Cover

Crystal Grader

Crystal Grader

Tag Cavello

Copyright 2015 by Tag Cavello

Smashwords Edition
































































For My Little Shark-Tech Girl

I love you to pieces, as I damned well should





























Part One: The Carrot




Part Two: The Rabbit




Part Three: Pretty Bubbles




Part Four: The Secret Flown

 

 

 

Part Five: Shark Attack




Part Six: Dead Calm


































PART ONE: The Carrot






















1

 

The girl, whose name was Crystal Genesio, would remember the night she jumped in front of the speeding car as being warmer than usual for the time of year. She would also remember the crunching leaves beneath her boots as she and her friend approached the road where the chaos began. The dry scent of their death, carried on a light breeze, floated ghost-like amongst the black branches of their birth—this she remembered too, even on the hottest summer days in the big city where she worked. In her hand was a carton of eggs. In her eyes, a sparkle that shined only for the things they wished to possess, and for the chance that someone might dare deny them. No one did on that Halloween night in 2004, when Crystal was just eleven years old. And she noted that—as always—the passenger seat of the speeding car, as it came up over the hill, had been empty. Devoid of the perfect girl. Of course it was devoid! After all, there was but one girl in the entire world who deserved to sit there.

***

“Is he a farmer too?” Lucy Sommer asked.

They were making their way along the fringe of a wooded area. On their right, a field of winter wheat swayed to and fro in the night breeze, one of many on the outskirts of tiny Monroeville, Ohio. Above them hung a full moon that lit the landscape from end to end.

Well?” Lucy pressed.

“Yes, he’s a farmer,” Crystal replied, not knowing in the slightest what the writer did in his spare time.

“Good for him. I like it out here.”

Crystal spared a glance back at her friend, a mousy girl with brown hair and round glasses whom she had taken under her wing as a study partner to improve her grades, which at the time had been flagging in the arena of Cs and Ds like the dying flowers of an inept gardener. And as with most of her endeavors, Crystal had gotten what she’d come for. She was today, early in her first year of junior high, a steady B student. As for Lucy…

“I’m not letting you marry a farm boy when you grow up,” Crystal told her. “Forget it.”

“Oh no no,” the other laughed, “I didn’t say that.

“Good.”

Crystal looked down at her boots—a pair of brown hikers—wary of the many things there were to trip over on a walk through the woods. One step up over a fallen limb, another step around an old tractor wheel gone to rust. Nothing at all problematic for a girl on the cheerleading squad. In fact the boots represented the single compromise she’d made in regard to wardrobe tonight. The rest consisted of a blue sleeveless top and brown short-shorts, with a bowed ribbon tied in the wild shock of black hair sprouting from her head.

“Where’s the house?” Lucy wanted to know.

“Top of the hill. See it?”

Slowing her pace, Crystal pointed through the trees. Her other hand tightened around the egg carton. Fifty yards away was the back porch of the house they had come to decorate. A single orange light flickered above a row of crooked wooden floorboards. A pumpkin, uncarved, rested on the step.

“Sweet,” Crystal said, stepping behind a tree. “Everything looks quiet. Lots of shadows too.” Her lips curled into a grin. “By the time we’re done here this guy’s gonna think it’s Easter instead of Halloween.”

“Yeah,” Lucy came back with, looking doubtful. “I mean all we’re gonna do is throw eggs at his back door, right?”

“Right. Unless you brought cherry bombs.”

“No way.” The girl’s glasses took on a curious shine. “You love his books, right?”

“Every single one of them.”

“And this is how you want to tell him about it?”

Lucy had been asking this question, in one form or another, since first hearing the idea during a kitchen study session at Crystal’s house over a week ago. Dodging around the truth of the matter, Crystal found, was easy enough—like jumping over old tree limbs and rusty tractor wheels. She’d repeatedly fobbed her friend off with excuses ranging from holiday trickery to revenge stories encompassing sleep-deprived nights under bedroom reading lamps. Tonight though, standing under a full moon with the crisp leaves swirling about her bare legs, and her lungs feasting on the cool autumn air, the true motive behind this mission seemed more willing to stand in the open.

“I mean to tell him a lot of things, Lucy. I figure this is a great way to get his attention.”

The other shook her head. “Getting someone’s attention has never been a problem for you.”

“It won’t be a problem tonight either, believe me.”

“Yeah but why not just go to a book signing or a lecture?” The doubtful eyes came alight. “In fact he’s going to be at our school this week! Tuesday. There.” Problem solved, Lucy’s face seemed to say, now let’s go home.

But it only made Crystal laugh. “Lucy when I see something that I want—I mean really want—I don’t share it. Not a chance.”

“I know that about you. But—“

“Shh!”

A shaggy white dog was trotting across the area at the bottom of the hill. Its ears were pricked up as its nose searched for a scent. Damn. The first complication of the crack.

“Of course there’s going to be a dog,” Lucy said, as if reading the expression on Crystal’s face. “This is a farmhouse.”

“Yeah well I didn’t bring any steak to make friends with it. Did you?”

“As a matter of fact…”

A small box of treats slipped from the inside of Lucy’s coat.

“Oh you covert bitch,” Crystal exclaimed. “High five.”

Their hands clapped in mid-air, and it was hard not to notice the expression of joy that came over Lucy’s face at the thought of having pleased her friend—hard not to notice, yet very easy for Crystal to understand. They’d been hanging out together for less than a year, which meant there was still a lot of work to be done with this girl. Brilliant but unconfident, enterprising yet skittish, all of it described Lucy to a T. Crystal wasn’t certain she could handle the job—but then, something had to be given in return for those study sessions.

“Of course it may not take the treats,” Lucy pointed out. “It may just bite our hands off instead.”

“It didn’t look like a very mean dog.”

“Nope. Can you whistle?”

“Open the box first.”

Once one of the treats was in her friend’s hand, Crystal pursed her lips and whistled as loud as she could. Instantly the dog appeared back in their field of view. Its tail searched the sky for a few seconds, in need of another beacon.

Crystal whistled again. “Here boy!”

Now the dog saw them. Barking furiously, it charged.

“Hold it,” Lucy commanded after seeing Crystal flinch. “Don’t run.” She held the treat out. “Hey fella. Here ya go. Look at this!”

Still barking, the dog burst through the first line of trees. A scream rose in Crystal’s throat. They’d messed up in royal spades. Whatever kind of dog this was, it couldn’t be bought off with biscuits and pretty music. Oh no. Trained animals knew better than to fall for such tricks. They also knew, and were doubtless quite happy to demonstrate, how to tear out an interloper’s throat.

The eggs dropped from Crystal’s hand. Her lungs filled with a gasp, their last ever. The dog snarled, opened its jaws—

And skidded to a stop on the dry leaves.

“That’s a good boy,” Lucy told it, proffering the treat. “What’s your name? Huh? What’s your name?”

A series of high, happy yips came back to her by way of reply. Raising its front paws off the ground, the dog snatched the treat from Lucy’s grasp.

“Wow,” was all Crystal could think to say.

“You were right. It’s not mean at all.” A second treat disappeared from Lucy’s hand almost as fast as she could get it out of the box. “In fact, he’s quite a sweetheart,” she giggled. Then, at the dog: “Are you a he? Hmm?”

More happy barking. The snarl had become a big, bounding smile. To Crystal’s untrained eye the dog looked to be of the sheep-herding variety, about sixty pounds—only fifteen less than what she’d last seen on her bathroom scale. She began to wish she hadn’t called it, that she’d thought of a different way to reach the writer’s porch. Nothing about dogs in general bothered her much, but this one was maybe a little too big to play with.

“Can you make him stop?” she asked Lucy as her eyes searched the farmhouse for movement.

The fourth treat of the evening dangled from the other girl’s fingers, prompting their new friend to stand on his hind legs for the next bite. This he managed by stretching his neck out, wetting Lucy’s knuckles with his nose in the process.

“You are such a good dog!” she cooed.

“His name is Chubby.”

Both girls screamed at the strong, deep male voice that came from the shadows.

A flashlight popped on, illuminating the flora around them. Crystal held her breath. Blinded, she had no idea who the owner of the light might be. Chubby trotted past her, his tail cranking. Footsteps crunched in the leaves, and before long, a man appeared. The man. At the sight of his face, Crystal’s heart began to dance to a brand new rhythm, though the beat was just as fast.

“Oh gosh,” she plumed. “Oh wow.”

“Ladies?” the writer—whose name Crystal had no trouble remembering as Jarett Powell—asked. “Can you tell me why you’re sneaking around my property with a bunch of eggs? Now please. I’d like to get the bullshit behind us and in the dust as soon as possible.”







































2

 

“Will you please get the fuck out of my way?”

Crystal’s hand slammed on the horn button—which was already broken—in an effort to communicate to the traffic in front of Greenhills Plaza that she was late for work.

No one paid her the time of day. It wasn’t like they could. Cars were backed up in either direction for two kilometers around the little red Hyundai Getz that she drove. The temperature outside shimmered at thirty-two Celsius. People stood everywhere on the sidewalks, waiting for a taxi cab, or a bus, or a Jeep to take them to the next crowded place. Manila at two o’clock in the afternoon—hot, cramped, and in a rush while rarely seeming to go anywhere—never changed. That went double in front of places like Greenhills, one of the city’s most popular malls.

“It’s green!” Crystal shouted, staring up at the nearest traffic light. “Jesus Christ, what the fuck is wrong with you people? Fuck it.”

She gunned the motor just as the light went yellow and the car in front of her crossed. Immediately a Filipino traffic officer dressed in blue stepped in front of the Getz with his hand raised. Crystal’s foot hit the brake, but it was too late. The cop was motioning for her to pull over.

Goddammit!”

Spinning the wheel, Crystal got the car over to the curb and lowered the window.

“Your license please, Miss,” the cop said.

“The light was yellow.”

“Your license please, Miss,” the cop demanded.

She handed it to him. He looked it over, then showed her a sheet with a list of violations on it. A gloved finger hovered over one—reckless operation by a red girl—before tapping the two thousand peso fine typed next to it.

“I don’t think so,” Crystal told him.

“Yes ma’am. I will confiscate your license and you can pay this fine at the Gilmore traffic center.”

“Or,” Crystal tempted, “I can just give you one hundred pesos right now and we can forget this ever happened.” She let the smile on her face widen. “What do you say?”

The cop smiled back. “Two hundred, ma’am.”

Crystal reached into her bag. She knew that the man might have taken fifty had she offered it straight away, but in Manila it was best (and this she had learned after three years living here) for foreigners to spread the butter a little more thickly when it came time to pass out sandwiches to anyone carrying a badge. The cop told her to wait for a moment, shielded the window with his body, then took the money.

After this his voice lost all officiousness.

“Salamat!” he called out. The license went back into Crystal’s hand. “Drive safe, ma’am! Ingat!”

“Walang anuman!” Crystal said back, waving. But once the window was rolled up and the car was moving again: “Now go fuck yourself!”

***

Nobody at the call center noticed that she was late.

Except her boss.

Crystal hurried into the wing of her account, where rows of computer monitors flickered in front of the talking heads of myriad tech support agents. The whole area was drab and cheerless, decorated with the ugliest color scheme Crystal had ever been nauseated by. Blue carpet lay underfoot; fluffy orange partitions divided the cubicles. Her own computer was located in the quality assurance section. Here, too, sat several busy people, most female. Some were coaching agents on their conduct, while others worked on quarterly reports, or spread-sheets, or presentations for new ideas that would likely never see the light of day. Fresh method did not whisk often amongst the throng.

Still, faces smiled up at her as she passed. All but one in fact.

“Crystal, may I see you in my office after your class?”

Of course the account manager, a tall individual who had changed his name from Robert to Roberta after deciding he liked life better as a woman than as a man, just happened to be idling in the exact wrong place today—which was to say, right next to Crystal’s cubicle.

“Sure, no problem,” Crystal told him—her—trying to sound cheerful.

Nothing by any stretch stood further from the truth. She stooped to turn on her computer, then hit her head on the desk while standing back up. Pencils rolled, coffee cups jingled.

Cries of Oy! Oy! Oy! rang out from all around.

“I’m fine, I’m fine,” Crystal had to assure them, rubbing the back of her skull.

“Late for class again is not fine,” Roberta put in curtly, but turned on his heel and pranced off without waiting for an excuse.

Now all of the faces which had been smiling earlier looked sympathetic. Even DoDo Garcia, who sometimes went out drinking with Roberta, provided a commiserative furl of the brow.

“Go,” she pleaded. “They’re waiting for you.”

Crystal went.

Five minutes later she was in front of her class in training room Alaska. That name fit it well, as the air conditioner at the back pumped out weather that made her want to put on a snow suit and go skiing. Goose-pimples rose on her arms as she greeted everyone. Thirty pairs of Filipino eyes followed her across the room. Their contempt was near palpable. This particular batch for English grammar had not been going well so far. At only three sessions in, it was clear to Crystal that they did not care for their instructor. Snickers were always coming from the back row, whispers, pointing fingers, as if a button were missing from Crystal’s blouse, or her hair had a dead bug in it.

