I did, just right now. It’s a little bit like you’re watching me or reading my mind or something.”
“I promise I’m not,” Linna said seriously. “Honestly this fundraiser has been really poorly planned. There wasn’t even a theme until I suggested one. Do you like it? Nightfall….” She said the word again in in a husky, mysterious voice, stretching it out, “Nightfall….”
“I do like it.”
“Well you’re on the VIP guest list. Free drinks for you all night.”
“There’s just one catch. You have to wear something dead sexy.”
“Because it’s fun.”
“Because you’re stunningly beautiful but you don’t think so. Because you’ll be the Belle of the Ball. Honestly,” she concluded, “I fucking can’t wait to see all the guys there lose their minds when you show up.”
“I don’t know, Linna.”
“Nope. No discussion. Dead sexy. That’s it.”
I sighed. Where was I going to get something like that to wear to the fundraiser? I didn’t have anything. I wondered if Linna was going to say she’d picked something out for me—considering what she’d done with the blouse for my date with Zach, I was ready to reject her help—but that didn’t happen. I reminded myself not to let go of the incident with the blouse. Linna needed to explain herself to me and I was starting to understand she had a talent for slipping out of apologies, explanations, consequences.
“Okay, I gotta go,” Linna said hurriedly. “I’m sorry I haven’t had a chance to hang out with you lately.”
“That’s alright,” I laughed.
“I’ll have more time soon. After Nightfall’s over.”
Off the phone, I turned around and ran into my mom hurrying down the entrance hall to the front door. She didn’t even see that I was there until she stepped right onto my foot. She recoiled, blinking. It felt like I’d just caught her being up to no good.
“You’re headed somewhere in a rush,” I said.
“I’m late, yes, for a meeting at the Centre.”
“That new group you’re part of?” I asked. She nodded, and brushed past me. “Mom,” I continued as she went out the door, “Mom, wait. I need your help.”
She stopped. “With what?”
“The fundraiser at Arycn. Nightfall. I’ve been invited to it and I need something to wear!” The last few words may have come out more desperately whiny than I had intended.
My mom sighed. “I know that.”
“You know I’m going? Or you know I need something to wear?”
“Both, of course.” She came toward me suddenly, quickly, so that I couldn’t move back fast enough. Her arms went around me. Just like that we were hugging. It wasn’t something that happened a lot anymore. After the hug she held me at arm’s length. “Look at you,” she said. “So lovely.” She nodded to herself. “Yes. It’s just perfect.” Then she whirled around and went out the door.
“What’s perfect?” I shouted after her.
“Go look in my bedroom!” she shouted back. “It’s hanging on the closet door! I put it there for you!” She got in the taxi that was waiting for her and I could see her gesticulating wildly at the driver, who sped away, tires squealing.
I went into her bedroom and opened the closet. I stood there for a moment.
It was the dress. Her dress.
I lifted the hanger off the hook and took the dress to my room. In the bottom drawer of one of my dressers I had stashed away all kinds of things from the past, from my life, from my mom’s. I found what I was looking for, a popular Hollywood gossip magazine from the ‘80s. Flipping the pages, I came to the photo spread I’d been thinking of. Some party in Beverly Hills. And there they were, walking by the pool together, Amen Auf Der Nacht and my very young mother. He was like a giant next to her. His long red-blond hair was bizarrely and wildly overgrown around his squarish, Frankenstein-like face. My mom was in this very same black mini dress, there was no doubt about it: the same plunging neckline, the same thigh-revealing high hem. She was gorgeous.
I put the dress on.
Looking in the mirror. It could have been her. We were that much alike.
Except for one thing.
A lot has been written about her. About how, in those Amen Auf Der Nacht movies, her expression never changes. No matter what insanity takes place, no matter what horrifying thing happens to her, there’s an emptiness in her eyes and she expresses no emotion. One biography of Amen Auf Der Nacht suggested that she was hypnotized, every day, on the set. Critics wrote that this empty expression was a blank canvas onto which the director projected his world of magical terror. Other critics wrote, unkindly, that Barbara Bellamy was simply a bad actress, an empty-headed girl with a blank stare.
