1,1 - tess
Drive, Tess. Just drive. Hands on the wheel holding on. Don’t stop, don’t think, don’t cry. Drive.
Midnight on the dashboard clock. High beams cut what can’t be seen and trees rake branches past in periphery. Blink against what’s blurred. Hold on, hold everything together.
Oh god there’s blood all over. Don’t look at it. Don’t look at your dress. It’s dirty, wet, ripped to rags. Your heels, they’re gone, where are they? Handbag, iPhone, missing, lost.
You can’t go back. Can’t ever go back.
There’s a light through the trees to the right of the road. A house set back in the woods, pick-up parked in the front drive, living-room curtains drawn but a lamp’s on. The glow from the TV washes lambent aquamarine. Someone home, awake. Help.
Scream “Help me!” Scream it.
Drive. You haven’t gone far enough yet—you don’t know how far is far enough—so don’t slow down, don’t pull over, don’t go for help. That sound you’re making, stop it. That shivering, teeth chattering—make it stop.
Tonight will never be over.
He said, “Stupid girl,” before it happened.
I was in the trees, walking to my car. I didn’t take the well-lit path to the parking-lot. I wanted to feel the last of the twilight coming down through the tops of the pines like an exhaled breath. Behind me, the fundraiser gala was just transitioning to full-on party in that impossibly immense mansion and its grounds. I walked but my heels were an obstacle—yes, that’s what happened, I slipped them off and carried them in one hand like I’ve seen women do in movies, heels dangling from the fingertips at an angle like an empty glass of champagne. I was cold in the low-cut, too-short black evening dress I was wearing, but I didn’t mind, the cold was what I needed: a hit of clearheadedness that delivered me back to myself after all the troubling, unsettling things that had happened earlier. My feet pressed down on pine needles, twisted twigs, little rocks, all sharp, painful; I went slowly, moving from tree to tree, resting my weight on one trunk then hobbling lamely to the next. I was probably not okay to drive home but I intended to sit in the car for a while and listen to music and sober up.
The man was there suddenly. He was in front of me in the near dark, standing so still—I thought it was just a stunted, misshapen tree and then his head moved slightly and what light was left in the nightfall shivered across the circles of his glasses and died. I stumbled backwards and nearly fell over, finally dropping to one knee.
“Do you need some help?” he said. His voice was loud like a shout and there was an eerie straining to it, a withheld surge, emotion forced out flat. I saw his hand move and take something out of the pocket of his bomber jacket. He said, “It looks like you really need me right now.”
I knew what was happening. I was far enough away from the mansion, out in the trees, out in the dark, that no-one there would hear me if I shouted, no-one would ever know what was taking place. I couldn’t outrun this man, not without shoes, not in this ridiculous tight dress. I was alone. Helpless. I felt tears in my eyes.
He made a strange sound, a laugh that was choked back into a breathless, swallowed sob. “Here,” he said in that constricted voice, “take my hand,” and he moved forward, and in his hand was a long, black-bladed hunting knife.
Not stupid. I’m not. There’s plenty of stupid girls around, I went to high school with several hundred, I should know, I’m not one of them. Every day of high school was an extended lesson in alienation ending with a pop-quiz in apathy that I aced every time. Alright I didn’t go to University or College after high school, I didn’t pursue any ambitious dreams of becoming a doctor or scientist or professor of humanities, but I had my reasons and being stupid wasn’t one of them.
I left Park Heights for a year after graduating from high school. Then I came back. I got a job at The Green Machine, an organic grocery store right at the center of town on Beech Boulevard, next to Crazies, the town’s Vegan Diner. The owner of The Green Machine, Mona Wrightson, is a friend of my mother’s, so it wasn’t hard to ask her for work, I think it was always unsaid that I would have a job there if I wanted one, and I had my own car, my mother’s car, the 1995 Buick Roadmaster Estate Stationwagon that refused to die no matter what we did to it over the years. I’ve observed more than one adolescent milestone in that car. What Mona really needed when I asked her for a job was a delivery person, since she had started offering grocery delivery service a few years ago and the demand had kept growing. So that’s what I ended up doing, back in the town I grew up in, living with my mother again in our old house: I became a veggie delivery girl.
It started out as depressing as you would imagine. I picked up the packages from the loading bay behind the store, chucked them into the back of the Roadmaster, got lost over and over again even though I had grown up in Park Heights and I thought I knew the town as well as anyone, was late for every delivery and every customer complained to me in ways I could never imagine or anticipate: “These avocados aren’t ripe enough except for this one which is overripe,” or, “You always give me too much spinach so I’m sending back all of this spinach and I’m canceling this service.” People can be irrational.
