1,3 - tess
“You have incredible hair,” Linna said, and she actually took a length of of my hair into both hands and pressed it against her mouth as if she was kissing it, inhaling the scent of it. This of course jerked my head sideways as I was driving and made me crank the wheel to the right, almost crashing us into the cars parked along Beech out front of Kellman’s Hardware store. “Oh, sorry,” she said, releasing my head, “that was impulsive.”
“It was a little unexpected,” I said. I was actually beginning to feel like I’d allowed some kind of undomesticated and unpredictable stray animal into the car. I said half-heartedly, “Your hair is pretty,” then I looked over at her. She did have an attractive hairstyle, blond with dark roots showing, a natural wave in it—except it was still wild after the altercation with the boys and, to be honest, she looked mostly just crazy.
“I’m average,” she said, “I work with it, but you’ve got such long, straight hair and it’s the most intense black color so it’s just beautiful. I love it.”
“Uh, thanks,” I said. This rescue I’d started was continuing to be awkward in so many different ways.
Her aggressive boyfriend and his friend, Dylan and Zach, had left us at the side of the road, had left her, and so I had offered to give her a ride home. I still didn’t know who she was exactly, not that she was a Severand who lived at Arcyn, but we introduced ourselves—I’m Tess, I’m Linna—and we got into my car. I asked where home was for her and she said Summit. I was surprised since I’d assumed, what with her homemade-looking or at least secondhand dress, that she was a kind of Molly Ringwald from Pretty in Pink, a basically frumpy girl from the poor part of town—not that there was really such a thing in Park Heights, there were some trailers out on Amerana Street toward Topanga State Park but hippies lived in those in a kind of commune, I think—and that she was making a move to rise above her social status, having snagged the attention of the Andrew McCarthy in this version, Dylan, a rich kid slumming it for a cheap date. I guess in that movie they fall in love, but reality is usually quite different.
“You should wear darker makeup,” Linna continued, “I would all the time.” Linna flipped down the passenger-side sun visor and looked at herself in the tiny mirror as if to confirm that she was in fact dolled-up with overdone dark eyeliner and mascara, dark red lipstick. “Well I guess I am,” she admitted, “at the moment, but it would suit you better, you’re far too good-looking to just kind of go around as low-key as you are right now.”
“I was just coming home from work. Not sure my boss would want me to be all Queen of the Goths for my shifts.” I thought about this. “She probably wouldn’t care actually, but,” I shrugged, “it’s not me, really.”
“You prefer to be plain.”
“Plain?” I echoed, pretending to taking offense.
“I said you were good-looking just a second ago, you know what I mean,” she said irritably.
I laughed. “Don’t be so easy to tease.”
“Oh,” she said, and then sighed deeply. “I’ve been told I don’t do well with jokes at my expense.”
“Well what I want to know,” I said, negotiating one of the hairpin switchbacks on Beech as it ascended the hillside, “is what you’re going to do with your mean boyfriend Dylan, and what I’m really asking is, in case you’re not catching the subtext, are you going to break up with him, like right now?”
“He’s not my boyfriend,” she said.
“I’m pretty sure he doesn’t know that."
“That’s his problem.”
“How did you meet him?”
“He goes to school with my brother.” She looked at me. “Do you think Dylan’s attractive?”
“Not really, no.” I almost said that Dylan’s friend was better-looking, but I held that back, because did I really think Zach, a high school kid, was hot? That was weird. Maybe I had spent too long without anything going on in my love-life. Mrs. Markova, my favorite Russian lady, had just been telling me so the other day. Also, I didn’t actually know if Zach and Dylan were in high school, I had just made that assumption. Maybe they were older. “It’s kind of not the point,” I said to Linna, “if he’s attractive or not. If he’s going to treat you like that, it more or less eclipses everything else.” I looked over at her. “Don’t you think?”
“Are you giving me some big-sister advice?” Linna had that strange, sideways smile going on again. It was like she was both totally innocent and yet somehow unwholesome, all at the same time.
I pressed my point. “Well what was going on? Why did you get out of their car?”
Her smile disappeared. I saw the same look come into her eyes that I had seen when I’d first helped her up from the grass. It was something hard, unyielding, assessing. She said, “I wanted to see what they were capable of.”
I slowed the Roadmaster through the last curve before Beech Boulevard met Summit Drive at the top of the hill. Linna didn’t say anything more. Finally I said, shaking my head, “I don’t really know what that means. You were testing them?”
“I pretended to be afraid. They were drinking, passing a little silver flask between them, and then I had some, it was Jack Daniels I think. I decided to ask them to take me back home, and when Dylan told me to relax and not to worry about anything—Zach was just silent in the back seat—I made a scene and made him pull over to let me out.”
I was still shaking my head. “Why?”