I don’t look like that.
It was a Monday and the fundraiser was taking place that Friday night. For the rest of the week Park Heights was buzzing about it. Everyone had received the invitations they had paid for or, like me, had suddenly found themselves on the guest list. I heard from a few people that there was a Celebrity Masquerade going on at the party. Surprise guests would be there in costume, masked—famous people who were connected to the Wellness Centre—and party-goers could place secret bets on their identities. The highest correct bet for each Celebrity would win a prize, and the proceeds of all of this would go directly to the Wellness Centre.
Mona Wrightson, my boss at Green Machine, was especially thrilled about it all. On Tuesday I was at the store, in between deliveries. All day she’d been talking excitedly to me and to every customer we’d had that day about the fundraiser.
“The thing is,” she said to me, “I’ve got a little something up my sleeve for the night.” She winked and grinned, all mischief. “I’m bringing a date and it’s going to cause some trouble.”
“Mona,” I said, “what are you planning?”
“Well you know how the Wellness Centre is always at war with the Arts Nexus. So I’m showing up with Jerilene Davis.” I made an appropriate expression of shock and awe. Mona repeated it for effect: “Jerilene. Davis.”
In fact I knew Jerilene Davis quite well. She had been the Director of the Arts Nexus for years. I haunted the Arts Nexus frequently during middle school and early high school, taking improv and acting classes, painting, sculpture, writing—basically I took whatever they offered. It was something my mom approved of and a place to get away from her. I had always thought that Jerilene was one of the coolest ladies around. I spent hours putting my hair in dozens of little braids once because her dreadlocks are the best.
“Are you guys actually… dating… or you’re just taking her to Arcyn to cause trouble?”
Mona blushed. “Well, truth be told, I think it started out with me trying to stir the pot a little. But, you know, weirdly enough, something might be going on between us after all.” Mona looked down, avoiding my gaze. “It’s been a long time, for me, you know. Not since Karen.”
“Jerilene is one of my favorite people in Park Heights,” I said to Mona.
“Yeah,” she said, “she’s one of mine too, apparently.”
Just then a woman, a stranger, came into Green Machine. Both Mona and I broke off our conversation to look at her. She wore a dark blue suit jacket over matching dress pants; sunglasses hid her eyes even though it was overcast outside. She came right up to the front counter where Mona and I were talking, removing the sunglasses to reveal a stern expression on an exotically attractive face. She nodded briskly at us in a distinctly masculine manner.
Then she showed us a polished, shining FBI badge. She said, “My name is Agent Mehta. I’d like to ask you a few questions, if you have a moment.”
Mona’s eyes went wide. “Oh,” she said, “oh, why, is something wrong?”
Agent Mehta said nothing at first and then responded unexpectedly with her own questions. “It's not a surprise that something might be wrong? Are you thinking of something specific that might be wrong?”
Mona looked at me and then back at the FBI agent. She crossed her arms over her chest; her chin tilted up slightly so that she was looking down at the other woman. “That’s a weird thing to ask. Nothing’s wrong here. If you have questions about something, go ahead. Otherwise, we’re very busy.” I almost laughed: I’d never before had a chance to see Mona channeling her deep-rooted vegan hippie’s mistrust and defiance of any and all authority figures.
Agent Mehta blinked rapidly. Then she did something interesting. I’m pretty sure I saw in her eyes the moment she decided to change tactics—to me it seemed somewhat frighteningly calculated, but Mona responded instantly to it. Agent Mehta smiled warmly at Mona, the stern demeanor melting away, and she moved forward and actually put her hand right on Mona’s arm.