Today was no different. One of the girls, a beach-ball belly who went by the name of Maribeth Dominguez, sneered without greeting her back. Somebody else gave a mock sneeze—ah-shit!—which made good for a few titters up and down the rows. The grammar here at Benton, Asia, Incorporated might not be so good, Crystal thought, but the western culture in it seemed to be going just fine.

“All right,” she said, dropping her bag, “yesterday we left off with the quiz on prepositions. Today we’ll grade them—“

“Can’t we do an icebreaker first?” one of the other girls wanted to know.

“Um…”

Sammy Senen’s hand went up next. “How about charades?”

“Bakla!” Tim Alvarez shouted from the other end of the room.

Laughter erupted from everyone else. Sammy grinned and raised his middle finger at Alvarez.

“Not charades again,” the girl implored. “Something different. Maybe a story game, like Truth or Dare?”

“Spin the bottle!” a man’s voice called from the back row.

No!”

More laughing. More middle fingers. Seconds later seat-mates resumed chatting, they way they’d been when Crystal had first arrived. And just like that no one, not even the more respectful students like Gretchen Furlong and Dennis Jambrich, felt obligated to pay the class the slightest bit of attention.

Once more Crystal’s temper began to heat up. Despite evidence to the contrary, these people were not children—they were twenty-something call center agents who needed work on their grammar skills for writing email. Trouble was, they didn’t seem to care. Worse, she didn’t know how to make them care.

Hey!” she yelled. “SHUT UP, EVERYONE!”

The room froze. Everyone—everything—stopped.

“Better,” Crystal nodded. “If you guys want to play games you can go to Tom’s World at the mall and drop tokens into the kiddie cars. In this room you learn. Beth,” she said to the girl with the fat belly, who hadn’t stopped grinning, “’I live on this street or I live in this street’. Which is it?”

“I don’t care,” Beth answered right back.

Crystal pointed at the door. “Then get the hell out of here!”

Stunned gasps from the others. Petrified faces. Crystal could feel her own face turning red, but her gaze remained fixed on Beth. To let it drop now, she knew, would be like giving an apology, and she was damned if she owed any of these obnoxious laggards one of those.

“I will not waste my time,” she promised, “on people who don’t care. I would rather look at an empty seat than do that.”

“So you really want me to leave?” Beth replied.

To Crystal the inquiry, spoken in a tone of bravado that had doubtless been manufactured as a showpiece for the rest of the class, sounded like a threat, which infuriated her beyond the breaking point.

What are you, deaf as well as fat?”

“Oh my god,” someone whispered.

Yes! Get out! NOW!

Beth rose from her seat like an old woman. She picked up her bag and lumbered towards the door. Her body bounced and jiggled. Seeing it disgusted Crystal even further, and an evil pleasure swelled in her heart as she noticed that the big girl had begun to cry.

The door clicked open, clicked closed. Beth was gone. Drama over.

Almost over, anyway. For the rest of that session, no one spoke unless spoken to. A few of the girls wept quietly, their hands shaking as they read aloud from test papers answered during lunch breaks, or in between mock support calls. The men all looked like they were plotting murder.

Like Beth, Crystal didn’t care. She wanted a cigarette and maybe a glass of whiskey to go with it. Not a single one of the students said goodbye after class. Once she was alone Crystal turned off her computer, picked up her bag, and went to face the music with Roberta.

***

“Please,” the transvestite said, “sit.”

Man that he was, he towered over everything in the office. Making it even worse were the high-heeled dress shoes on his feet; it hurt Crystal’s neck to look at him. She put herself down in one of the two chairs in front of his desk. On the blotter was something she hadn’t seen in here before—a smiling ceramic frog with the words Hop to it! swirled into a caption underneath.

Where the hell did you get that stupid thing? Crystal wanted to ask.

She decided that it had to be gift from a very close friend, for it wasn’t like Roberta at all to even pretend to be cute. Plain white walls decorated with achievement certificates surrounded the desk. Gray cabinets. Stacked files. The occasional broken Cisco router. As usual, Crystal found it all very austere. Even the green dress that Roberta had on looked like something brought up from the basement.

“So what happened today?” he asked, taking a seat behind the desk.

Crystal cleared her throat before answering. “The traffic in front of Greenhills was terrible. I—“

Roberta’s head shook. “No, no, don’t worry about that anymore. In class I mean. Beth was in here a few minutes ago. She was crying,” he added, as if such a thing were beyond the comprehension of account managers.

It startled Crystal for a moment and she cleared her throat again. But then she expected to come clean about the incident eventually. Now was as good of time as any.

“She wasn’t crying yesterday,” Crystal rejoined, “when I asked her for the assignment I gave and she didn’t have it. She didn’t do it at all.”

“So you attacked her like a dog?”

“She told me she didn’t care, so I told her to leave. I told her I don’t have time for people who don’t care.”

“She cares, Crystal. She’s a good agent.”

Crystal blinked. The statement was as ludicrous as it was ignorant. “How can you know that? She’s never taken a single live call on her own.”

“She’s from a good school. It’s on her resume.”

“And that makes her a good agent?”

“It means she has potential.”

“The only potential I see in Beth is for a lot of open tickets and disgruntled dropped calls.”

“You’re not giving her a chance.”

“She needs to try before I can do that.”

“Did you call her fat?”

A grimace spread over Crystal’s face. Calling Beth fat…yes, that had been bad. A moment to regret for a long time to come. The stuff of fourth-grade playgrounds.

“I’m afraid I did,” she had to admit, keeping her eyes on Roberta’s by the sheerest willpower. “That part of the incident I wish I could take back. But not the rest.”

It did not have the effect she’d been going for. The account manager’s face remained stern, stony. Her heavy dark eye-shadow made Crystal think of assassins in the wings of black parapets.

“To judge someone by his or her personal appearance,” she intoned, “is very unwise. Especially in my domain.”

“It wasn’t spoken from the heart.”

“I hope not. But either way I can’t let this one rest, Crystal. I’m going to meet with—“

The phone rang, cutting her off. It left Crystal alone with the frog for a few minutes while Roberta handled whatever it was that needed handling.

Hop to it! it told her again.

Beth had to dislike it too, only for a different reason: the message. Crystal was certain that girls like Beth did not hop to anything except Big Macs and Quarter Pounders with extra cheese.

Roberta put down the phone. “Okay then. Where were we?”

Crystal saw no reason not to be succinct with her answer. “I believe we were about to discuss disciplinary action. Pertaining to me.”

“That’s right. Yes, I’m going to meet with each of your students in turn. Also their team managers. The time has come for…a full investigation of your conduct, in and out of the classroom. You’re late several times a month. Your absences are piling up.”

“I understand,” Crystal said. What else was there to say?

“Afterward we’ll decide whether or not anything needs to be done. By we I mean myself, the TMs, and probably the client.” Her hands folded on the desk. “In the meantime, you’re on probation.”

“Probation?”

“There will be another trainer present during all of your classes. Also, the QACs in your work area will be reporting to me daily on what you do with the time in between. What you do and where you go.”

A hot, harsh breath of air plumed from Crystal’s lungs. “What’s the matter, Robert?” She knew he hated to be called this. “Did somebody from IT find another way around the firewall so all us girls can go back to playing on social media during work hours?”

“This is why, Crystal,” Roberta explained, looking vindicated. “This is why I have to press my thumb down. You have a temper. You respond poorly to discipline. Just the other day I heard you swearing in the bathroom. Something about the coffee dispensers—“

“They’re disgusting, yes.”

“They’re also free. If you don’t like what we have here then go to Starbucks.”

Crystal’s lip twisted. A swish and a score from downtown for the account manager.

“You also swear quite a bit on the client’s personal chat service,” she continued. “That’s forbidden and you know it.”

“You’re asking me to change.”

“No. I’ve been asking you to change for the past three years, and that’s been all, because until recently our agents have always shown improvement after taking your classes. Now I’m done asking. Now I’m telling.”

Ultimatum given, Roberta stared over the desk. Crystal stared back, letting the silence draw out like a held breath. It took a long time, but eventually she needed some fresh air.

“All right,” she said.

“Good,” Roberta nodded. “So we’re done here. You may go.”

Crystal stood up. Anger and frustration swelled in her chest. Something needed to be said, some parting shot to fracture the ever-present, ever-frigid composure that seemed to glow like an aura around Roberta no matter what the circumstances. Yet she couldn’t think of a thing. Without lifting her eyes, she left the office. Several dozen agents stared at her as she passed—she could feel them all, rays of heat that they were.

The comfort rooms were at the end of a narrow corridor just outside the work area. Crystal went into the ladies’, sat down inside one of the stalls, and cried. It helped a little. The swelling in her chest faded. Her fists came unclenched.

It was just too bad there was a mirror in the comfort room as well—a rather large one that took up the entire wall. Crystal splashed her face at the sinks, and when she looked up, a forty year-old woman looked back at her. Too bad indeed. She was only twenty-five, after all. Her black hair, once vibrant (Peter Pan hair, her friends from school had sometimes called it), now looked tame. Sleepy. Her eyes, once a deep, rich blue, were tired as well, their shine cast over by the haze of some distant fire—a fire that burned eternal and was making its way ever closer to the hostess who could not keep herself from looking back.

“Are you all right?” DoDo ventured, after Crystal returned to her workstation.

“Yes I’m good,” she answered, faking a smile.

“Beth went home.”

Crystal shrugged. News always did travel fast in a call center. “She’ll survive.”

“Yeah but you might not. Everyone’s talking about you on the chat service.”

“I guess that’s reasonable considering,” Crystal said. “But don’t worry. Nobody here wants to kill me.”

DoDo gave a sardonic laugh. “Are you sure?”

“Oh yeah,” Crystal replied, adjusting her seat. “I mean I know how killing feels. I’ve done it before.”




















3

 

The gymnasium filled up fast on the Tuesday after Halloween.

Tension in every classroom had been tight all morning, especially among the girls. It stood to reason. That day’s guest was a popular writer of romance novels, and while it was true many of them were considered too mature for the junior high reading clique, the school board had booked him under the confidence that any questions from the audience pertaining to heated story segments would be off limits.

Or so Crystal believed. In any case, Jarett Powell’s lecture promised to be a fascinating one. Most of her friends kept copies of his work hidden either at the top or bottom of their lockers, along with other contraband such as make-up kits, chewing gum, and even the occasional pack of cigarettes (Crystal usually favored Marlboro Lights).

He had no idea what he was getting himself into—of that much, at least, Crystal felt positive. An article in the previous day’s paper had him quoted as saying: “With the junior high students I’m expecting a lot of tentative questions about where I get my ideas, and how do I get inspired. Typical things that every young author wants to know about.”

The shortest skirt Crystal could get away with wearing ended about four inches above the knee. This certified a dangerous view for Powell when he noticed her sitting in the front row. It came with a pink belt that went splendidly with the sleeveless blouse she’d taken out of her closet that morning. In the bathroom before class, she’d surreptitiously applied a light sheen of make-up, including lip-stick and eye shadow.

Fully equipped, she went back to her desk. At just before 10AM grades six through eight were called into the gymnasium. Rows of folding chairs facing an empty podium had been set up on the basketball court where Crystal did her cheering on Friday nights. Yellow and black—the school’s colors—dominated the walls, mostly in the form of championship pennants dating back to her mother’s time beneath these glass backboards and nylon nets.

Blocking out the steady chatter from the other students as best she could, Crystal sat down directly in front of the still vacant podium. Two men and one woman—the principal, the vice-principal, and the sixth grade English teacher—stood nearby, chatting between oblivious smiles. Of Jarett Powell there was no sign.

“Waiting in the wings,” Lucy said into Crystal’s ear. “If he stood there in plain sight until ten o’clock everyone would just gawk.” Then, sounding a little worried: “Do you think he’ll remember us from the other night?”

“Oh hell yes,” Crystal said. “How could he forget?”

“I was afraid you’d say that.” A sigh escaped her lips. “This is one time I wish sixth graders had to sit in the back. He’ll probably make faces at us all through the lecture.”

Crystal crossed her legs and went back to searching the doorways. The most likely bet for an appearance rested on the far right, where the locker rooms were. Her eyes squinted to penetrate the lurking shadows in that area. In moments they picked out a tall, dark shape leaning against the wall.

“Gotcha,” she whispered. “Almost time for some candy, big boy.”

Or not. Her lip twisted as the school janitor, a sixty-something man whom everyone referred to (behind his back) as Shit-Shit because of the way he smelled, appeared in the corridor, scratching his balls.

“Goddammit, Shitty, what are you doing back there?”

“Huh?”

Crystal blinked over at Lucy. “Oh nothing. Just muttering my thoughts.” She started to turn away but did a double-take, reaching towards the other girl’s face. “Ah, Lucy, straighten your glasses before they fall right off your nose.”

“Thanks. Yeah, the bow is bent. Are you going to ask him any questions?”

“Who?”

A wicked snort followed this. “Who? Shit-Shit over there. Jarett Powell, that’s who.”

“Oh, him,” Crystal replied with an equally wicked smile. “Lucy, you know that I have…several questions I want to ask him.

“Any of them fit for a public setting?”

Her eyebrows popped up for a moment. “Not especially.”