“It’s very important to me to find out if people are good or bad. Dylan was on his way to one of them.” Linna’s voice became brighter suddenly, and she laughed. “Then you interrupted. But it’s okay. I like this outcome better. I’m having a great time with you instead. Oh,” she said, “go left at Summit.”
We came to a stop at the lights for the intersection of Beech and Summit Drive. A right turn would take us to Summit Estates, which was where I had assumed we’d been going. Left would go nowhere, really. There was only one thing up here in that direction. The light turned green. I didn’t accelerate; I guess I was processing what a left turn meant.
“You can go,” Linna said. “It’s green.”
“I thought we were going to the Estates.”
“Nope,” she said. She pointed to the left. “I live over there.”
“At the mansion?” I said, hearing my voice rise, incredulous. “At Arcyn?”
“Yes,” she said simply.
“Okay,” I said, turning left.
“But you mispronounced it,” she said quietly. “It sounds more like the word ‘arson.’ Like setting things on fire.”
Tess, guess what. It’s almost funny. You’re nearly out of gas. Needle on E.
You can’t stop. Don’t stop. Have to.
There’s nothing anywhere around here, this road goes northeast for miles through the Santa Monica mountains. Winding along sides of hills, through forest that feels like there’s no end to it.
You’ll make it. There'll be a town. The gas station will be open. Just keep driving.
It’s starting to rain. The windshield wipers barely work. Have to slow down as the road veers through tight curves carved around walls of rock. Then rows of massive black pines that writhe in the wind.
I can’t keep my mind here. It’s happening, over and over again. When I blink I see him, I see the knife. The rain makes a white screen in the headlights and the movie plays out there, projected from inside.
The man in the bomber jacket. He came toward me. Knife in his hand. I was down on one knee.
I was shaking. Shaking so bad, all over. With fear, with anger. Tears forced themselves out of my eyes. I tried to stand up and I lost my balance, tipping forward onto my hands and knees. Then I straightened back.
I was kneeling when the man came up to me. My hands had found each other, pressed themselves together. I looked at my hands. I could have been playing Here’s the Church, Here’s the Steeple. Open the door….
“Are you praying?” he said.
I could feel the tears on my cheeks, burning. He held the black-bladed knife in his left hand pointed downward, and the length of it was never still, it moved back and forth as if it was tasting the air.
“I don’t want you to pray,” he said breathlessly, stuttering. “I—I don’t want that, it’s not right.”
“Please don’t do this,” I said in a tiny, pleading voice, a desperate voice.
He shouted a word. Howled it, drove it out of himself with a force that made me wince.
“Nooooooo!” It was a shout that that distorted his face, made him double-over as if he was about to be sick. His glasses flew off, shooting down into the underbrush around us. When he righted himself his face was splotched red, his eyes bulging, a vein on his temple quickly throbbing. He kept on shouting at me. “Don’t speak! You can’t speak! Don't say a word!”
Anger took hold of me suddenly. I started to get up from my knees, almost involuntarily, and I had opened my mouth to shout something back at him—fuck him for doing this, fuck this fucked-up situation—but immediately he was on me, over me. The edge of the knife moved in under my chin, pressing at my throat, so sharp there it felt like a thin line of fire. A wetness seeped out below it but I knew he hadn’t cut me, he just held the knife to the skin, death expressed but suspended, and the edge of the knife was so sharp it had drawn blood just the same.
“Tess Bellamy,” I heard him whisper. “You’re even more beautiful like this, close to me.”
I closed my eyes. I heard myself crying hard, sobbing.
He took the knife away from my throat. “Why do you want me to hurt you?” He stepped back. I opened my eyes. He was rubbing his right hand across his face. He made a sound, a moan. “You know I don’t want to hurt you, Tess,” he said. “I couldn’t hurt you. I love you.” He pressed his hand against the side of his head. All at once he screamed another scream, a sound that flayed the air with rage and agony.
Then silence had replaced the echoes of his screaming. He drew in breath after breath. His head was bent forward. I saw his shoulders begin to shake. He was laughing.
He said, “I think you’d better run away.”
I rose from my knees. I ran.
“Are you a virgin?” Linna asked me suddenly.
We were approaching the gatehouse that stood sentry at the entrance to the grounds of the mansion. The immense house itself was far back from the high iron fence that faced the road, you could glimpse it through the woods that grew wild on most of the land of the estate, screening the home from outside curiosity.
“Um,” I said in response to the random question.
“You can tell me,” she said. “I won’t say anything to anyone.”
“Why do you want to know that?”
“I am,” she said. “A virgin. I’ve never even kissed anyone.”
I wanted to break the car to a full stop, tires squealing. I looked over at her. Her brown eyes were dark, intense—I think I realized right then that her eyes were the most expressive thing about her and that her laughter and her sideways smile could not be trusted. I said, “You’re being serious?”
“I’m always serious.”
“You’ve never had a first kiss?”
“No,” she shrugged.
“Were you going to have it with that Dylan guy?”