“I’m so sorry,” she said, in a friendlier, more human voice, “I get caught up with this badge and with the job and I forget to talk to people like they’re people, you know?” Agent Mehta appeared to take in a deep, steadying breath. “Your store here is so nice, and I’m going to pick up some things. I’m staying at the Evergreen Motel and you know how it is, eating on the road.”
I’ll admit that Agent Mehta was a woman with some true classical beauty to her, and her smile was radiant. Certainly it worked on Mona. “Oh, don’t worry about it,” Mona responded. “I’m happy to help you pick out some energy bars. We’ve got awesome kale salads to go, too, Agent Mehta.”
“Call me Priya, please.”
“Sure. I’m Mona.”
Agent Mehta turned toward me. “And who’s this?”
“Oh, this is Tess, our Delivery Maven.”
I shook Agent Mehta’s hand. Wrenchingly strong grip.
“So let me get work out of the way,” she said. “Have you girls noticed anything strange going on in Park Heights, anything at all? Like a break in someone’s routine… someone new in town… or perhaps someone you know behaving a little differently these days and you don’t know why….”
“Goodness,” Mona said.
“Not really,” I said.
“Well, business as usual’s a good thing,” Agent Mehta offered.
“What is it that you’re looking for, exactly?” I asked her.
“I’m not exactly at liberty to say, Tess.”
Then Mona came out with it. “Well we’ve both noticed some strange behavior going on at the Mayfair. Karen Day and Jennifer Garris run the B&B there.”
“Oh yes?” Agent Mehta said. Suddenly she had a small tablet in her hand and was taking notes on it with a stylus. “Go on.”
Mona looked at me. It was like she’d ratted someone out and was already regretting it. “I don’t know if it’s anything. Probably it isn’t. But they’ve closed their business for the moment. Really cut back on their deliveries, too,” she said, looking over at me for support.
“Tess, have you noticed this as well? They’re acting strangely over there?”
I shrugged. “I don’t think anything’s that strange, but yeah they did close up the B&B, I guess. Jenny said that an old friend of Karen’s is staying with them.”
“I know that Karen doesn’t keep up with ‘old friends’ at all,” Mona added. “So when I heard Tess tell me this I thought it was unusual. And they never close the B&B, Jenny and Karen, it’s what Jenny loves to do.”
Agent Mehta nodded once, curtly. “Thank you, girls.” She’d stowed her tablet back into an inside suit jacket pocket. “That could prove helpful. But it’s probably nothing to concern yourself over. Now, where are those kale salads you were talking about?”
“I should get to work,” I said, glancing over at the boxes of deliveries, now untouched by me for far too long.
There was another customer lingering in the store, looking over the small selection of gardening books and vegetarian cookbooks that Mona kept on a shelf at the front. He was dressed, like Agent Mehta, in a dark suit that was carefully neutral of style. He had been watching us, listening to us, I could tell. Obviously he was Agent Mehta’s partner. His head turned and our eyes met for a moment. He was older than Agent Mehta, in his late 40s or early 50s, anyway there was a lot of white in his neatly-trimmed beard and in his close-cut dark hair. Though he wasn’t a tall man, there was a presence to him. He seemed somehow more dangerous than Agent Mehta, more capable, yet when our eyes met, his gaze wasn’t unfriendly. It felt a little like he knew all about me already.
I went around behind the counter—Mona had headed off to the display crisper with Agent Mehta in tow—and I hefted up a few of the delivery boxes in a stack. When I came back around, the older man in the suit had moved into the way.
“Allow me to help,” he said.
“No, it’s okay, it’s my job.”
“Well, alright then,” I said, unceremoniously dumping my stack of boxes into his arms. “I’m going out the back of the store, to my car. You can follow me.”
I got the rest of the boxes from behind the counter. The older man trailed behind me as we went through the back and into the little parking lot. My Roadmaster pretty much took up two spots. I kicked the back hatch on a rust spot near the handle: it opened, creaking. We set the boxes in and I arranged them.