But I soon found my footing in the job and I found my way around. Park Heights is actually easy to map out. Beech Boulevard is the snaky centerline of the town—most other streets radiate out from it. Beech starts at the Wellness Centre, which is a big holistic health retreat, a walled complex, right at the foot of the hills and the base of the town. Then it ascends, through many lazy switchbacks, the slopes of a few hillsides until it becomes the main drag about halfway up, climbing even more steeply after that to gain the top elevation, Summit Estates, a gated community with views south to Santa Monica, the Pacific, and east to L.A. Past the Estates, to the west of the hilltop where Summit Drive dead ends overlooking Topanga State Park, there’s a private property set way back behind a gate house. It’s called Arcyn, there’s letters cut into the stone gates spelling it out. Private tours go through there sometimes, it’s an historical mansion, built in the ‘20s I think, maybe earlier. Someone does live there, too, a billionaire’s family, the Severands.
It’s a beautiful town, Park Heights. There’s always famous people moving here to start a family, moving away when their marriages end. Some stars still live here: Judith Light, Marc Singer, Devin Hanlon from that weird mid-90s supernatural cop show that everyone loves now for some reason, I heard they’re remaking it. I guess the place was basically overrun by free-loving artists in the ‘60s, and it still has a lot of that spirit. There’s a tie-dye and beadwork shop on Beech Boulevard; there’s no library in town but there’s a building called the Regional Arts Nexus, where I took acting classes when I was little. The gas station sells acrylics in its convenience store. All over Park Heights colorful houses sit tucked away in overgrown yards where hooped metal sculptures rust out front in the uncut grass.
I got used to the few crotchety customers on my delivery route and it was quickly apparent most of my stops were with people who didn’t say much of anything at all to me. There were a few exceptions, and I found myself looking forward to these, my favorites. Mrs. Markova was at the top of the list, a crazy-hyper Russian lady who always offered me vodka to get me to stay a little longer and talk about sex, not that I had much to contribute to that conversation. The Green Machine started delivering lunches to the Wellness Centre and I talked a lot with Nasrin who worked the reception desk. Then there was Mr. Lamont, who’d lost his wife a year ago and was quiet and kind and sad; there were Jenny and Karen, a lesbian couple who ran one of the local B&Bs—they tipped so well I had to start refusing their money; there was Kevin Cho’s mom, I don’t know her name, but I went to high school with Kevin, and every now and then when I made a delivery, he was at home and we reminisced.
My work days became habitual. I usually grabbed a bean breakfast burrito from Crazies next door to the Green Machine before my shifts, and finished the day off with a smoothie to go, also from Crazies. Sometimes I sat in the ‘50s-style interior of the diner for a while, reading. I was developing a tranquility for myself, a pattern that fit the person I found myself to be, for the moment, content to quietly exist.
One night as I drove home, turning from Beech onto Palmita Drive, I slowed down as I passed a car parked on the wrong side of the road, a very high-end BMW sports coup with both of its doors hanging wide open like the broken wings of an insect. On the grass near the car there was a struggle going on, a fight between a man and a woman, and another man was standing there watching them, smoking a cigarette. I slowed down some more. They were young, I could see now, the two guys and the girl, my age or even younger. The guys looked like rich kids from Summit Estates—they wore designer clothes, had rock-star haircuts. The girl had long dirty-blond hair flying wild around her face. She wore too much mascara, her lipstick was smeared. There was a secondhand look about the short off-white summer dress she wore over fishnet tights and black ankle boots. She was a skinny, tiny thing; she looked over-matched, out of her depth.
I pulled over and watched them in the rear-view mirror. It was hard to tell what was going on but I didn’t like it at all. The guy kept grabbing the girl’s arm and she kept yanking it free. Things were escalating.
“Get back in the fucking car!” the guy was shouting now.
“Let go of me right now, Dylan,” the girl spit back at him. Her voice had a rising hysteria in it. This time, as she pulled her arm out of his grasp, she tripped over her feet and fell backwards onto the grass.
He stood above her, both hands clenched into fists. His friend threw down the butt of his cigarette and moved toward them.
I shoved the car door open and came out. I had no idea what I was doing. I was furious.
“Hey, assholes,” I yelled, “Leave her alone!”