“Didn’t think so. Well you won’t be alone. Annette’s got a few wild ideas in her head. Kory and Brittney. Of course neither of them is sitting in the front row showing off their legs.”

Hey!”

“It’s true, right?” Lucy simpered. “You look like a pack of bubble gum!”

“Shut up!”

“Know his favorite flavor yet? Is it strawberry or cherry?”

“If you don’t shut up I’m going to post pictures of your Ashlee Simpson poster all over MySpace.”

This made Lucy double over so hard laughing her glasses fell onto the floor. “You would do that!” she marveled. “You just would!”

“This guy doesn’t strike me as going for strawberries or cherries anyway,” Crystal replied more seriously.

“No?”

She shook her head. “Oh no. For Jarett I’m thinking more along the lines of pink lemonade.”

“Crystal,” Lucy said, sobering up, “you know you’re only eleven years old, right? And he’s what? Forty?”

But Crystal didn’t care about this. Ever since reading his first novel, Pursuit of the Dove, in the window seat of her bedroom a year ago, she never had.

“He’s mine,” she said, looking up at the empty podium. “Believe me when I tell you, Lucy. Believe me.”

***

Ten minutes later the liver-spotted, bald head of Principal Arthur Dodder was hovering over the podium microphone.

“Good morning, ladies and gentlemen!” he honked through the gargantuan nose that took up most of his face. “As you all know, the school board has invited local author Jarett Powell to speak to you and answer questions regarding his craft.”

“Woo-hoo!” a female voice called from the back.

“It is an honor and a privilege,” Dodder grimaced, “to have him here with us. He has had several books published over the years, and is eager to discover more talent right here in his own home town. So without further ado!”

“Mine,” Crystal muttered again, as several cheers rose from the audience.

I present to the class, Mister Jarett Powell!”

Screams now from the girls. Delirious squealing. Crystal stood up and clapped with everyone else. Her eyes raced from one corner of the gym to the other. But Powell, much to her irritation, was still playing ninja. The doorways were empty, the curtains, the bleachers. Over by the locker room Shit-Shit was still scratching his balls. So where did that leave her target?

Oh my God oh my GOD!”

Wondering if a fire had suddenly broken out, Crystal whirled on her heel in the direction of the cry—

And stopped breathing.

Jarett Powell, dressed in blue jeans and a red dress shirt, was walking straight towards her. Idol that he was, he had decided on a sneak attack, making his approach to the group from behind. Only the maneuver seemed to have backfired. The girls were impeding his progress towards the podium, jumping up and down like groupies at a rock concert.

Their antics did not surprise Crystal in the least, and it irritated her even further to think that Powell could be so stupid. She stopped clapping as at last Jarett reached the podium. A smile—one half in pity for his failed coup—rose to her face, but then slumped when she realized the writer was not going to spare so much as a glance in her direction. Scowling, she watched him shake hands with Dodder. He hugged Miss Reingold, the English teacher—

At that moment Crystal could have cheerfully killed Miss Reingold, never mind the high marks she always gave her in class, nor the praise for writing skills she always heaped upon her mother. Miss Reingold was young and slender. She had long brown hair. And she was even now looking up at Jarett Powell in much the same, dreamy way all the other girls in the auditorium were. Miss Reingold really needed to have her head twisted around backwards until it popped off.

Crystal plopped down hard in her seat.

“Oh my,” Lucy let out, tying her hair back with a rubber band. “Did you feel like that the other night when we saw him? I sure didn’t. It must be some kind of virus.”

“No,” Crystal, still angry, told her. “I didn’t feel like that then. I don’t feel like it now, either. I’m not one of his chippies, Luce.”

The other laughed. “Who said anything about being a chippie? By reading his books we’ve been paying him all this time.”

“That’s not what I meant. I—“

“Good morning, everyone.”

The audience fell dead silent at the official greeting from Jarett Powell. His hands, perhaps wishing for a pair of stress balls, squeezed the podium with white-knuckled fervor. A tight smile gleamed on his face. Based on these observations Crystal surmised that public speaking did not fall neatly under this man’s list of abilities. Good. He deserved to squirm a little for ignoring her.

“I’m very pleased to be here. Thank you for having me. As I understand it, all of you are hoping to be writers one day.”

Nervous giggles from some of the girls, coughs from the boys. Crystal crossed her legs and folded her hands in her lap. Her anger began to cool. Whether everyone in the audience wanted to write one day she had no idea. She only knew her own intentions in that arena. And for the sake of them, it was time to stop seething and start listening.

“If that’s the case I’m here to help,” Powell went on, “but right up front I want to say this: Don’t let the dream of writing be the only egg in your basket. That goes triple for the aspiring novelist. A very famous author of science fiction once said that wanting to be a writer is like wanting to be a pirate. It’s an absurd, crazy idea to pursue. Let me add to that by saying you might have a better chance at becoming a successful pirate.”

Laughter, mostly from the girls, echoed over the basketball hoops. From here Powell elaborated further about how difficult it was to achieve fame as a writer, counter pointing himself from time to time with talk of effort and reward, ethic and achievement. Afterward came his opinions on how to construct a good story. He spoke of theme and voice, conflict and character development. Crystal knew most if it already from Miss Reingold, the teacher she had so recently wanted to see put to death by any kind of convenient, slow torture available.

Powell’s lecture maintained a crisp, direct style, delivered with a voice deep enough by far to penetrate any distractions coming from things like the uncomfortable chairs, or the rumbling of hungry bellies at this near-to-lunchtime hour. His big mistake came at the end, as Crystal had known it would. Like any good speaker worth his salt, Powell at the conclusion of the lecture welcomed his audience to ask questions. Unlike any good speaker, he was not ready for these questions. At all.

“Fire away,” the painfully ignorant author said, grinning.

In less than five minutes all hell broke loose. In fact principal Dodder had to come forward at the very first question—asked by one of Crystal’s cheering mates—and nip things in the bud. Or rather, try. But as poor Mr. Powell soon discovered, nothing short of the Hoover Dam was going to stop these girls from getting the data they craved, especially with the object of their enchantment so cornered and helpless.

“In your book Pursuit of the Dove you had Zoe go to bed with Jack instead of Tristan,” the mate pounced. “How do you think the book would have changed had she chosen Tristan instead? And what would the scene between them have been like?”

“Yeah!” one of the other girls cried out.

Powell looked absolutely flabbergasted. “Um…wow. Well, in the first place—“

“I think we can refrain from pressing Mr. Powell for certain details that are…inappropriate for the climate we maintain,” Dodder broke in, raising his hands.

“Aw!” another girl pouted.

Not that she needed to worry. The slack was almost immediately picked up by the rest of the cheering squad, as well as the majorettes and the tennis players. The auditorium began to buzz with excited voices discussing what should be asked next, while a few of the other girls, like drowning swimmers, gave frantic signals for attention.

“What if Tristan had just taken Zoe on the night he gave her the piano lesson?” one of them demanded to know before Powell could even look at her.

“Um…well, Tristan was a man who knew how to restrain his passion. If you recall in chapter twelve—“

“Yeah but she wanted him to! I could tell by the way you described her eyes!”

“Well perhaps that’s why she chose Jack instead.”

“She chose Jack but she’s always thinking about Tristan! Right? Right?”

“It’s very possible,” Powell, with cheeks flushing, conceded.

I knew it!”

“Me next! Me next!” A red-haired girl squealed.

This time old Dodder raised his hands as high as he could for control. And it didn’t help a damned thing.

“Ladies and gentlemen, if we could go about this in a more orderly fash—“

“In The Girl and the Grotto the merman was, like, breathing air into Marisa’s lungs so she didn’t drown while he kissed her underwater. That was so cool! Could a strong enough guy really do that?”

“Yes,” another girl proclaimed in Powell’s place. “Trust me, Carol, the answer to that is yes.”

“All right, that’s enough!” Dodder said.

But his efforts to slam the door on the ruckus were hopeless. Most of the girls broke out laughing at the way Carol’s question had been answered, and the sound of it was like a gun fired at the tape of a footrace, with the sprint soon becoming a stampede that Powell could in no way stand against.

“What makes a heroine good enough for the hero to want her? I mean really want her.”

“Eloquence and femininity. And…you know, some other mature qualities.”

“In The Blood of Venus Nadine listened to Roger scream after shooting him—was that meant to mirror the screams she gave while he shot her?”

“Shot her? Oh you mean…shot her. Probably…not. I think she just wanted him to die.”

“What do you think was going through Marisa’s mind the first time the merman saw her naked?”

“Well…he was awe-struck, as I recall, so I guess she would’ve liked that.”

“How do I get my boyfriend to kiss me the way Jack kissed Zoe?”

“Um…”

“Do boys usually want the girl to make the first move?”

“That depends, I think…”

It was Miss Reingold who came to the rescue, nudging Powell out of the way with a pat on the shoulder and a smile that dropped to the floor as soon as she had control of the microphone.

“Enough,” she told everyone, stone cold. “Sit down. Quietly.

Much to Crystal’s disappointment, the girls complied. But then she too could not help but follow the teacher’s command; in seconds she was back in her seat with her legs crossed. Pity. If only Dodder had possessed the confidence to take on today’s task alone the fun might never have ended.

“Very good,” Miss Reingold said. “Now then. Mister Powell will…hopefully allow for the questions to continue, though I wouldn’t blame him if he’d rather not.” She glanced in his direction and received an assenting shrug. “These questions will come one at a time, and only after the student has raised his or her hand, and only—and this is a big only girls—if the question is in regard to writing or the mechanics involved with writing. Do I make myself clear?”

Silence amongst the folding chairs.

Do I make myself clear?”

“Yes, Miss Reingold,” came a suitable number of voices.

“Wonderful. Mister Powell, I’m so sorry…”

Powell gave another shrug, as if to say oh heck, we were all young once, then he re-commandeered the microphone and assured Miss Reingold vocally that no harm had been done. But Crystal could just bet on how scared he was to call on the next girl. Indeed, his hand shook a little when he pointed to Betsy Silver, who had tentatively waved from her chair at the end of the second row. Her question, however, proved innocent enough.

“Where do you get your inspiration?” she wanted to know.

Powell’s reply was instantaneous. “I don’t. For me there’s no such thing. I have to make myself sit down in front of the typewriter every day.”

Crystal turned her head to look back at Betsy. The expression on her face suggested disbelief at what she had just been told.

“So you don’t really like writing?”

And with a sad smile, Powell answered: “No. Not very much.”

“Then why,” Betsy asked, more bewildered than ever, “do you do it at all?”

“Because it’s all I have, Miss. It’s all I have.”

***

For that answer alone, Crystal decided to give him detention. It would be a piece of cake to pull off.

Everyone stood up when the lecture was over. The line going back to class got close enough to the stage curtain that she could slip behind it, unseen, and make her way back to a shadowy hall wherein rows of vacant lockers lurked. From their forbidding visages she was deposited into the art wing, where she had earlier seen Powell retreat to via a wider, more heavily used route. Three classes were held in this part of the school: painting, shop, and home economics. None of them, for the time being, interested Crystal in the slightest. It was the room at the end of the hall, near the back door, where she would dole out her punishment.

She walked without a sound to the very last locker, the very last shadow, and stopped. This would make a good hiding place from which to pounce. The detention room lay directly in front of her. And on the right, in case something went wrong, an escape hatch: a back door that let onto the football field.

Except nothing was going to go wrong. As far as Crystal was concerned, it never did. Things sometimes happened that forced her to change her plans. Change, but not abandon. Oh no, not ever. A bit of chaos always made the game more fun anyway.

With a grin Crystal reached up and pulled the fire alarm.

At the sound of the bell, all movement in the school froze. Then, from everywhere around her, hurried footsteps. Shouted instructions.

Crystal moved forward one step. Looking left into the art wing, she could see but a single individual—tall, dark, and handsome—at the far end. Powell. Everyone else seemed to be making their way towards the parking lot at the front of the school. Perfect.

“Young lady!”

Screaming, Crystal whirled on her heels. Behind her stood a scrawny, aging man wearing dusty shoes and a dirty jump-suit.

“Shit-Shit!” she cried.

“Shit-shit is right!” the old man, oblivious to the nick-name, huffed back. “Girl, you have gotten yourself into a world of trouble! Pullin’ the fire alarm for no reason! Creatin’ a ruckus!”

“I didn’t!”

“Bullshit you didn’t! I saw you! Now come with me to the prince-pal’s office!”

He laid his hands on her shoulders, which repulsed her even more than the filthy, flatulent way he smelled. On instinct, she tried to jerk away. The janitor’s fingers bit down hard. Crystal screamed again, this time in pain. Her knees buckled. Shit-Shit didn’t care. He spun her around and shoved her into the hall, where she crashed straight into Jarett Powell’s chest.

“Easy there,” he said, catching her up effortlessly as the wind on a kite.

And for the second time that day, everything in Crystal’s world came to a freezing halt.

How she wanted to just keep falling into those arms that closed around her, bore her up, and shielded her from the toxins of that blubbery-lipped janitor! Indeed, it was all she could do not to leap fully into his embrace as the creature behind her began his accusations afresh.

“That girl is in trouble!” she heard Shitty bark from the depths of where her head lay buried in Powell’s chest. “She pulled the fire alarm and caused a panic!”