“Thanks!” I said to the man.
He handed me a business card. Beneath the blue and gold circular seal of the FBI—the little banners under the crest said Fidelity, Bravery, Integrity—I read his name: Special Agent Juan Garcia Madero.
“My cell number,” he said simply. “If you need anything, don’t hesitate to call.” Then he went back into the store.
Honestly, what did he think I was going to need? And what the hell were FBI agents doing in Park Heights?
As I hauled open the front door of the station wagon, I looked across to the street and I saw Charlie Mill there, standing next to his BMX, watching me. I hadn’t seen him since that day when I’d decided to get out of my car and intervene with Linna, though since then I’d been thinking about him here and there. That Luchador wrestling mask. It was eerie. I recalled again what Kevin had told me and I realized that, even though I knew something had happened to Charlie in high school, I didn’t know what it was exactly. No-one in Park Heights seemed to want to discuss it.
Right at that moment I resolved to talk to him. I imagined myself crossing the street and going up to him, saying hello just like I might have years ago, when I was sitting down at the desk in front of his desk at the start of Junior year Chemistry class.
Except I didn’t. The moment passed and I hadn’t moved, hadn’t worked up the nerve to do it. Charlie turned away from me and got on his BMX and rode away. And I turned back to my work and got in the station wagon.
I smiled. First on the delivery list, written in Mona’s looping handwriting, was the name Kevin Cho. The only time he over ordered anything was when he wanted to talk to me. I drove to his mother’s house and parked in their driveway. Looking into the paper bag I was delivering to him, I saw that Kevin had ordered a six pack of Handcrafted Cream Soda and two bags of high-end, organic Kettle chips. These were really the closest things to junk food that Green Machine had in stock.
“There she is,” Kevin called down to me. He was seated on the top step of the rickety stairs leading up to his above-the-garage loft. “I’ve been waiting hours for this snack,” he complained.
“If I’d known I was bringing you stuff I would have thrown in some apples or got you a Jumbo Smoothie from Crazies.” I carried his bag up the stairs to the top. “Not to be all mom-like but you look weird.”
Kevin stood up and took the bag from me. There really were dark half-moon pockets under his eyes. “Just busy,” he shrugged. “You’re coming to White Mask tonight, right?”
“Oh, right.” I had forgotten all about the show. “For sure I am.”
“And I got a call from Will Severand. He booked that new band I’m working with, Tryst, for the big party up at the mansion.”
“That’s cool,” I said.
“Are you going to this thing? Now that you’re best friends with Linna Severand I figured you’d be there.”
“Yup. Sure am. I’m a VIP, too. I drink for free.”
“Swanky.” Kevin was holding his bag of kettle chips and cream soda as if he didn’t really want it. It looked like he needed to tell me something but didn’t know where to start.
“Everything okay with you?” I said.
He took in a deep breath and let it out. “I have to talk to you about your mom, Tess.”
I froze a little, then forced myself to relax. Might be nothing. “You can talk to me about anything, you know that.”
“I know. I just… I don’t like to get involved… or saying negative things about people. You never know how they’re going to react.”
I laughed. “Kevin, come on, it’s me.” He wasn’t acting like himself and I was starting to worry. “Well what is it? What’s going on.” I paused. “What did my mom do this time?”
“Nothing like that, Tess. But it might be serious. I’m not sure. There’s something at the Wellness Centre. A new group. It’s called the Circle. From what I’ve gathered it’s some sort of New Age-y healing bullshit thing.”
“Doesn’t sound that bad.”
“No,” he said emphatically. “No. On the surface, it’s nothing. But… well, this Circle seems to be growing fast. They’ve taken over 101 Wing. And… well I don’t know what it is, but I’m pretty sure something’s not quite right.”
I grimaced. “I’ll talk to my mom. I’m sure it’s nothing, Kevin.”
He nodded absently. “Maybe.”
