1,7 - tess
Stillness can be unbearable, silence terrifying.
A bright moon had risen over the woods. Nothing moved. Slender trees swept down a slope ahead of me, thin black columns edged in vertical lines of white moonlight. Somewhere close to me the man with the knife, the man in the bomber jacket, waited.
I had run from him. I had bolted, sprinting flat out, my ankle twisting, feet tripping over uneven ground. I scrambled over moss-grown deadfall. I didn’t look back. I knew he would be following, I knew he would overtake me. Was that why he wanted me to run, so he could hunt me like prey? Isn’t that what this was all about: power? Savoring the fear of the hunted. Feeling the power of claiming a life.
I was running. There was a deeper darkness in front of me and all at once I lost my footing, the ground falling away. I covered my face with my arms and tumbled down through a thickness of scrub and brush that cut at me everywhere, branches like whips, the barbed tips of twigs as sharp as wire. Then I went over a ledge of rock. Dropped straight down. Into water, into a trickling creek. I landed on my feet and then pitched forward into the freezing stream.
And I picked myself up and I ran.
The dark pines in the woods above had given over to the stand of tall, graceful trees that were ahead of me—there was less undergrowth here, I could maybe make it to the road, to the fence that surrounded the property of Arcyn.
Except did this slope lead down to the edge of the property? Was it the right direction?
What if he was already down there, ahead of me?
I stopped running. I threw my arms around one of the slim trees. Held on tight to it. Made myself still. Listened.
Just my own breathing. My heartbeat.
Clouds drew back from the moon and the shapes of the trees glowed soft silver-white as if lit from within. It was beautiful. I wouldn’t forget it.
I held my breath. Listening for him.
There was no sound at all.
Now, in the car, parked at the gas station in the middle of nowhere, I put the heat on full blast and I turn the dial on the radio between loud static and the quieter hisses of dead-tuned nothing. On the windshield the rain diminishes but I’m soaked and shivering and who knows how long the car will run since the empty-tank red light’s been on all night.
I had turned the headlights off—does that save gas? I don’t know—except all this darkness has started to feel like it’s teeming with threats hidden just out of sight. I can see the closed gas station but the illumination from the streetlight at the highway seems to stop like it hits something right at the edge of the building. I know there’s nothing around that corner, out in the back of the place, but it just seems like anything could be out there. My teeth are chattering again.
Wait. Did something move?
I flick the headlights on.
I blink and I see Linna standing there. I blink and she’s gone.
What the fuck was that. How could Linna be there?
If this was one of my mother’s horror movies I would probably get out of the car and walk around to the back of the closed gas station to figure out if I really did just see Linna there, or something else, someone else. It’s almost hard not to do it, like it’s expected of me. My hand goes to the door handle.
No. I’m not going anywhere. At least while the car’s running. While there’s heat.
I look over to my right and Linna is standing there looking into the passenger side window. I scream.
My eyes are closed.
Can’t open them.
I’m seeing things. I’m scaring myself.
I open my eyes and no-one is there. Not Linna, not anyone. I really am making myself crazy.
Why is it Linna that I keep seeing? Maybe I just wish I was her instead of me. Stone-cold like her, then nothing could touch me. But I know that Linna isn’t really like that. Underneath the surface she’s as desperate as the rest of us.
I see headlights now. There’s a car on the highway. Please god let it be Zach.
The car slows down and turns into the gas station parking lot.
When I got home that night after leaving Arcyn, having met Linna’s father and brother, it was getting late; my mother was already asleep. Or at least I hoped she was. I made sure I was quiet as I came into the house. I was starving, thinking about making a quick stir-fry, but I stopped outside my mother’s room and listened for a few moments.
It was hardly a sound at all but I could hear her crying softly in her room. I took in a deep breath and sighed it out. She wouldn’t want me to come in—sometimes I did regardless, I just couldn’t let her be alone in there, crying all night, but she reacted badly to it every time I tried to help. She didn’t want me to see her like that, or that’s what she said anyway. I just didn’t want her to suffer.
Except, that night, I turned away from the door of her room and went into the kitchen. It’s not something I was proud of. Every time I left her alone like that I felt what a daughter always feels when her mother’s not doing well and there’s nothing to be done, I couldn’t avoid feeling that sharp pang of guilt, but I was hungry and tired and even more than that, my mind was processing all that had happened earlier. Linna fighting with Dylan at the side of the road while Zach looked on. Then being at Arcyn, a place that was more or less a local legend. Linna’s father. And Will. What Will said as I walked down the steps to my car.
In the morning my mother was up before me, bearing no outward traces of a rough night. Her famous hair was brushed and tied into a long pony-tail, her makeup looked great, she had made us a pot of coffee. She was sitting on a tall chair pulled up to the island in the kitchen. Her oblong plastic medication box, the snap-lid flipped open, sat on the counter next to her iPad where she was busy scrolling through Facebook.