“Oh I don’t know if anyone’s panicking,” Powell replied. “Miss?”

Blinking, Crystal looked up. The eyes staring back at her, golden brown, gave no sign of recognition from their previous encounter. But then, as she later came to discover, Powell was a man of many guiles.

“Did you pull the bell?” he asked.

“I…”

Powell raised his brows, and a thrill shot up Crystal’s back when she realized, by way of a tiny smile at the corner of his mouth, that he did recognize her.

“Yes? No?” One of the brows ticked. “Possibly?”

“I smelled smoke,” Crystal let out.

Bullshit!”

“Hey, hey, hey,” Powell told the janitor, “you don’t talk to kids like that.”

“I do when they got no disregard for the rules! I work here, Mister!”

“No disregard for the rules? Why then our conflict is over already.”

Crystal no longer felt frightened of the janitor. Standing this close to Powell, nothing frightened her. She turned around (making certain not to abandon her rescuer’s envelopment), and with her head resting on Powell’s chest braved the face of the other man.

“I smelled smoke,” she repeated, “so I did what I thought was right.”

The janitor bared his yellow teeth. “And what did you think was right about sneakin’ away from your class? Eh? Comin’ down to the art wing without no hall pass!”

“Um…”

Oh great, cornered again. Crystal’s mind began to flip through excuses. I heard a noise—no good, too weak; I thought I saw something—still too weak; I had to use the restroom—ridiculous, there were no restrooms at this end of the school. Dammit, she was running out of time.

“Isn’t that a pack of Chesterfield’s in your breast pocket?” Powell asked, pointing.

Shit-Shit blinked. His eyes dropped, and seemed surprised to find that yes, there was indeed a packet of cigarettes protruding from the jump-suit, frayed about the top as if recently consulted.

“I see no reason to think,” Powell went on smoothly, “that the lady is being anything less than truthful in her account. She smelled smoke, she became anxious, and she pulled the fire alarm. Safety first. But if you insist on her going to the principal’s office, then I suppose we can all go together. Sort things out officially.”

“I didn’t light up on the school grounds, Mister,” the janitor came back with, though by his tone it was easy for Crystal to tell he’d been beaten. “That would set off the sprinkler system.”

“I agree. The lady here not only did the right thing by pulling the alarm, she did it in a timely fashion that saved us all from an unexpected shower.” His hand patted her shoulder. “Well done, Miss.”

“Thank you,” Crystal laughed.

“I propose the three of us join the others outside. The fire department will no doubt want to do a thorough inspection of the grounds once it arrives.”

“I’ll need to look around a bit myself first,” Shit-Shit said, looking guilty as Crystal knew she should have felt.

She glanced back at the detention room while being escorted away. Things had not gone according to plan, but there was still time to accomplish the mission. The remedy so far involved play-acting, and Crystal knew enough to stick with a winner when she found one.

“Ow!” she yelped, buckling against Powell.

The writer’s arm came around her waist. “Are you all right?”

“My ankle. I think I twisted it when Sh…when the janitor pushed me.”

She bent her knees some more, letting Powell take all of her weight. Tears—manufactured for the occasion—welled in her eyes.

“Can you walk?” he asked. Then, lower: “That old bastard.”

Crystal shook her head. “I don’t think so.”

“Okay. Well hold on, honey.”

And he scooped her up off the floor like a princess. Crystal barely had time to get her chin on his shoulder before the smile that would have betrayed everything broke over her face. Her arms wrapped around his neck. His arms, hard with muscle, found the soft crooks of her knees, the arc of her back.

“I’m a writer too,” she said next to his ear.

“Really?” he said, keeping a brisk pace. “What do you write?”

“Romance, like you.”

A laugh puffed over the top of her head. “I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Oh come on. It isn’t the hardest genre in the world.”

“No,” Powell admitted. “I’d maybe put it in the top five. Readers complain you’re not being interesting enough, so you turn up the heat. Now you’re writing porn. You can’t win.”

“Sure you can win. Just don’t fall off the balance beam. Or the tight rope. Or whatever perilous trek it is that writers walk during a story.”

“Yeah.”

Crystal lifted her head. They were getting close to the front door. Soon their interval alone would end. The time was now or never at all.

“Do you tutor, Mister Powell?”

His rhythm shook, or may have been shaken, the tiniest bit.

“Tutor? I used to. But no, not anymore.”

“That’s a shame. The atmosphere around your house seems very conducive for a student’s imagination.”

“A deviant’s too. One might be inspired to throw eggs at the porch.”

“Ha! Now what on earth put a crazy idea like that into your head?”

“I don’t know. It just sort of bubbled up. Like your name. It’s Crystal, right?”

“Genesio, yes.”

Powell stopped. They were now in a pool of sunlight at the door. His hand reached for the handle. Crystal decided to go for broke.

“Will you tutor me, Mister Powell? I can show you my work. We’ll—“

He opened the door. “I don’t think so.”

Crystal fell silent. He’d dismissed her! Closed one door while opening another. Not very nice. Damned rude, in fact. The urge to make him pay—punish him—swelled in her chest once more.

“You don’t do that,” she chided as they stepped outside.

“Don’t do what?”

“Tell me I don’t think so.” Her voice mocked him like he were a baby who didn’t want his Brussels sprouts.

He laughed. Laughed! God, she wanted to slap him now.

“I’m sorry, Crystal, but I just did. I was never a very good teacher anyway.”

“Why not let me decide if you’re good or not?”

Her head tilted. Never in her life had she been afraid to look another in the eye, and Powell—celebrity or no—would not, could not, overcome this gumption.

“I don’t teach anymore, Miss Genesio,” he insisted, maintaining his own steady gaze.

Steady, that was, right up until they were finally interrupted by the world, at which point Crystal saw it falter for the barest of moments—the flicker of a light-bulb during a storm—and in that faltering knew that her prey had been captured.

Oh my God is she all right?”

Miss Reingold was running at them from the first row of cars. Saying nothing, Crystal tightened her grip around Powell’s neck and flashed the English teacher a crooked smile.

“She turned her ankle,” Powell said, “running down the hall.”

“Did you see any smoke? We can’t find a thing anywhere.”

“None,” Powell replied. Then to Crystal: “What about you?”

“No,” she said, still wearing her shark grin. “I just ran when I heard the alarm.”

Miss Reingold looked from damsel to hero and then back to damsel. Was there jealously in her eyes? Crystal hoped so. Behind her, some of the other students had begun to point. It did not take long for these fingers to spread the news that someone was hurt. In seconds the entire parking lot had its attention on Crystal and Powell. She spotted Lucy in the throng, off to the right about three rows deep. Unlike the others, not a drop of concern showed on her face. Crystal sent her a wave and a wink.

“Fire department’s coming,” Miss Reingold said to Powell.

“That’s fine. Hopefully it’s a false alarm.”

Crystal opened her mouth to tell Powell that it wasn’t a false alarm, that she had smelled smoke, that there was a fire burning…somewhere. Under a hall of gray steel where chained compulsions reposed in a growing heat, there was a fire burning.

But he wouldn’t understand. Not today at least. Safer to talk about such things at night, with the music of cicadas to sweeten the message, and a convincing breeze at the window. In the meantime, let the fire burn. Let it weaken his walls a little further. And before long, she’d be traipsing right into his heart for whatever riches it pleased her to plunder.







































4


The school nurse could find nothing wrong with Crystal’s ankle; however, she could find nothing right with it either, and advised her patient to take the rest of the week off from school. Not wanting to miss cheerleading at the basketball game on Friday night, Crystal overruled the precaution, insisting that the pain was mild—indeed, almost non-existent now.

“It may not hurt today, but you’re going to have a miserable night,” the nurse promised.

Crystal slid pertly from the exam table to show how all right she was. No, this was not a very good nurse. She looked more like one of the lunch ladies at the cafeteria—round-bellied, round-headed, and round-opinioned. That she had failed to deduce Crystal’s chicanery was not surprising in the least. She was the kind of woman who would serve you spaghetti with a spoon if a cookbook told her to do it.

Nevertheless she ordered Crystal not to come to school on Wednesday. Here was a more reasonable proposal, to which Crystal agreed, assuring the nurse that she would stay off of her foot and keep it elevated.

***

Thirty minutes later she was in the car with her mom. A day at home of planning on how to change Powell’s mind stretched in front of her. Plenty of time, to judge by that wavering gaze.

“Wow,” the older woman said, cutting across traffic on North Main Street. “Just wow. A fire! I don’t think we’ve had a fire at that school for twenty years.”

Her tone made Crystal laugh. “I guess our losing streak is at an end, Mom.”

“Yeah!”

And then both of them were laughing. Though she seldom thought about it, Crystal knew that she was every bit the daughter of Lucretia Genesio. In addition to passing on her looks (her hair was just as black as Crystal’s, her eyes just as blue) she also enjoyed a good mess every once in awhile—some mayhem in the name of respite. Doubtless she would have considered pulling the school fire alarm for a chance to be alone with a boy an act of pure genius.

They lived in a modest split-level home on Eagle View Drive. It overlooked a valley that often flooded when the weather got bad enough, but Crystal appreciated its proximity to the town park, which sported a swimming pool and a bike trail. Five years ago her father had gone for a very long ride on that trail. To this very day he was yet to come home, leaving the three females of the house—Crystal, her mom, and her younger sister Hannah—to sink or swim on their own. Together, they had chosen the latter, though it had taken time and effort to achieve, especially on the part of Lucretia. Crystal’s role during that time lay mainly with keeping her head above water at school. As far as she knew, she’d been the sole kid in her class without a father, with a mother scrambling to find a job before their money ran out. Scary days. Crystal could remember feeling nauseous at school—too nauseous on many occasions to even touch her lunch, which never amounted to anything more than cheese sandwiches and Kool-Aid.

In fact the only good thing about those times was…well, that they were gone. Like Crystal’s father, they had ridden into the woods and disappeared. It all started with Lucretia getting a job and then a promotion, which moved her from a cubicle on the ground floor of her building to an office on the third floor. At the end of that year there’d been a new bicycle under the Christmas tree for Hannah. By February, Crystal’s birthday month, she had learned how to ride it. Not long after that, Crystal won first prize—one hundred dollars—in a writing contest at school. Then Lucy had come into her life to help with the rest of her classes. Times had gotten better in a hurry. They’d gone into a phase of high fives, pom-poms, and twirling skirts. Crooked numbers on the scoreboard. Despite having its coach walk out on it mid-season, the Genesio team had begun to win.

And as far as Crystal knew, it was still winning. The house on Eagle View Drive was the best looking one in the neighborhood. The lawn was green. The garage door was electric. Paint shined on the windowsills. After years of strife, upper middle-class American living had at last deigned to grace them with its holistic presence. That it might one day decide to stop gracing them never even entered Crystal’s mind. It wouldn’t be fair to let it. After all, she’d never entertained thoughts of the tough times coming to an end.

Dry leaves rushed in front of the car as they pulled up, their music perfect for the dancing cardboard skeletons on the porch. Crystal stepped out on her side and stretched. The breeze, always strong up here, played through her hair. Elm trees swayed and creaked around the valley. In the empty park below, more leaves tumbled, gathering around the backstops of forlorn, empty baseball diamonds. Of course in any Ohio November it was indoor sports that carried the day, basketball in particular. Crystal knew better than to try out for her school’s team. She couldn’t dribble and her jump shot was nothing to make diary entries about, except perhaps for the sake of humor. No, for her, it would always be cheering. She had the grace for it, the balance, and most definitely the scream. Also, dropping from the top of the pyramid her squad sometimes made was a blast.

“Nobody wins without cheerleaders,” her mom said almost every Friday morning when Crystal came downstairs in her pleated skirt. “If you don’t believe that, look no further than the Cleveland Browns.”

“Earth to Crystal. Come in Crystal.”

She turned towards the house.

“Welcome back,” Lucretia said from the porch. “Everything okay over there?”

“Yeah, Mom. I was just daydreaming.”

“Let me guess: You’re on a Jack Frost kick and Novembers are starting to rev your heart.”

This made her laugh. “I can’t help it. It shares so many lonely spots with me.”

“Oh come on. You’re too young to know that song.”

“Yeah,” Crystal nodded, stepping onto the porch, “but I hear you singing it all the time. Adult Education, right?”

“I do not!”

Crystal’s fist went into the air by way of reply. “Afternoon in the homeroom, they’re about to let you go!” she sang.

And the locker slams on the plans you had tonight!” Lucretia came right back with. Then, looking embarrassed, she reached into her purse for the house keys. “Do I really sing it that much?”

“It’s your favorite shower anthem. Don’t worry about it. I sing LFO songs when I wash.”

The keys jingled loose. “Yes, thank you for that painful reminder.”

“Stop it, you love those boys.”

“I like men, dear, not boys.”

“I’m not talking about sex, Mom, I’m talking about music.”

“Crystal,” Lucretia replied, putting the key in the door, “when everything is perfect they are one and the same.”