“You seem really spooked about it.”
“I am, it’s true. Make sure you talk to your mom.”
“I will.” I sighed. “But I have to go. Deliveries. Thanks for letting me know. My mom’s been going to the Wellness Centre all the time, in fact, now that I think about it. So you’re probably right, it’s worth bringing up with her.”
“Tess!” he called after me as I was heading back to my car. “Don’t forget! White Mask tonight! Bring Linna! The band misses her!”
White Mask was playing at Kultur, a new music venue in a converted old movie theater near Sunset Junction in Silver Lake. It would probably cease to exist in a few months, there had been a few failed venues in the same place already. I spent a ridiculous amount of my Green Machine paycheck on a cab into the city, mostly just to avoid having to try to park the Roadmaster somewhere, and I went a little early too so I could do some shopping in all the hipster boutiques throughout the Silver Lake area.
Kultur looked like it was being run by a Marxist collective that was about to collapse. The two guys sitting at a particleboard table in the lobby—both of them sported identical goatees—didn’t even disengage from their argument about queer feminist theory as they stamped wrists and dumped ripped tickets into a fishing tackle box.
I hadn’t come with Linna and I wasn’t meeting her there—she had said she was busy—but I wasn’t going to be abandoned by Severands, after all. As I headed from the coat check toward the doors to the venue, there was Will Severand, waiting for me by the bar with a beer in each hand. He was severely over-dressed for the occasion in what looked like an Armani shirt and tie and pants, Paul Smith dress shoes. It made an impression.
“Linna told me to come,” he said, “and she told me to buy you a drink.”
“Mission accomplished,” I said back to him. “Your fake ID must be pretty realistic.”
“I don’t ever get carded,” he said easily. He was in fact a mature-looking high school Senior. There was definitely a quality about him, that he might just be older than you thought at first—like his father Marius, the two of them were agelessly difficult to pin down. Not for the first time I wondered what was going on with me and these younger guys, Zach and now Will.
He was talking. “Linna said this band’s really good, too. Hip hop/funk music, right? It’s not really my thing.”
I was taking a sip of the beer and I almost expelled a mouthful over the floor. “Is that what Linna told you? That White Mask is a funk band?”
“Let me guess,” he said, “they’re actually a country band. Or a string quartet. Or anything other than what Linna said.”
“Something like that,” I said, and I saw that my noncommittal response evinced a slight frown from Will, which was satisfying.
I’m not sure why but Will’s appearance at the show was bothering me. I was realizing that I’d actually been a bit relieved when Linna said she wasn’t coming. Being on my own in Silver Lake—an area of L.A. I never explored when I lived here but now thought of as more my own neighborhood than anywhere else in the city—and coming out to support White Mask, it was all a little like escaping Linna’s sphere of influence and re-entering my own life, for a time. And now here was Will Severand plying me with drinks.
There was something else. As soon as I saw him there at the bar I couldn’t get out of my mind what he’d said to me as I was leaving Arcyn that night, when I’d met him for the first time. We’d been talking about my mom, and then he’d said, But you, Tess, she’s got nothing on how beautiful you are. The words had barely registered to me, then. And now, frustratingly, because I'd been enjoying being alone, those words echoed.
“Why don’t we go in?” I suggested, thinking there’d be less opportunity for conversation once White Mask got started. They were the first band of four on the bill, not that I planned on staying for all four.
“Sure,” Will said, following me.
We were there just in time. The stage had darkened. A few of the growing number of quiet, intense White Mask fans were already on the floor, separated from the others; everyone else was hanging back, observing the time-honored tradition of giving absolutely nothing to the opening band. I turned and looked at the back of the room and Kevin was there at the sound board. He gave me a stupid grin and two thumbs-up, whatever that meant.
An aggressive electronic bass beat rose out of the speakers and feedback fell in layers from guitars over top of it. I suddenly regretted not bringing earplugs.