I needed to be present, to observe her, when my mother took her medication. It was one of the stipulations of her living with me.
“Were you out on a big date or something?” she said.
I shrugged my shoulders, sluggish in the early hour, pawing at the coffee mugs in the cupboard. My mother made the sound that she makes when one of her tics takes over. A smacking of the lips, a kissing of the teeth. Ttsck, tsm. I remember when she had started doing it, I thought she had been judging me all the time, expressing her disapproval. After one of her long-term stays in the hospital, a doctor explained that the tic was a presented symptom, a visible sign of her struggle for control over the part of her that was at war with the rest of her.
“You didn’t look like you were dressed nice enough to be out on a date last night, that’s for sure,” my mother said.
“Were you watching me from the window when I came in?”
She made her tic sounds again. Tsck, tsm. “Yes.”
“Mom, you should take your vitamins.” We used that euphemism for her medication, it seemed to amuse her.
She popped the three pills into her mouth, one by one. Swallowed each one down without water or coffee.
“I talked to Mona last night,” she said. This was Mona Wrightson, who owned the Green Machine. My boss. “She thinks you’re the best thing that ever happened to Park Heights. All the customers love you.”
“That’s nice,” I said absently.
“I told her you’re not staying there forever.”
I fixed her with a glare. “Why would you say that to her?”
“Because it’s true. It’s not a job for someone like you—someone talented, like you are.”
I shook my head. “You’re the actress, Mom. Not me.”
She went on as if she hadn’t heard me. “You’ll go back to L.A. I know you will. You had some roadblocks when you were there last year but you’ll go back and it’ll be better.”
I used her own strategy of pretending not to hear what was said in order to steer the conversation in a different direction. “Are you going to the Wellness Centre today?”
“I should think so,” she said stiffly.
“I saw Devin Hanlon last night.” I didn’t tell her where I saw him. “He said he hadn’t seen you at the Centre for a while.”
“I signed up for a new program.”
“Oh yeah? What is it?”
“It’s nothing special.”
“Is it, like, yoga… or meditation, or a healing circle, or….”
My mother didn’t answer. I didn’t think much about it at the time, but I should have taken her silence on the subject as an indication that something wasn’t quite right, I should have pressed her harder about it. Instead I glanced at the clock on the stove and saw I was pushing it to get to my Green Machine shift on time.
“I gotta get a move on, Mom,” I said.
“Say hi to Mona for me,” she called after me as I left the house.
My workday passed quickly. What I thought most about as I drove around Park Heights was the fact that I’d promised Linna we would get drunk together, and since we were both under 21 this was slightly problematic. However, as I pulled the station wagon up to Kevin Cho’s mom’s house, I knew what the plan would be.
I had always liked Kevin’s mom. I know she came across to many people, my mother included, as severe and maybe even snobbish, but over the years I’d known Kevin I’d come to understand and appreciate his mom for who she was: unsmiling, yes, and knife-edge sharp, but generous and kind, too.
Kevin lived behind his mom’s house in a single-room loft above the garage. He’d been in there since his dad had died when Kevin was a Sophomore in high school. Both of us had been the subjects of some bullying at school that year, for different reasons, and we’d gravitated toward a friendship that centered, at first, on our shared dislike of everyone else around us, but we had other things in common too. Kevin was an only child, like me. And then neither of us had a Dad. For me, the bullying eventually subsided—I didn’t react to it much and I think the girls who’d been after me lost interest in it—but for Kevin, I’m not sure it ever stopped.
I knew he’d be home because it was around eleven in the morning and there was no way he was awake yet, and besides his mom always knew if he was there or not and when I said I was going to talk to Kevin she handed me a duffel bag of clean, folded laundry to give to him. I went up the rickety, swaying staircase attached to the side of the garage and knocked on the screen door to his room, or his apartment, or whatever it was. I waited, and knocked again.
“Kevin, it’s Tess!” I shouted. “If you don’t wake up and talk to me I’m going to tell your mom about the party we had in her house, Senior year, when she was in China!”
I heard him stirring within, then stomping up to the door. His bed-head was spectacular, a lopsided hair mountain with a flattened, tufted peak. It looked to me like he’d been gaining weight lately. I tossed the bag of laundry past him into his loft. Kevin wiped his glasses on his gross-looking, once-white T-shirt before putting them on. He said, “Give me a reason not to push you down the stairs right now.”
“You smell terrible.”
“I really just want to go back to bed, Tess.”
“Well I need you. I’m supposed to get drunk with Linna Severand tonight.” He looked blankly at me. “Not sure you heard me. Linna. Severand.” I gestured vaguely north, uphill, in the direction of Arcyn. “As in the billionaire Severands who live up there on top of the town.”