***

Minutes later Crystal stepped into her bedroom to get busy doing nothing for the rest of the day. Her mother’s remark about sex and music echoed in her mind, and she supposed that meant it should be considered further. Did it contain a clue of some sort to how all adults felt about the deed? The idea was a far cry from being ludicrous. In fact men sang their way into girls’ hearts on a regular basis. Rich Cronin of LFO had done it enough times. And yes, Crystal told herself, so had Daryl Hall, though not in this era. Most of the girls Crystal knew had never even heard of Hall and Oates.

Now for women the rules were different. A woman could not expect to sing her way into a man’s heart. Anyone who believed otherwise was a fool. Men simply weren’t impressed with the heights to be found in this arena. Indeed, a woman’s chosen ballad for the task (were she actually vain enough to undertake it) might bleed from the page with passion. Her voice, as it pealed out her pain, might be as high and pretty as the whitest clouds on a summer’s day. Yet still the object of her affection would likely as not do little more than nod and provide a forgettable compliment or two. A man’s appreciation (and this Crystal knew already, even at eleven) was far more associated with vision. That meant women had almost no choice when using music as a tool for seduction but to dance.

Crystal knew how to dance, but there was no way it would work for Powell, at least not at the outset. She needed to get her foot in the front door first. Earn the author’s trust. Then, perhaps, the idea of music becoming a fulcrum lever to other treasures could be considered.

Placing her mother’s comment on a mental shelf to be looked at later, Crystal stepped in front of her dressing mirror. Much to her pleasure, the girl inside of it did not look discouraged. Quite the reverse. Two blue eyes gleamed from the glass, sharp as a kunoichi’s cutting blades. Tufts of black hair, thick and wild as an elf’s, sprouted from her head. Every pore of the four foot, seven inch girl standing in front of her radiated confidence. She knew what she wanted, and where there was a will, there was a way.

***

“’I’m going to knock on his door’”, the girl decreed, nodding her head. “’Knock right on his door and then march right through it like the lady of the manor.”’

Hannah put down her fork. “What’s decreed?” she asked.

“It’s like a decision,” Crystal replied. “A hard, official decision.”

“Why not just use said?

“’Because it rhymes with head.

“So?”

“So it would sound stupid. Like when you play the clarinet.”

“Crystal,” Lucretia broke in, frowning. “Try to at least pretend like you’re grown up. Once in awhile.”

“Well she’s criticizing my story!”

“I didn’t hear any criticism. I heard a question. At any rate you shouldn’t be reading at the dinner table. It’s obnoxious.” She poured more wine into the glass by her plate, then raised an eyebrow. “Is it a romance story?”

“Yes.”

“Hot?”

“I escaped from a burning building today, Mom. Of course it’s hot.”

The older woman shrugged. “Well cut out one of those rights. You can’t say knock right on his door and then march right through it.”

“Wow,” Crystal said, flabbergasted. “Now I’ve got both of you bearing down on me.”

“Would you rather we falsely praised you to the moon like a couple of nitwit morning zoo sidekicks?”

Hannah smiled and let out a plastic laugh. “Oh, Crystal, you’re so funny! I love everything you do! Everybody should listen to this show!”

“All right, all right!” Crystal snarled. “Point taken! You don’t have to beat me over the head with it!”

“Daisy Head Mayzie!” Hannah sang. It was still her favorite book, and for obvious reasons, Crystal’s hair made her think of it all the time.

“Beach blonde bimbo!” Crystal trilled right back.

“Dumb dizzy dweeb dames,” Lucretia chimed in, happy to join the opera. “You need to stop fighting, because later you’re doing the dishes, and then you’re cleaning the porch, there’s still pumpkin shit on the railings.”

Hannah’s shoulders slumped. “Okay, that definitely sucks the melody out of the moment.”

“Agreed,” Crystal said, picking up her fork.

“Aw, my poor little babies. Will the tyranny never cease?”

They ate in silence for a few minutes. Plates rattled; glasses jingled. Crystal’s thoughts went back to her romance story. After a month’s worth of composition, she’d been feeling less serious towards it of late. But suddenly it seemed like something good might come of it after all.

“Hey, Mom,” she said. “About that hot story?”

“Yes?”

“What would my heroine need to do,” she proceeded, “to win over the man that she wants? Any ideas?”

“You’re asking me? Crystal, honey, I couldn’t win a dirty look from a gay flight attendant.”

“Come on! I know you have information. Cough it up.”

Another swallow disappeared from the wine glass. Crystal waited. Her mom had always maintained a sense of humor about losing Brandon Genesio down that bike trail five years ago, never blaming herself without a wink, a toss of the hair, a sideways smirk. His act of abandonment, she knew (as did they all by now) had been one of pure cowardice. Ineptitude with the bearing up of family responsibility. Now, at the request for love advice, Lucretia had come back with another joke. It didn’t change a thing. Her self pity was still a sham.

“Well,” she began, “I haven’t actually read your story, so I don’t know the circumstances of your heroine’s plight. But what she might want to do is find out the man’s weakness when it comes to sex.”

A silvery clatter came from under the table as Hannah dropped her fork.

“Easy, dear,” Lucretia told her. “All I mean is that different people have different, specific things that…well, that turn them on. Crystal, if your heroine can find out what that is for the hero, she could use it to her advantage. Break down his defenses.”

“I see,” Crystal said, with a dreamy, appreciative nod.

“Good,” Lucretia replied. “So try it. Write a scene where she finds out what he likes. Then write another where she gives it to him.”

“Oh I will, Mom,” Crystal promised. Her heart skipped as she spoke. “Thank you. I will.”

































5

 

November was typically the time of year for Crystal to lose her patience with the weather. She lost it, and it stayed lost until the beginning of May, when the near constant rains of April which followed the brutal freezes of February and March at last came to a stop. God, Ohio winters were the worst. Six months of frigid death (six, Crystal always told anyone who would listen, not three; if the weather was too cold to go outside in a skirt or shorts without a jacket then it was winter), illustrated in colors of gray and black. And brown, of course. One mustn’t forget brown. There was always plenty of muddy slush to be found along the February streets of Monroeville, always plenty of last year’s foliage rotting in the park, always somebody’s ugly bare lawn to look at, with a rusty snow shovel by the porch, a melting snowman next to the dog house. That same dog house would always include an empty water dish tipped over amidst copious piles of petrified shit, and sometimes Crystal wondered: Does that shit come from the dog or the snowman?

All of this she endured, year after year, for the pleasure of experiencing the rude party guest that was summer. The season that arrived late and left early whenever it could—or so it always seemed.

At least this year had been different. It was less than a week ago, on Halloween night, when the air had been warm to the point of balminess. This afternoon—Friday—was cooler, but still more than comfortable enough to walk from the school to Jarett Powell’s house in her cheerleading uniform. In fact covering the four blocks to Jackson Street made her warm, and by the time she reached Powell’s private drive (which began where Jackson Street dead-ended) she had taken off her jacket.

The driveway plunged into a wooded area before sloping down to a cedar bridge that crossed a lazy creek. Though she suspected she was a city girl at heart, Crystal found the scene pleasant enough. Leaves tumbled from the majestic heights of trees that had lived here since Abraham Lincoln’s time. Black squirrels dashed to and fro, stockpiling groceries for the coming winter. She could also hear Chubby barking from somewhere near the house.

On the other side of the bridge the driveway rose up again to a kind of plateau. Here, it split into two lanes that wrapped around a copse. In front of the copse was a parking area. And in front of that, the house.

It looked ever so much different in the afternoon sun. White with green shutters, two stories high, it seemed to smile down on its guest with an almost curious expression in its shiny windows. Why hello there, little girl, Crystal heard it say. How did you get back here?

She recognized its architectural style as Georgian, not from any real interest in the subject matter, but because her history teacher at school, Mr. Lowry, liked to ramble during class sometimes about the old houses of Huron County. Did he know about this house? she wondered. Making a mental note to ask him, she made her way across the parking area. The house loomed larger and larger.

Little girl? Are you going to knock on the door?

She stopped. At the upper west curtain a man with a white beard was scowling at her. The man was not Powell. He wore a blue hat and a uniform with gold epaulettes on the shoulders. To Crystal it looked very old fashioned—the clothing of a civil war officer. She shook her head, blinked…and the man disappeared.

Little girl? Little girrrrl?

The house, very large now that she was so close, smiled on. It was a nice house. Beautiful, even. So why did it look like it was hiding something? Why did it make her spine tingle as if spiders were crawling on her back?

“Forget it,” Crystal said out loud. “I don’t scare easy.”

Of course not. Don’t be scared of me.

Her sneakers scuffed over the asphalt to a concrete walkway that led up to the front door. Like the shutters, the door was green. In the center of it was a rather charming antique hand-crank bell. Without hesitating, Crystal turned it. A sound like a cartoon fire alarm rang on the other side.

Instant barking came from in back of the house. Crystal braced herself for whatever reaction she might get. Seconds later Chubby appeared. When he saw her his run—much to her relief—became a trot, his snarl a smile.

“Hey boy,” she said, still a little uneasy with the creature. “Anybody home?”

Chubby woofed and wagged his tail. He wanted another treat, and Crystal had time to wish she had brought some Milk-Bones just before the door opened to reveal Powell, dressed in baggy jeans and a polo shirt with a v-neck collar. Blinking up at him for a few moments, it was plain to see that either she or the dog had woken him from a nap. His hair stuck out at the door’s transom in tangled tufts. His eyes were bleary. Or maybe he’s drunk, Crystal thought. Didn’t all authors drink?

“Hi,” she sang.

“Hello,” Powell replied, dead-pan. His eyes wandered over her shoulders, perhaps to search the trees for a parent or other suitable guardian.

Crystal left him to it. She had plenty of time yet to get back to school for the JV basketball game. Standing on tip-toe, she flashed him another smile. Chubby sniffed at her skirt.

Finally Powell’s gaze returned to its proper place.

“What can I do for you today, Miss…uh, Genesio?”

“You remembered my name,” she chirped. “How sweet!”

“Well…”

“Did I wake you up?”

“Yes as a matter of fact.”

“My bad. I’m sorry. I just wanted to drop by and say thank you again for helping me during the fire at school.”

The comment earned her a smile. At last, a smile.

“There wasn’t a fire, Crystal. Remember?”

“I make no confessions,” she winked, “when not under the advisement of a lawyer.”

“Smart kid. And you’re welcome. But Crystal”—he gestured towards the trees behind her—“you should know that this is private property. I don’t just let people come walking back here whenever they feel like it.”

“Of course you don’t,” she said. Her eyebrows went up playfully for a moment. “I’m not people, though, Mr. Powell. I’m an impressionable young girl thirsting for knowledge from her elders.”

“Crystal, we’ve talked about this already. I—“

“You are a brilliant author of romance novels who hasn’t taken on a student in…how long?”

“Years.”

“Great!” she beamed. “Time to break the streak.”

“I don’t think so.” He looked down. “How’s your ankle?”

“My ankle?”

Somewhere in Crystal’s heart a girl started rubbing her hands together in anticipation. Powell’s concern for her health allowed for an unexpected opportunity. It was one she meant to capitalize on.

Bending her knee so as to balance on the ankle in question, she said: “It feels a-okay, Mr. Powell.” She then raised her fist to strike a full-on cheerleader pose. “I’ll be fine for the game. Don’t you think?”

“I think the injury to your ankle and the fire have something in common. Neither one of them ever existed.”

Her foot dropped. “Perhaps you’re right. But if you want to find out for sure you’ll need to get to know me better.”

“It isn’t that important. I told you—“

“How sturdy is this porch railing?”

Powell’s train of thought derailed. Bemused, he blinked at the wooden newel post behind her.

“What? Why?”

“Because I feel like warming up a little, that’s why.”

With that, Crystal jumped on top of the banister and began to pace back and forth with her arms held out. As always, the trick of maintaining her balance came with almost zero effort. She didn’t even need to look down. Her eyes, instead, were trained on Powell, who now looked wide awake and in the throes of a panic attack.

Are you crazy? Get down before you fall!”

He stepped forward, no doubt meaning to catch her in case the need arose. Crystal responded by taking two steps back, her shoes never missing a beat on the narrow rail.

“I don’t fall, Mr. Powell,” she smirked. “Not from balance beams anyway. I’m the best girl on my squad.”

“You’re going to put me in the hospital with a coronary. Please get down.”

“Tutor me and you’ve got a deal.”

“No.”

“Okay then.”

She did a cartwheel on the banister. Powell cried out as her legs flew into the air and the cheering skirt fell over her waist. Luckily (for him at least) the maneuver took less than two seconds to execute. Then she was standing upright again, not even breathing hard.

“One more no and you get a handstand,” she threatened, arching her brow. “Now those I can only hold for about five seconds. After that you finally get to see the girl lose her balance.”

At these words she saw something flicker in Powell’s eyes. His squint loosened; his lips came apart. The reaction caused hope to swell in her chest. It was interest. She had sparked his interest, if only for one, fleeting instant.

Then he went back to chastising her.

“You,” he said, “are the nuttiest kid I have ever met. Bar none.”

“Does that mean yes?”

He sighed.

Gotcha, she thought, for the second time that week. Only today there would be no abrogation.

“Bring me…” he began. He stopped, shook his head, ran his tongue over his lips. “Bring me something you’ve written. A piece of your work. I’ll look at it and give you a critique. And one lesson.”