“I was.” She nodded. “Yes. I guess I was going to fuck him. I thought we were on a date. Then he picked up Zach.” She considered this. “Does that mean they thought they were both going to have sex with me tonight?”
“Um,” I said again. “You know what, we’re here.”
I turned into the drive next to the gatehouse. There was a security guard on duty, he came out of the gatehouse as I pulled up and rolled down the window. He was an older man, moving slowly; his stomach strained the polyester of the security company’s uniform. His chin was jowly as he bent down to the window. I could smell on his breath the ham sandwich he’d had for dinner.
“Hi, Hank,” Linna said to him, leaning across from the passenger seat. To me she said, “That’s Hank, he’s on nights right now.”
“Hi there, Miss Linna,” Hank said to her in a kindly, avuncular tone of voice.
“This is Tess,” she said to him. “Tess is driving me home. You can let her in.”
Hank nodded at me. It was getting dark out so I might have misread his demeanor, but he did not smile at me, in fact I thought he was giving me a look that was openly hostile. I half expected him to ask me to step out of the car. Yet he simply moved back from the driver’s side window and said, “Have a good night, Miss Linna, Miss Tess.” He went into the narrow little gatehouse and closed the door; the gate began to slide open in both directions from the center.
While the gate opened slowly I rolled up my window, cranking the handle around and around. Linna watched me with detached curiosity, as if she had no idea what I was doing.
“I’m not,” I said.
“Not a virgin.”
“Do you have a boyfriend?” she asked. “I bet he’s nice.”
“But you did?”
“Not really, no.”
“You’ve never had one?”
“Not like a steady boyfriend, not all loved-up and everything, no. Well,” I found myself saying, “I thought I was in love, once, but it didn’t work out.”
“How old are you?” Linna asked.
“Twenty. How about you?”
“And you’ve never kissed anyone?”
I drove up into the estate. The front drive went past a parking lot that was just beyond the gatehouse—it was empty but there were several golf carts parked all in a row, to take people up to the house, I assumed—then it split and made a circle, left and right around a marble fountain that looked like it belonged in Rome, some kind of Cherub shooting an arrow into the back of a fleeing, naked, busty maiden.
“You can go right up to the house,” she said. She turned to look at me, serious once again. “I’ve been sheltered here,” she said. “I’m sure you’ve already come to that conclusion or something like it from what I’ve said to you tonight, how awkward I am, like I don’t talk to many people, which is just the truth. I haven’t been allowed to go to school, not like my brother. I’ve had private tutors for everything. I really do kind of hate him, my brother, because of this, not that it’s his fault. My family is… well they’re old-fashioned, let’s put it that way.”
“It’s old-fashioned to let your brother go to school but not you?” I must have sounded close to disgusted.
“Something like that, yes.”
“I’m not sure I understand.”
“Of course not.” She sighed. “I don’t even understand, sometimes. So what I’m going to say in the next few seconds before you let me out in front of the house is extremely important to me.”
I turned myself toward her. I saw that her eyes glistened with emotion that was only barely held in check.
“I’m going to be in trouble, a lot of trouble, for what I did tonight. I thought it would be worth the consequences, and I was right, but not in any way that I anticipated. I don’t have friends. I don’t really know anybody that well. Including my brother, my parents. Our home is formal. It’s cold.” She paused. A tear fell down her cheek. “I really like you, Tess. You’re special. I can tell. I want to see you again. I want us to be friends. I know I’m weird, I can’t help it. But I promise I’d be loyal, I’d be really good to you, I’d be great, a great friend….”
“Stop it,” I interrupted. I couldn’t suppress a laugh. “You don’t have to convince me of anything, Linna.”
“No?” she said softly.
I pulled the Roadmaster up in front of the house. Arcyn. The mansion was incredible, vast; marble plinths in parallel rows flanked the wide steps that swept up to a massive front double-door made of dark, heavy wood inlaid with designs of dizzyingly intricate nested circles and what looked like snakes eating their own tails.
I mentioned before that I spent every day, in high school, being made aware of how much I was different from other girls, sometimes painfully so. The few friends I had were like me: estranged, left out, left behind. I knew one of my own when I saw her. And something else was going on here. Yes, Linna was unusual and awkward and I was probably getting into something with complications I couldn’t foresee, but I felt right then that her intense and desperate appeal for my friendship was absolutely some kind of cry for help.
Linna’s hand was on the rest between the front seats, reached halfway toward me. I placed my hand over hers. “I’ll pick you up after my shift tomorrow,” I said, “and we’ll figure out somewhere to go and get completely wasted.”
Her stern expression dissolved into relief and happiness. “Fuck yeah,” she said. Then she took in a deep breath. “Just one thing first.”
“Which would be… what?” I said uncertainly.
“Turn the car off and come out with me, right now, up to the house. Before we do anything else, you have to meet my father.”
© 2016 by C.D. Miller