He yawned. “I still don’t understand why you’re here right now.”
“We’re going to come drink with you and I wanted to let you know.”
“Tonight, after my shift, I’m going to bring Linna here.” Kevin had obtained a fake ID a long time ago and he was absolutely my go-to guy for booze, which I’d forgotten about completely until I was delivering groceries to his mom. “I’ll pay you back, of course. But you should get some beer, some wine, some rum….”
“Of course I can get all that for you,” he said, “but why don’t you just pick it up here and go somewhere else?”
“You should meet Linna. She’s… interesting.”
“I really don’t want to.”
“She’s very cute.”
“So are you,” he said, “and I don’t need yet another sexy babe in my life to be just friends with.”
“Think how happy your mom will be to see you hanging out with two nice girls.”
“Just a low blow, Tess,” he said.
“Fine,” I said. “I’m calling in a Zero Hour.” This was our code, Kevin and mine, for a favor that was impossible for the other to deny, a request whose fulfillment could not be withheld. Zero Hour was a sacred pact we had made with each other in Sophomore year when both of us had gone through some rough things and needed to be able to ask for help.
Kevin sighed deeply. Then he said, in a tiny voice, “Frantz is coming over later.”
I grinned. “Linna will love Frantz.”
“Everyone loves Frantz.”
“Well he is the most beautiful man alive.” I turned and headed down the staircase. Flecks of peeling white paint came off on my fingertips from the mold-soft wooden railing. At the bottom of the stairs I turned back and looked up. Kevin was glaring at me as if he hoped this was all a dream. “Thanks, Kevin,” I called to him. “Love you.”
“Fuck you too,” he said, and sighed, finally resigning himself to my plans for his night.
“And you’d better clean up your man-cave a little,” I added. “Don’t want Linna to think the outside world is as grubby as she thinks it is.”
There’s a lot about that night, drinking with Linna at Kevin Cho’s loft above his mom’s garage, that I don’t remember. After my shift I went to Crazies, got into a booth, ordered a Jumbo Smoothie. It wasn’t much of wait before a black Mercedes with tinted windows pulled up out front, and sure enough it was Linna who came out of the back seat, dressed like a Rock and Roll Princess in tight black leather pants, platform boots, a lacey blouse that looked deliberately ripped to reveal more white skin—her clavicles stood out, exposed—and finally a stone washed jean jacket over top of it all.
“I’m so excited,” she said breathlessly as she slid into the booth across from me.
I looked her over a little more closely. “Did you dye your hair?”
She grinned. “I went blonder. More fun, etcetera.”
We shared a plate of cheeseless nachos at Crazies and then I drove us to Kevin’s. He was nervous at first, shy in front of Linna, which she immediately liked. As the night went on and as Linna became louder and more daring with each drink, Kevin took on the role of her pet or plaything, not in a sexual way, more like he helplessly and meekly fulfilled her every wish—change the music, play that song again, pour me a drink, sit down next to me and rub my feet—to the point, I recall, that she wanted him to put on different clothes and was helping him pick out something that actually matched. I made her sit back down on his broken, sagging couch and leave him alone.
Kevin was an audio engineer, or at least he’d dropped out halfway through a degree in Recording Arts at LMU. He’d been an A/V kid at Pali, making short films at lunch hour and recording ambient sounds with boom mikes while other students smoked and skateboarded and lay in the sun on the grass by the parking lot. I think he was already some kind of technical genius by the time we graduated. I’m sure he left LMU’s program out of boredom. He did some work here and there for bands in L.A., mostly with the band that Frantz was in, which was called White Mask. Linna asked Kevin to play some songs from the band, and he fired up their one and only album on his laptop.
Just as the deep, slow, heavy chords of the doom metal exploded out of Kevin’s top-tier surround sound system, rattling the windows and vibrating our glasses of rum and coke where they sat on the wooden-plank coffee table, not only Frantz himself but the whole band, White Mask, came through the door into the loft, as if they had been summoned by their music. Frantz was the lead singer, though he screamed more than sang. He had been one of Kevin’s best friends since he had moved to L.A. from Lagos, Nigeria, in our Junior year. Frantz was tall and lithe, graceful, magnetic—as I had said to Kevin before, a profoundly beautiful human being. I found it kind of funny that the rest of the band was made up of three very deeply bearded white guys who looked, to me, completely interchangeable: Damon the lead guitarist, Jay the bass player, Mike Q the drummer.
“Oh my god no,” Frantz said as he came through the door. In the White Mask song that was playing, his voice had risen from a snarl to a tortured shout before descending into a wail of despair. He said to the room, “This has to be stopped,” and he went immediately to the desk where Kevin’s laptop sat open. In a moment, Abba’s song “Waterloo” replaced the noise-dirge of White Mask, followed by boos and catcalls from everyone else who was there.