Yay!” she cheered, and jumped off the banister.

What the hell?”

He had to catch her, which was fine. She knew he would.

***

The basketball team got clobbered later that afternoon.

Crystal didn’t blame herself, though her mind, during every jump and scream, had not been in its proper place for cheering. The other girls on the squad weren’t guilty either. It had just been one of those days—one of those awful days where the basketball gods were strongly in favor of the visiting team. At the end of the whole mess the scoreboard showed 29-66.

“Well that was fun,” Megan Holt said as they emerged from the girls’ locker room at 6:30.

“Yeah,” Crystal said, “I always get a kick out of the nail-biters.”

The other girl laughed. “Okay. Well call your friend Lucy and let’s go to the mall. Blow off some steam.”

“I’d like to. Really I would. But I need to study for that Spanish test we got coming next week.”

“On a Friday night? Get real, Crys.”

“If I blow that test I’m going to get a D for the semester. Maybe even a D minus.”

“Stop it. You’re letting Lucy turn you into one of those geek girls.”

“Nah. It’s just for this one time I need to buckle down.”

Crystal’s lip twisted as she spoke, and when she walked home alone it was with a mental middle finger raised in the direction of Megan Holt. The way she always talked about Lucy never ceased to irritate. The yuppie bitch was actually more concerned with social ladders than getting good grades at school.

Oh well. Outside of the cheering squad Megan meant nothing to Crystal.

Also, she had lied about the Spanish test.

She arrived home by 7PM. Hannah was in the living room watching television.

“Hi Crystal!” she said cheerfully.

Crystal’s bag slipped from her shoulder. “Hey. Where’s Mom?”

“In the shower. Wanna play Uno?”

“Not now.”

“Come on!”

“No. I have to study.”

She went upstairs to her room, closed the door and locked it. Her bag went into the closet, where it wouldn’t be touched until Monday morning. More important things than Spanish needed covering over the weekend. Not long after placing her feet back on the porch, Powell had issued a submission deadline: Monday afternoon. Crystal didn’t know if she could finish her lady of the manor story by then, but she meant to give it the ole college try. Payment for the author’s teaching services would also be discussed on Monday afternoon, or so she presumed. That promised to be a tightrope walk far more vertiginous than the one she’d performed on Powell’s porch.

Crystal stood in front of her dressing mirror. She took off her cheering sweater. Beneath was a small, boney torso that Lucretia often called pretty whenever they shopped for clothes. Crystal supposed it to be true. Her belly was flat, concave even, the skin smooth and soft. Of course her chest was also flat, but only for a couple more years. In fact she checked herself for progress at least twice every day.

It was time to do it again now. Her training brassiere fell to the floor. As always, the breasts beneath it were still asleep, though the nipples tended to get sharp when they were bare. Would Jarett Powell be interested in them yet? she wondered, laughing a little at the idea. Sad to say, probably not. Yet that look he had given her on the porch, the way his eyes had widened, was at least cause for hope. What had she said to trigger it? Something about losing her balance.

Find out the man’s weakness when it comes to sex.

Lucretia’s words. Sensible. Ones Crystal had taken as wisdom.

So then…where did the connection lie? What about losing her balance seemed to interest Powell so much?

She didn’t know. Perhaps the look on his face had been nothing more than imaginary play on her part, but she doubted it. By accident, he had given her a scent to follow, and follow it she would.

Her eyes went to the headboard. All of Powell’s books were there. In them, perhaps, were clues that could lead her deeper along. She could also find out more on Monday, when she saw him again, if her line of questioning proved clever enough. And if, of course, she could win over his trust.

“All right,” she said to the bare-chested girl in the mirror.

Full of confidence, the girl stared straight back. Why shouldn’t she be confident? A major piece to the puzzle of Jarett Powell—tutorship—had been obtained. As for finding the other piece—seduction—things were off to a pretty good start. And oh the stories there would be to tell, to write, when she fitted them both together.

“Time to grow up,” the girl in the mirror said.

On that pronouncement, she went into her bathroom for a long, hot soak in the tub. It was just the thing an adult would do after a productive day in the field.













6

 

For the rest of that weekend she sat in her room, smoking cigarette after cigarette, not knowing what would become of her encounter on Monday. Her fears, her desires. And yes, her love. All three were his for the taking. Would he offer his own in return? Maybe not, she thought with an inner cringe. But then…maybe it didn’t matter.”

“Stop,” Powell said.

Crystal looked up from the pages of her manuscript, which were fanned out between her fingers like a poker hand.

“How old did you say this girl is again?” he wanted to know.

Before she could answer a mahogany clock on the wall struck the bottom of the hour—3:30. Crystal thought that the clock went perfectly well with the rest of Powell’s living room. At school Mr. Lowry often talked about a recent re-emergence of late nineteenth century style in a lot of American homes, and it was in plain evidence here. Wooden furniture surrounded a fireplace hearth made of brick. The walls were half-paneled with imitation oak. The ceiling was coffered.

“She’s twelve,” Crystal said, sitting up in her chair.

Powell took a swallow from his can of Coke. “And you’ve got her smoking cigarettes in her bedroom? Wouldn’t that bother her parents?”

“No,” Crystal grimaced, liking the author’s condescending tone less and less. “She keeps that a secret.”

“Right. Crystal, you can’t keep a smoking habit secret, especially if you do it indoors.”

“She doesn’t—“

“You smoke,” Powell observed casually.

It irritated the hell out of Crystal.

“Look I’m not cutting out the cigarettes,” she said, slapping the papers on her knee. “It’s part of who she is.”

“I didn’t say to cut them out. But you can’t have her smoking in her bedroom, unless the parents already know about it and don’t mind, which would be a tough sell to your readers.”

“My mom knows I smoke.”

“In the house?”

“I don’t smoke in the…” She trailed off.

“You were saying?” Powell asked with a smile.

“Oh shut up.” The manuscript slapped her knee again. “Fine! She doesn’t smoke indoors. What about the rest of it? Any good, or does that one character flaw bring the whole house down?”

He answered one question with another. “Did you come here for constructive criticism or to be told how great you are? Look…” He leaned forward, folding his hands over the coffee table between them. “I like your character. She’s very interesting.”

Crystal rolled her eyes. “Interesting. Shit, the kiss of death.”

“Okay, let me try again. She’s cool. And a cool cat like that would never parade her vices in front of her parents. Is she you, by the way?”

“I think so,” Crystal answered. “I changed her a little bit over the weekend so I could meet your deadline. Made her younger.” She shrugged. “But yeah, she’s me.”

I guess that means I’m cool too. Right, Mister Powell?

“When did you start smoking?” he asked.

“Just this year.”

“Because?”

“I look up to the heroines who do it in movies and books. Old movies. You know they don’t let anybody smoke on screen anymore. I think the latest I could find was Samantha Mathis in Pump Up The Volume.

“One of my favorites,” Powell said with an appreciative nod. “Came out in the summer of 1990. Post Madonna, pre Nirvana. I don’t think any of us really knew what we wanted to watch or listen to. The writer, Allan Moyle, realized that.” He smiled into the fireplace, which was crackling pleasantly. “I think he did anyway. We were all somewhere in between. It’s where that movie gets its excellent soundtrack.”

“Your heroines smoke,” Crystal said, wondering if perhaps this was his weakness, his own vice, when it came to women. If so, the job of seducing him would be easy. She’d just light up whenever they were together.

“Yes,” Powell agreed. “Writers often use tobacco as a reflection of confidence. And I’m like you—I think yesterday’s heroines are awesome. Jean Harlow, Irene Dunne, Joan Fontaine.”

“Um…”

He laughed. “My yesterdays go a little further back than yours, but you get the point.

“You’re only forty, Mister Powell.”

“Ha! The dear girl, to use the word only in front of that number.”

“What? Forty’s nothing. And you look thirty.”

“Now now. Careful with all that sugar.”

She uncrossed her legs. “Speaking of sugar, do you want me to cook you anything? It’s the least I can do as payment for the lesson. And for carrying me out of a burning gymnasium.”

“I don’t think I have much in the kitchen,” Powell lamented.

He didn’t. After a rudimentary inspection of his cupboards—which were painted a rustic farm-house white—Crystal found herself standing next to the stove with a can of corn in one hand and a bag of kidney beans in the other. It wasn’t going to cut it. Appalled, she looked up at Powell.

“What do you eat here, Mister?”

“I order out most of the time. Or drive to Vansons.”

“Vansons is okay but you ought to use these appliances once in awhile. Tell you what,” she tempted, careful to watch his reaction, “you teach me how to write and I’ll cook for you, every time I come over. How does that sound?”

He frowned at the empty burners. “I don’t know, Crystal. People will get some funny ideas in their heads if they find out you’re coming back here all by yourself.”

Her eyes narrowed. Oh did that remark sting.

“There’s nothing funny about it,” she said tightly. Then, after seeing confusion surface in his eyes: “I mean…it’s just extra schooling. Higher learning. I’ll make sure my mom knows. You can even send me home with progress reports.”

“Progress reports,” he repeated, smiling a little.

“Sure! My other teachers hand them out all the time.”

Liar.

The author’s next words made her think she’d spoken the word out loud. “I’ll have to think about it, Crystal. Okay?”

“Ohh,” she pouted. The corn and beans dropped on top of the stove. “What if I hold my breath until you say yes?”

“Isn’t that a trifle juvenile?”

“Yes. But if it works I’m willing to go for it.”

Crystal felt her heart begin to speed up with excitement. For some reason that look had come back to his face—the one with the wide eyes and the open mouth. She was getting close again, or so she deduced. Flirting with some weakness of his. What was it? Where was it?

Smiling, Crystal drew in her deepest breath—Haaaaah!—and held it.

“Stop that,” Powell said at once. “Come on.”

She ignored the command, keeping her smile intact. Five seconds passed. Ten. The author smiled back, and for just a moment his eyes dropped to her chest. That chest was hurting now (fifteen seconds had gone by) but the fascination in Powell’s scrutiny made the pain easier to bear. It seemed she’d found a secret passage into his psyche. Could it be the one that led to the second part, the second piece?

Suddenly she winced. “Nn!”

Twenty seconds now, give or take. Her time was almost up. Cheering lungs or no, she needed to breathe. But Powell…

“All right!” he almost shouted.

Gah!” Crystal gasped, triumphant. “Atta boy. I knew I could make you roll over.”

“You looked ready to pass out on the floor. Listen kid…I don’t know about this. People are going to talk.”

“If they do we tell them the truth. You’re giving me writing lessons.”

“I had the Today Show here last year. Good Morning America.”

“I saw the interviews.”

This was an understatement of the truth. She had, in fact, recorded them both on her VCR, and still watched them repeatedly.

“How do you think press like that would react if they find out I’m taking an eleven year-old girl into my home during the week for after school specials?”

“I’ll be twelve in a couple more months. And Mister Powell”—she took a step forward, which caused him to step back—“every writer takes on a student from time to time. Am I right?”

He wouldn’t look at her; his eyes seemed to have found something interesting under the refrigerator. That was okay. Crystal didn’t take it as defiance. If anything, Powell was making this task easier than she’d anticipated. Caving in without a fight.

“I don’t know,” he said at last. “Maybe.”

“Look at what Anthony Boucher did for Philip K. Dick. And then there’s Robert McKee.”

“Robert McKee doesn’t invite people into his home.” He shook his head; Crystal could almost see the cobwebs clear. His eyes regained their focus…and looked straight through her, causing her knees to tremor. “Okay. Come by twice a week for one hour. Mondays and Fridays.”

“Make it Mondays and Thursdays and you’re on. What’s your favorite food?” she asked, before he could blurt out anything ridiculous about bargains and compromises coming too soon in their relationship.

“Goulash. With tomatoes and beef.”

“Hungarian. Not a problem.” She gave him a wink. “Buy some groceries for Thursday.”

“I will.”

“Goodbye, Mister Powell. And thank you for the education.”

He smiled down at her, letting his shoulders drop. It was a good sign; she liked him better relaxed.

“You’re welcome, Crystal. Take care getting home.”

***

It was a long walk from Powell’s farm to Eagle View Drive. Nevertheless, Crystal did not feel compelled to rush. Though her mom did not get off work until five, she still wanted to be prepared for questions should they arise. Indeed, Hannah had not looked especially convinced by anything when she’d had to walk home alone at 2:30. Extended cheerleading practice was a hard story to swallow when it was only Monday—and there was no way Crystal could feed it to her twice a week. If she wanted to keep seeing Powell she was going to need to get far more creative.

So she kept her gait casual on the way back to North Main Street, letting her eyes wander. The afternoon had turned gray and crisp. Branches clawed at each other in a light breeze. Leaf piles waited to be bagged. On the other side of the street, a woman was hanging a Happy Thanksgiving decoration in her porch window while a little boy watched with eager eyes. November. Crystal decided on the spot that her mother was right—it did rev her heart, at least a little. It was a kind of sorrow, just the way Robert Frost had once said, but a pleasant sorrow, rife with lonesome 2AM rains in the streets and giggled 2PM secrets in quiet bedroom reading nooks.