The lights came on in a blinding flash and Frantz was there at the microphone stand, appearing out of nothing. He was covered in gold glitter, from the woman’s blond wig he was wearing—gold glitter paint slopped over his shirtless torso and black spandex pants—to the toes of insanely-high golden platform shoes that I was sure he would launch into the crowd with a kick. When did White Mask go all glam, I thought, expecting them to dive right into a Bowie cover. Instead they played a single 25 minute song in which Frantz became the only thing worth seeing on the planet. His tortured performance went from wordless howls to screaming, flailing, manic dancing. I think he was reciting something in Sanskrit. At one point he collapsed onto the stage then sprang right back up like a de-strung puppet. It was electrifying. I felt sorry for all the other bands on the bill.
Will Severand had actually taken a step back away from the stage when Frantz opened up the performance with an ear-splitting roar, wrapped around the microphone stand. Something about that pleased me, Will’s look of total shock.
After the set we went back out to the lobby and Will bought two more beers. “That was insane!” he exclaimed.
“Did you like it though?” I was inwardly readying myself to get angry at him if he said no, even though I was of two minds about White Mask, not really a fan of the music, if what they did could be called music, though seeing them live was something else.
Will, surprisingly, was more than into it. “Oh man, yes. I loved it! Maybe because I was expecting a folk band or something. No, it was amazing. I had no idea anyone was doing anything like that. Just, wow.” He interrupted himself. “Hey, there’s a rooftop patio in this place, I wouldn’t mind getting some fresh air after that.”
I shrugged. “Yeah, sure.”
A narrow flight of stairs went up to a second story, another lobby area with a bar; on one side there was access to a venue balcony, and off to our left there was an open door with a breeze coming through it. The sign above said in faux-Cyrillic blocky letters: Outsideski. The rooftop patio was surprisingly spacious. Miniature trees in terracotta pots separated benches and a few picnic tables into discreet hang-out zones. Will went instead to the edge of the patio. We put our beer bottles on a weatherbeaten wooden counter that ran along the chest-high railing, looking down at taxis and motorbikes and smart-cars darting around double-parked traffic on Santa Monica Boulevard.
Will was looking at me, measuring my response to us being together. “I’m glad I came out to this tonight,” he said.
“White Mask is pretty awesome,” I said back.
“I’m getting the feeling that you’re just sort of tolerating me being here, I have to say.”
“I don’t know about that.”
He laughed. “That wasn’t a no.”
I met his eyes. He and Linna looked so much alike, of course—they were, both of them, perfectly beautiful human specimens—yet I was beginning to see the differences, too. Will’s eyes were a much darker brown, almost black. And there was none of Linna’s almost hostile disaffection in Will’s expression. He had the same confidence, but it was plain to see he cared about what I thought. When I’d first met Will I’d been surprised at just how identical his looks were to Linna; already now it felt to me that the differences were more important.
“Tess,” he said suddenly into the silence between us, “I have to apologize for something.”
“Okay…” I said.
“I said some strange things when we met, at Arcyn, that night when you dropped Linna off at the house.” Yes, I thought, you did, but you and Linna are nothing if not strange. I didn’t say this out loud, though, and Will went on after the pause. “In particular I told you not to trust Zach.”
“Yeah,” I said, “I remember.”
“Which I regretted the instant I said it.”
“So why did you say it?” I wasn’t going to let him off the hook. Not a chance.
He didn’t look away from me like most people would have when admitting fault or guilt. “I didn’t want you to get to know Zach. I wanted you for myself.”
His direct, unreadable gaze was unnerving in so many ways. I chose to ignore it. “So you just lied to me, outright. Easily.”
“I did, yes. And the worst thing is that nothing could be further from the truth. Zach is a fantastic guy. No-one’s more trustworthy than he is.”
“But you couldn’t be friends with someone like that,” I said. Finally Will blinked and looked away. “So you broke it off with him. What was it, he made you look bad?” Maybe I was being hard on Will but I found myself furious at him all out of proportion to the moment.