I watched Linna stare at Frantz with an open mouth, stunned silent for once, as he flung his jacket onto Kevin’s bed and began dancing wildly to Abba. I had gone to see White Mask once in L.A.: though the music wasn’t really to my taste—it was simultaneously too aggressive for me and too depressing—there was no doubt in my mind that Frantz Adeyemi was a superstar in the making. It was impossible not to watch him. He moved with a sinister grace, and when he took hold of the stand and screamed into the mike, it was a thrilling, primal sound that induced extreme reactions, people at the club who stood there crying, or sat down, or covered their faces.
What was strange about Frantz was that, in high school, he had been ordinary to the point of invisible. Kevin never seemed to hang out with both of us at the same time and so I barely noticed that Frantz was there in our classes together. He certainly wasn’t, at that time, the beautiful human specimen that he had since become. It was as if, sometime after graduation, he’d made a deal for fame and fortune with the devil.
The band had arrived at Kevin’s. Then the details are hazy. We all drank. Linna was a hit. She made us all listen to White Mask’s album over and over until my ears were ringing. It was like she had been prefabricated to become a groupie for the band—not Frantz, he never really acknowledged she was there—but the other guys, who couldn’t believe their luck, those quiet, bearded weirdos. They were closing in on her by the end of the night like circling sharks in the rum and coke-bloodied water where she was thrashing for attention.
And so I said goodnight to all, took hold of Linna, and we left. We walked to Crazies. Kevin’s mom’s house wasn’t far, a half hour walk at the most. I thought a walk might sober us up a little bit. And food would be good; we needed to soak up the evening’s overdose of alcohol.
Crazies was busy for how late it was. The diner was open 24 hours, which I’d always thought was strange for our little town, but there always seemed to be someone there, and it was an ideal place for depressed high school kids to sit in a booth all night talking about the terrible world we live in. God knows Kevin and I had observed a few late nights turn into early mornings at Crazies.
We sat down and ordered some tofu club sandwiches right away. I was hoping to tamp down the reeling and tilting that was taking place around my head with a few cups of coffee, so I wasn’t paying much attention to my surroundings, but Linna seemed for some reason to be hyper-aware of what was going on around her.
“That guy was staring at you when we came in,” she said to me in a low voice. “That guy right there by the entrance.”
I was facing the front door of the diner so I could see the man Linna was talking about. He turned slightly toward us as I was staring at him, as if he could feel my gaze landing on the back of his head. I saw that he wore glasses with round lenses, like John Lennon’s glasses. His bomber jacket was zipped all the way up, which I thought was strange for someone sitting in a diner, let alone how warm it was that night.
I couldn’t have known who he was, the man in the bomber jacket. I didn’t know. The fundraiser party at Arcyn hadn’t happened yet.
Then I saw Zach. Actually, I saw Zach’s date first. She was a tall, tanned blond girl in a form-fitting mini-dress that made it nearly impossible for her to slide out of the booth where she sat with Zach—she went past Linna and me with an empty water glass, rudely shoving it at Erin who was the only waitress on at Crazies that night, sashaying back past us with a full glass. I was wondering how her long legs actually fit in under the narrow tables at the booths. Then I saw that, across from her, Zach was looking right at me.
Linna turned around and saw him, too. She spun back to face me. “I think Zach likes you,” she said.
“What? Come on,” I said. “He’s out with that supermodel.”
“She doesn’t matter.” Then Linna smiled crookedly. “You kind of have a thing for him too, don’t you?”
“I didn’t even know he existed before yesterday, so how could I have a thing for him. And he’s in high school!” I thought about her brother, Will, warning me about Zach—you can’t trust him, he’d said—but I didn’t mention this to Linna.
“Well let me say this much,” Linna began with drunken exaggeration. “The only thing I know for sure is…” she blinked a few times. “I forget. And you know what? I’m going to the bathroom. I’m never coming back.” She was gone just like that, making a slow and unsteady progress to the bathrooms at the back of Crazies.
I sat on my own for a few minutes. I realized that Linna might need some help in the bathroom, and I was deciding to go in there after her or not. Probably she would be okay, but it was kind of my responsibility to make sure, wasn’t it.
Zach got up from his booth. He went over to the vintage jukebox, next to the entrance, which was always well-stocked with current off-beat and alternative tunes. He put in a few quarters, pressed the buttons, and a song began to play.
Press play to hear selection C1, "A Dream of Us"
"A Dream of Us" Reprise, with lyrics
Can you feel this dream of us?
It's darker as the sun goes down
I'm lost inside the dream
The city is so far away
I only want the dream to stay
I love this place we found
The dream of us
The dream of us
How did you know the dream would end?
The good things always do
I promise I'll remember you
The dream of us
The dream of us