Her own bedroom contained such a nook, and today she would use it. After letting herself in with her house-key she ran upstairs. Hannah’s bedroom door was closed. Crystal knocked.

“Hannah? I’m home.”

“Yay!” she heard the younger girl cry.

The door flew open. For a moment it was like seeing the sun again. Hannah’s face, all yellow hair and blue eyes, positively shined out at the walls.

“Is Mom home yet?” Crystal asked, wishing for a pair of shades.

“No. Wanna play Monopoly?”

“Not now.”

“Pleaaaase?”

“Hannah I’ve got things to do.”

“Well what do I do then?” she pouted.

“Don’t you have homework?”

“It’s done!”

“Well mine isn’t.”

“Fine, just go!”

And she slammed the door hard enough to make the pictures in the hall shake. Pleased to have that situation out of the way, Crystal turned on her heel. She closed the door of her own bedroom with a soft click, went straight to the bookshelf, and plucked out a copy of The Girl and the Grotto. On the cover stood a barefooted girl with long black hair; she was gazing out at a body of blue water framed with palm trees and jagged rocks. Beneath the girl’s feet was the author’s name—Jarett Powell.

“Breath-holding,” Crystal said to herself, bemused. “Come on, that can’t be it.”

She sat down in the nook. Her fingers flipped through the pages to chapter twelve, wherein she knew that a rather dramatic underwater scene took place. It described the heroine’s second visit to the grotto, which she’d discovered while on a team building trip to an island with her colleagues. Fascinated by its beauty, she made up her mind to return to the grotto alone, this time with a bikini bathing suit.

***

The sun’s rays searched beneath the surface, caressing the rocks, the plant-life. But no sign of a true resting place could be discovered. The bottom was lost behind a screen of chalky blue.

It didn’t bother Marina. Though she was a small woman, her lungs were strong. A good, deep breath could usually sustain her for two minutes. That had to be long enough. On this island the water didn’t get deep until one swam at least half a mile from the beach. The powdery blue she was seeing in the grotto from this vantage point—a blue that looked almost abysmal—was nothing more than a reflection of the sky. No way could the bottom be very far down.

Still, if she really wanted to find out what was feeding this place, it didn’t pay to take risks. The swim would be more comfortable, Marina thought, more natural, to perform topless. Confident that she was alone in this well off the beaten track part of the island, Marina untied the back of her bathing suit. She took a breath as it fell away from her high, pert breasts. Her lungs felt sprightly. Eager. Ready to work.

***

Crystal stopped reading. Her lip pursed in thought. Had Powell enjoyed writing this scene? Had he composed it with his pupils dilated and his heart on fire? She knew the answer…and she knew why. The prose was a slave to the beast that fed it. A slave, a beggar…and finally, a glutton.

***

One kick, two kicks, three. Down and down Marina dove, her smooth, slender legs cutting the water. Her mouth was tight, sealing in the deep gasp she had given her chest as well as it could. Yet a vague, distant tightness had settled over her breasts. A gentle squeeze from the hand of time. Marina opened her legs wide and gave another hard, strong kick. Nothing changed. The grotto glowed all around her. Above, the sun shined through a surface that looked a mile away.

Marina winced as a bolt of pain suddenly stabbed through her lungs. Her mouth opened to release a short, clipped cry of bubbles. It was time to leave. The grotto had defeated her…for now. But there was always tomorrow. And the next day, and the next.

Chest hurting for air, she began her ascent…

***

The book slapped closed in Crystal’s hand. Her eyes went back to the shelf. She would leaf through Powell’s other books, search for other scenes like this one (and they were there; Crystal could think of two already from two different books that involved the heroine holding her breath). But the exercise was academic. She had what she wanted.

Her next task lay in finding out how to use this newfound weapon. A simple girl, she knew, would carry it over to Powell’s house and start swinging it at him like a tennis racquet. Hi my name’s Crystal watch how long I can hold my breath GAAAAH!

That would never do. For one thing, it was stupid. Also, Crystal didn’t think she could hold her breath for very long. Marina’s time of two minutes was…insane. Thirty seconds sounded much more realistic, with a good deal of kicking and squirming.

Would Powell be satisfied with that? Would it make him excited?

Crystal thought yes. She’d gotten him excited already with twenty seconds. Were she to wait longer, show him her absolute limit, he might well fall to his knees. Then she could declare her victory. Raise her flag over his fort.

She slipped The Girl and the Grotto back onto the shelf, then went down the hall for a long bath before dinner. The tub was deep, but she filled it to the very top before getting in. She filled it to the top to find out how long she could stay on the bottom. Her objective was thirty seconds. Very easy, especially for a cheerleader.

Confident as always in her abilities, Crystal slipped under the surface and waited.

***

“Let me guess,” Hannah said on Thursday afternoon in front of the school, “cheerleading practice again?”

Crystal shook her head. “Nope. I’m staying behind to help decorate the gym for Thanksgiving.”

“You’re full of shit, Crystal.”

“Hannah, come on!” a third voice cried out.

Both girls looked in the direction of the crier, a girl whom Crystal didn’t recognize.

“I’m staying over at Gillian’s house this afternoon anyway,” Hannah explained. “So go…do your decorating.”

“It’s a holiday thing,” Crystal said, as her sister backed away.

“Sounds more like a boyfriend thing to me. Maybe I can meet him sometime.”

“Hannah!”

“Bye!”

And she disappeared with her friend into the throng of other kids on their way home. Crystal watched, shivering in the November chill. Yes, her story had been pretty lame this time. She’d been too lazy to think of anything better. Screw it, though. At least Lucy wasn’t asking questions.

Hitching up her backpack, Crystal started off towards Jackson Street.

***

The lameness continued in Powell’s living room. He read five more pages of her story out loud…and it sounded terrible. The paragraphs, and even some of the individual sentences, just didn’t want to fit together. Powell kept having to stop in order to avoid being impaled by her jagged narration, her broken syntax. It made her want to cringe. Over the past two days her story had become a funhouse of death.

“She arrived at the other side of the street just in time to see the boy run quickly, heatedly, past her and nearly get hit by the fastest car she had ever seen on this street..

“’Come back here!’ she said.

“’No!’ he shouted back.

“’Now!’ she screamed.

“’I’m not!’ he yelled.

Another car passed. The boy jumped. And then he just ran away.”

Powell stopped reading. From the expression on his face it was clear he could stomach no more. He was standing in front of the fireplace, and for a moment his eyes darted into the flames; for a moment, Crystal was sure, he wanted to burn the manuscript.

“This is…not like what I read on Monday,” he came out with instead.

She glared at him from her usual seat on the couch. “It sucks. I get it.”

“So how would you fix it?”

“You’re the teacher. You tell me.”

“One thing I will tell you,” he frowned, “is not to be disrespectful. Not if you hope to learn anything.”

“Sorry.”

“Good. Let’s look at the scene where the boy runs in front of the car. What’s wrong with it? What does it need?”

“Cut. Simplified.”

Powell’s hand slapped the paper. “Good girl. Now cut it for me.”

Crystal took the story from him and scribbled in an alternate description of the scene. When she handed it back, it read like this:

She got to the street just in time to see the boy run in the other direction. A car’s horn blared. Brakes squealed. The boy winced as the car’s front bumper stopped mere inches from his knees.

“Better,” Powell said, nodding. “I like it. Be careful with the word the. Use it over and over again and the reader gets bored.”

“I noticed that,” she admitted. “I wanted to get around it somehow.”

Powell looked at the paragraph for a few moments. Today he wore an open gray sweater over-top of a blue dress shirt. Below the belt was the same as always: blue jeans and hiking boots.

“Okay,” he said, not noticing her scrutiny, listen to this. “She reached the opposite curb in time to see what looked like a large cat bolt in the other direction. Only it wasn’t a cat—it was the boy. She opened her mouth to scream his name just as a passing car nearly killed him. Brakes squealed; a horn blared. Then the boy was standing mere inches away from a gleaming chrome bumper.

His head shook after a moment’s thought. “Nah. I like your fix better, actually.”

“Thank you.”

“In this next part you have them arguing. But it’s too much. Remember the law of diminishing returns. Never repeat more than once, especially in dialogue like this.”

“Robert McKee again.”

He smiled at her. “Exactly. He preaches it, and he’s damned right to do so.”

“I think I’m going to learn a lot from you,” Crystal said—almost purred.

She stood up from the couch. It was time to experiment with what she’d learned earlier in the week.

“I know our hour’s almost up, but before I go can you do me the tiniest little favor?”

“Sure,” he said, glancing up from her story.

“It’s going to sound crazy at first,” Crystal went on. She could barely keep her smile from becoming a leer. Oh what a sight this man was going to make. “But it’s for cheerleading practice. I’m…sort of wondering if you could time how long I can hold my breath.”

Powell’s eyes came off the page again. This time they didn’t go back. He tilted his head, as if something odd had suddenly appeared in the fireplace behind Crystal. He blinked. The story gave a tremor in his hand.

“Hold your breath?” he at last got out. “For cheerleading? Uh…sure. Sure. I can do that for you.”

It made her burst out with laughter. “Well thank you! I’d rather practice in front of somebody than alone, so it feels more like the drills.”

“Yes,” Powell nodded. “Of course. That makes sense. This is so you can shout louder during the games?”

“Yes sir. And increased stamina overall.”

She had on a blue flower-print dress. Now she unbuttoned the top button, exposing the clavicle.

“I’ll just stand where’s there’s a little more room,” she told him, as he tried not to gape. There was plenty of space in front of the television. Crystal planted her feet on the hardwood floor, choosing an open-stance posture for balance. “Here okay?”

“Yes.” He coughed. “That’s fine.”

“Just let me get one more button. I think it’ll be easier to inhale.”

“You ah…take this very seriously, I can see,” Powell said as she bared a little more skin.

“I think cheering’s important, Mr. Powell. People need inspiration. Men especially.”

He nodded. “That’s probably true. So how long does your coach expect you to hold your breath?”

Her eyes penetrated him as she answered. “Every girl needs to do one minute. And before you ask—no. I can’t. No way.”

“I see. Well how long can you go.”

“Thirty seconds. By then I’m like…dying.”

This was the truth (though what she’d said about needing to last one minute was not; in fact, her coach never asked any of the girls to hold their breath at all). Over the past two days Crystal had been practicing at the bottom of her bathtub. But in spite of her very deepest, most determined breaths, thirty seconds was it. Her absolute, lung-wrenching limit.

“Ready?” she said, feeling like a girl dangling a carrot in front of a rabbit.

“Wait,” Powell answered. He stepped forward, towering over her. A musky odor of cologne wafted into Crystal’s nose. “Raise your arms. To the sides, like you’re giving a speech to a large audience.”

“That sounds interesting.” She splayed her fingers, letting the nails claw out at the walls. “Why?”

“It’s the way I used to practice on the swim team in high school.”

“A-ha!”

He smiled. “It provides a bigger challenge, a better workout.”

“And what is your personal best, Mr. Powell?” Crystal asked, fluttering her eyelashes.

“Maybe I’ll tell you sometime. Ready?”

He stepped back, causing Crystal’s heart to sink the tiniest bit.

“Okay. Go.”

And after the deepest gasp she could get, he timed her to the very end.



































































PART TWO: The Rabbit






















7

 

She awoke.

It was still the middle of the night. Outside, a wind had gotten up. A million ghosts howled and swirled around the Jackson farm. Shadows of bare November branches writhed on the ceiling. Blinking at them, Crystal thought: I’m in the wrong room.

She put her feet down. A candle flickered on a small table by the door. Beyond was another, more steady glow of light that Crystal knew came from the bathroom at the end of the hall. How had she gotten all the way down here? Jarett’s room, the one she always slept in when she stayed overnight, was on the east end of the house. It made no sense, unless she’d been sleep-walking, and if that were the case, it was a first.

“Jarett?” she called, padding up to the candle.

The wind seemed to be getting stronger. Screams deep and cold shook the windows. The bathroom light flickered. Crystal stepped into the hall. Wooden stairs, familiar, curved down into blackness. Balanced on the railing was something that looked like a miniature torpedo. Shiny steel gleamed in the strange light. Crystal somehow knew what it was: a handgun.

“Jarett!” she called again, looking down towards his bedroom, where more blackness held sway.

And—eureka!—he answered.

“Come on downstairs, sweetheart, I’m in the kitchen!”

As he spoke a light popped on from somewhere below.

Night-dress billowing, Crystal raced down, eager to jump into her trophy’s arms and end this weird adventure. At the bottom of the stairs was a door that let onto the living room. This she ignored, choosing to glide down the narrow corridor on her right instead. It took her straight to the kitchen, which was clean and organized as always. Wooden cupboard doors, all closed, gazed impassively over an empty table. The refrigerator hummed. But Powell—she knew it had been Powell who’d called her—was nowhere to be seen.

Crystal called his name a third time just as the sound of high-heeled dress shoes began to click over the floor in the dining room. Their pace was brisk, and when she looked left a grotesquely tall woman with black hair covering her face appeared out of the dark.

I’m gonna KILL you!” the woman moaned.

Her body slithered under the kitchen table like a snake—knocking chairs everywhere—popped up in front of Crystal, and grabbed her by the throat.