Will was slow to answer, and his voice was quieter. “I was told by my father to cut Zach out of my life.”
“What?” I shook my head. “I don’t understand that at all.”
“Zach was too close to Linna. We were protecting Linna.”
“And you just blindly followed your father’s orders? You could have talked to Zach. ‘My sister’s off-limits, man,’ or something like that.”
“My father is a very all-or-nothing kind of authority figure.”
I was still shaking my head. “And you told me that you didn’t know Dylan at all. But you go to school with him!”
“At that moment, and this is the truth, I honestly didn’t know who you were talking about,” Will said. “Dylan and I have some classes together, we do, but I don’t know him. We’re not friends. I’ve maybe said two words to him all through school. I’m not….” Will considered his words, “I’m not someone that makes friends. I keep to myself. Zach was… Zach is… someone I treasured, in my life. I miss him every single day.”
I surprised myself by slamming my beer down onto the drink rail. I was so mad. I didn’t want to feel sympathy for Will. I didn’t want anything to do with Will. Maybe not with Linna, either. Maybe I was better off without either of them.
Except I was drawn to them. Both of them. I felt that Linna needed me and I could give her what she needed, I could be her big sister. And Will… there was more going on with Will than I wanted to admit.
So I slammed down my beer. I said, “I don’t get it, I don’t buy it, I don’t want it, I’m out.” And I got up to leave.
“Tess,” he said, “wait!”
He reached out for me and I moved toward him.
The car slows down and turns into the gas station parking lot. It’s Zach’s car, it’s Zach at the wheel, it’s Zach who gets out and it’s Zach who holds me in a fierce embrace as I shiver from the rain and cry and cry and cry.
“What the hell is going on?” he says, his voice thick with emotion.
“I’m sorry for calling you,” I say. “I shouldn’t have called you.”
“Fuck that, Tess. I’m here.” He takes his jacket off and he wraps me in it. My torn-up dress. Mascara down my face. Soaked, lank hair. Zach’s expression almost makes me laugh hysterically, it’s like a cartoon character’s consternation. “Tess,” he says then. “There’s blood.”
“I’m okay. Well I’m not. But I’m not hurt. Not really.”
I shiver. “Can we go? Can you take me home?”
We walk to his car, his arm around my shoulders. We get in.
I’m in the passenger seat. The car smells like cigarettes. It’s not even a smell, it’s like all other smells have been destroyed. Something about that comforts me.
Zach starts the car. “Can you tell me what happened, Tess?” he says without looking at me.
My teeth are chattering again. “Yes,” I say.
Zach puts the car in reverse.
I see Linna again. I scream again.
I see Linna but it’s not like before when I saw her at the back of the gas station or by the side of my car. This time what I see is a specter, a thing—it crawls toward us on the hood of Zach’s car, a horror of an image of Linna, blond hair flying, face distended, eyes like holes, arms flung out wide into shadow. It opens its mouth and darkness vomits out like swarming, massing flies.
Screaming, screaming. My own voice screaming. Zach holding me again. Screaming into Zach’s chest.
Make it stop! Let me go!
“Tess, Tess, Tess.” He says my name.
Then I tell him what I’ve just understood. “I can’t go home.”
He’s watching me closely. “What do you want to do?”
“We need to call the police.”
“Okay,” he says.
“We have to call the police!” I say again, voice rising into panic.
Zach gets out his phone and starts dialing 911. I put my hand over his hand.
“No.” Now my voice is steadier. “Not yet.” I can see that Zach is confused. He wants to do the right thing but he doesn’t know what that is. “We’ll call the police,” I tell him. “We will. But first there’s something I have to do.”
“What?” Zach says.
“I have to go back.”
Zach says, “Go back where?”
“I have to go back to Nightfall.”
© 2017 by C.D. Miller