Dylan and his friend turned around. The friend had shoulder-length dark hair that he flipped out of his face. He reminded me of a young Christian Slater. He said, with exaggerated slowness as if I might be too dumb to follow, “How about you get back in your craptastic Stationwagon and just… keep on driving?”
“I’m not going anywhere,” I said, and I decided that I would simply go to the girl and help her. The two guys actually parted to let me pass in between them, I think they were stunned that I just kept on coming. I knelt down on the grass next to the girl with my back to Dylan and his friend, acting as if they had already left the scene. The girl was watching all of this from the ground, propped up on her elbows. There was a surprisingly hard-edged look in her eyes.
I offered her my hand. We stood up together and faced the two rich kids. “I don’t know what you’re waiting for,” I said to them. “It’s a school night, isn’t it? Don’t you have homework? Chores? A bedtime snack you’re missing?”
“Holy shit,” Dylan said. “What a bitch.”
Dylan’s friend flipped his hair back again. He probably thought the gesture was hot. I saw there was actually a more or less, given the circumstances, good-natured smirk on his face. He put a hand on Dylan’s shoulder. “This started out boring, you know, for me, and now I’m thinking I’d rather be anywhere else but here right now.”
“Shut up, Zach,” Dylan said. I realized he hadn’t made eye contact with me once—he’d been staring at the girl this whole time. His intensity was unnerving. All at once I felt uncertain about the outcome of what I’d gotten into.
Then I realized someone else was watching us all. Dylan’s friend Zach saw my eyes move past them and focus on what I saw across the street. He turned around and so did Dylan.
When I was in high school there was a guy in my class from Park Heights—most kids from here go to Pali High in nearby Pacific Palisades, we get called Parkies—who, one day, stopped showing up altogether. No-one knew why. His name was Charlie Mill. Lots of rumors circulated but I knew none of them were true. Admittedly I forgot about Charlie, especially since I had spent a year in L.A. after graduating and everything about high school seemed to have already receded into a distant past, on the other side of a divide of life experience. When I came back to live in Park Heights I realized something weird had been going on in town. There was a tall, spare young man always dressed in the same jeans and hoodie and Converse sneakers—he rode a little BMX all over town all day long—and over his head he always wore a shiny blue Mexican wrestler mask that no-one had seen him take off, ever. Apparently he never spoke a word to anyone, and sometimes he stood on the street for hours, watching cars go by. I mentioned this once to Kevin Cho, who looked at me strangely and said to me, “That’s Charlie Mill. Didn’t you know that was Charlie Mill?”
The two rich kids were looking behind them across the street at Charlie, who was standing there, watching us with no expression at all or movement of his face within the white-lined nose-, mouth- and eye-holes of the bright blue luchador mask. I shook my head. This was not going how I thought it would.
Zach seemed to be thinking the same thing. “That is definitely our cue,” he said, “to get the hell out of there before this gets any weirder.” He moved back toward their car. “Dylan, you coming?”
You could see the gears spinning in the minuscule scope of Dylan’s narrow mindset. He knew that leaving the situation was some kind of defeat, but he wasn’t sure if sticking around was worth the trouble I was causing. Finally his shoulders hunched up and he spat into the grass between us. He said, “This isn’t over, Linna. Don’t even dream it’s over.”
That was it. As Dylan and his friend sped away in their sports car, Linna, the girl, turned to me and said, “What a cheesy exit line.”
I watched their car turn onto Beech and accelerate uphill. Then I looked across the street. Charlie had disappeared, too. “That guy, Dylan. He's trouble for you,” I finally said to Linna.
“I can handle it,” she shrugged. “But you, you’re kind of out of nowhere, aren’t you?” She was smiling at me in a way I found a little disturbing, and it took me a second to understand why. There was no trace in her of fear or embarrassment, nor did she seem thankful to me for stepping in. She looked like she was having a great time. Her sideways smile showed teeth that were slightly uneven.
“You sure you’re okay?” I said.
She shook her head at me and said, “Are you actually this nice or is there something wrong with you?”
And that’s how I met Linna Severand. How our friendship started, how all of this started. Everything that happened after that took place because I jumped out of my car to help her. All of it leading to that night at Arcyn, the mansion where she lived with her family, where I’d been invited to a fundraiser gala—told by Linna to wear something “dead sexy”—and so found myself in the woods at night alone, wearing a dress my mother had worn to countless parties in the ‘80s when she had been a horror movie star.
© 2016 by C.D. Miller