KILL you!” she moaned.

Crystal opened her mouth to scream but nothing came out. The black curtain of hair came closer, closer. She felt her feet leave the floor. Her body was being lifted, pressed against the cupboards. Now, crazy as it seemed, the banshee began to accuse her. To lay groundless, confounding blame that made no sense.

You threaten me!”

Crystal’s back was slammed against the cupboard five times: WHAM-WHAM-WHAM-WHAM-WHAM!

You mock me!”

WHAM-WHAM-WHAM-WHAM-WHAM!

And now you swim on the floor!”

With that, the banshee’s cold, clawed hand took hold of Crystal’s head…and twisted it straight off.

Somehow, she was still able to scream, over and over, as she felt her bodiless entity tossed into the black dining room, where it bounced off the table, hit the wall, and rolled to a stop beneath one of the chairs.

Mouth gaping, Crystal’s head was plucked once again from its resting place, this time to be thrown so high into the air she knew from some distant connection in her thoughts that the ceiling had disappeared. At the very peak of her ascent, two hands reached over a wooden railing and caught her. They belonged to the banshee. She had raced upstairs…and now her black hair was slithering over Crystal’s face, splashing her cheeks like dirty water. In it a mouth with bloody red lips could be seen.

SWIM” it boomed.

The banshee popped Crystal’s head into her mouth, and swallowed her with one gulp.

***

She sat bolt upright in bed. It was still dark outside. Through the balcony window, an orange overhead light threw shadows of raindrops on the wall. Crystal’s heart raced, though she knew she wasn’t at the Jackson farm anymore. It had been a dream—just a bad dream. She was back in Manila.

The baby lay asleep beside her, hands curled into tiny fists over his head. And beside the baby, her husband Michael. Miko for short.

There was nothing wrong. She had suffered a nightmare, but now she was awake, back in the real world. Yet her heart would not slow down. It raced like a rabbit being chased by a wolf. Her breath came up short; her arms began to tingle. Knowing that it was just another panic attack—one of maybe half a dozen that struck her every week—did not make it easier to cope with. She looked at Miko, considered waking him up, then went to gnawing on her thumbnail instead.

Her nails were ragged these days. Broken all over. The fact became bothersome whenever she thought about it for too long (in school she’d taken such good care of them). But it couldn’t be helped. Against these panic attacks, her nails were on the front line of defense. It was either bite them and slow her heart down or let them be pretty and have a stroke.

“Shit,” she whispered.

Now that ugly word—stroke—was skulking about the shadows on this already ugly night.

Well why not? her mind gibbered. Strokes are very common. They happen all the time, and it doesn’t matter if you’re only twenty-five. Panic attacks make your blood pressure go up. Way, way up. You need to calm down or you’re going to have a stroke. You need to calm down or you’re going to have a stroke. You need to calm down—

“Stop it.”

The baby’s fists came slowly open. Not wanting to wake him up, Crystal reached behind her for the book she always kept on the headboard. Books were her second, and by far the most powerful, line of defense against what she had come to think of as mind mutinies. She fumbled it open after activating a flashlight app on her cell phone and began to read.

At first it didn’t help. Her heart kept racing, her arms kept tingling. She began to read aloud, softly so as not to wake the baby. Overcoming a panic attack involved diverting the mind, giving it something other than fear to focus on. Reading almost always accomplished the trick for Crystal…but when even that didn’t work, reading aloud did.

Like now. She came to the end of a sentence, bit down harder on the nail…and finally, her heart tripped into a slower rhythm. Crystal’s chest relaxed. It was over. For now. For one more night.

She finished the chapter. Rain kept trickling down the window, now accompanied by a breeze that rushed through the room, lifting curtains, rifling papers. Miko’s ID badge swung back and forth from a closet door handle.

“Da ba-ba!”

Crystal looked down in surprise—she’d had no idea the baby was awake.

“Hey you,” she whispered.

A grin surfaced on her son’s chubby face. “Da ba-ba!”

Crystal smiled back. “Da ba-ba yourself,” she said, then got up to fix him a fresh bottle.

***

A few hours later they went grocery shopping at the mall, without Miko. This because her husband refused to set foot outside the house on weekends and holidays. Too much traffic, too many people. That was his explanation. A good one, but still inexcusable. Since when did Filipinos mind spending time with other Filipinos? Since never, that was when. But Miko, though born and partly raised in Manila, had not been cultured here. No, he had the United States to thank for his cultural values, and Crystal found it hard not to point an accusatory finger at it sometimes, as if to say this is why you are the way you are; this is why you’re cynical, why you never talk to me anymore; you married an American and now what you want a Filipina to help you forget.

Only she herself had been neither cynical nor silent—not at the beginning, at least. She’d been in love. Genuinely and unabashedly, head over heels in love.

“How do you know?” a friend had asked her, long ago.

“Because I don’t care if he doesn’t love me back,” Crystal had replied. “This isn’t like I need to win anything. I just want him to be happy.”

And happy was how things were, for a whole year after their marriage in the States and then another in Manila, where Miko had taken a job as manager at his uncle’s hotel. Then one day not long after the baby came, she realized they were drifting apart. Fate favored the usual suspects: boredom, disenchantment, temptation from different horizons. It could have been one of those things, none of them, or all of them. She only knew that Miko was changing. Talking less, smiling hardly ever. His eyes didn’t widen anymore when he looked at her. He no longer surprised her with gifts, or acted silly to make her laugh. Sex had come to a dead halt. Crystal had married one man; today, she lived with another. And while it hurt to see him slip away, she was willing to let him go. She still wanted him to be happy. All she wanted in return for that freedom was to know why.

Slim chance, to judge by Miko’s ever-increasing reticence in her company. Sighing, Crystal placed a box of instant spaghetti into the shopping cart. Luke—the baby—pointed to it from his safety-seat, as if to say what is that, Mommy?

“That is the stuff you’re going to smear all over your face tonight for dinner,” she told him. “Come to think of it, so is your dad.”

She rolled the cart over to the sauces shelf. Loud music brayed from the store’s audio system. A small video screen on the second shelf shouted at her to Buy Prego! Other than that there wasn’t much going on—not in this aisle, anyway. It was still far too early for the really big crowds to start jamming things up. Like Miko, Crystal knew about these crowds and avoided them like the plague. Learning the trick of it had taken time, but even in the huge metropolis of Manila, there were methods of crossing the street safely. One only needed to see the gaps. And after searching for the better part of a year, Crystal had found enough to establish a routine of sorts. You did your grocery shopping late morning—between 11AM and 1PM. In the early afternoon—around 2PM—you drove to work. You paid your bills on Tuesdays because that was when the lines were the shortest. Ditto for visits to the transportation office and immigration bureau. And so on and so forth. On most days it all worked out just fine. Of course she still became angry—more like furious—on the rare days when it didn’t, but like her marriage, that was a part of herself she had learned to live with, for better or for worse.

***

Later that night she was back in the kitchen, listening to the wind gust against the windows as she fixed Luke another bottle. Meteorologists were tracking a strong offshore typhoon, predicting that it would arrive in Manila by the end of the following day. Miko had shared this information with her as they unpacked the groceries. Spoken to her without provocation—a rare occurrence indeed.

Crystal supposed it had more to do with Luke than herself. “Don’t drive anywhere tomorrow with the baby,” he finished up by saying, a bottle of Coke Light in one hand and a carton of eggs in the other.

Now he looked up from his book as she returned to the bedroom. “I think he went back to sleep,” he said tunelessly before delving back into the pages.

Leaning over the mattress, Crystal could see that Luke had indeed sacked out after issuing his demand. From the front of his jammies a purple dinosaur smiled at her for following through anyway, and as she placed the bottle on his chest, two chubby arms closed around it. Seconds later, with eyes still closed, Luke started to drink.

This deed accomplished, Crystal picked up her cigarettes and went outside for a smoke on the balcony. The wind was an instant presence, sweeping her hair back from the brow and giving her holy hell with the lighter. More condominiums with balconies sparkled in front of her. Office towers shined. Beyond them, near the horizon, she could pick out Manila Bay, black at this time of night, abysmal.

The water made her think of Lake Erie…and from there, her mind went back home. What was Monroeville up to today? she wondered, before laughing out a puff of smoke. Monroeville was never up to anything. It was a place of men fishing on river banks and women knitting sweaters by windows. It was a place of old houses, well-kept, that brooded beneath the mighty boughs of trees even older. It was a place that made you dream of winter no matter what the time of year. It was a place of empty streets and empty playgrounds (the children were always inside watching television or eating lunch). Train whistles in the distance. Crooked headstones in the cemeteries. Wood-smoke in the fireplaces.

Crystal missed it. Oh so terribly, she missed every last beautiful, browning leaf in every last little corner she could find in her memory on this windy night.

One day, she told herself, I’m going to go home.

But first the storm. It would be a bad one. The RSMC in Japan had already classified it as a super typhoon. That meant the real winds, when they came, would be blowing at a sustained one hundred and ninety kilometers per hour. Or rather, at least that. And while Crystal wasn’t crazy about losing the electricity in her building for a few days, she knew the real trouble would be for those living in low-lying areas. Valenzuela City, Quezon City. Anywhere along the coast of Manila Bay. In cities like Baguio there’d be landslides. Other places would be without power for a month. There were no short-cuts for these areas. No easy ways around. Whenever a typhoon or a monsoon hit the Philippines, they took it on the chin.

Lately, Crystal could identify. Since moving here, she tended to let unpleasant events—in her marriage, at her job, in her car, wherever—simply have their way when they came. Have their way and then be on to the next place of landfall. Maybe that needed to stop. Maybe she needed to find out what she wanted out of life…then stand up and go after it.

As if to rebuke this idea, the strongest gust of wind yet struck the balcony. The glass door shook in its frame. Her ashtray flipped over, spewing its contents on her face. Crystal went back into the bedroom looking like Al Jolson ready sing another rendition of Mammy.

After washing her face she lay down next to Luke and closed her eyes. The dream returned. Jarett Powell on the Jackson farm. A haunted man living in a haunted place. And that wasn’t just her subconscious talking. Sometimes ghosts really had come to the bedroom door at night. Thing of it was, they were never scary. Rather, they seemed content with their surroundings. At ease with their lot in eternity. That, too, was the way Crystal had felt at the time. She had what she wanted. She’d been happy. Wrong and out of place, but happy.

Every season has its storms, Crystal.

Powell would always tell her that whenever she asked how he felt about their relationship. She hadn’t cared for the analogy. Sometimes it even made her angry, and she would yell at him before stomping out to the back porch to fume while the sun set behind the crops. But then one winter—she must have been fourteen at the time—a surprise blizzard snowed all of northern Ohio indoors for two days. Crystal had watched it white out the world from her reading nook. The wind had been savage, the snow fierce. Dangerous and demanding.

Crystal! Crystal wake up please!”

Change--God knew she needed it. If it didn’t happen soon she would lose what was left of her mind.







8

 

“Okay, Crystal, you ready? I’m going to throw some basic trig questions at you.”

Crystal looked up from painting her toenails. She was sitting cross-legged on the toilet seat; Lucy was in the shower.

“Right now?” she asked, incredulous.

“Some people sing in the shower, Crys. I think.”

“Yeah, but—“

“SIN0 equals…what?” Lucy challenged over the sound of running water. “Shout it out like a cheerleader.”

“Very funny. How long do I get to answer?”

“How long do you think you’ll have on the quiz before Christmas break?”

“Mr. Emmons will probably rig a time bomb to a giant clock.”

“Yeah. Better hurry up, girl, it’s getting foggy in here.”

In the hallways at school, Lucy spent a lot of time hiding behind her shoulder. Whilst in her element, however, she talked like a leader. One day, Crystal knew, that was precisely what she’d be.

“Side adjacent over hypotenuse,” she said proudly, nodding at this temporary flash of brilliance.

Lucy made a loud, throaty buzzing sound from behind the shower curtain. “Sorry, girl, incorrect.”

“What!”

“Try again.”

“Will you give me a break?”

The water turned off. Crystal’s bathroom had become a tropical jungle. Mist clung to the mirror. Her toothbrush rack dripped. None of it, though, concealed Lucy’s nakedness when she pulled back the shower curtain and stepped out. Like Crystal, she had knees and elbows aplenty. Still, it was hard not to notice some curves coming in. Hard, because Crystal was still waiting for hers.

“Those things are going to be boy magnets when you’re older,” she grinned, pointing at Lucy’s chest.

It was impossible to tell whether the remark made her friend blush, but a towel came off the rack and around her body in a hurry.

“You’re changing the subject,” Lucy said. “I can’t give you a break because Mr. Emmons surely won’t.”

“I know.”

“So try again.”

“Side opposite over hypotenuse.”

Lucy beamed as she began drying her hair. “Bingo!”

“I guessed.”

“Maybe. But now you know the answer.”

“Until I forget it again.”

They spent the next two hours in Crystal’s bedroom cracking the books. Ordinarily this would not be the case on one of Lucy’s sleepovers, but their trigonometry teacher had decided to give his class one last poke in the eye before Christmas break in the form of a thirty question quiz. The quiz would fall on December 17—a real dick move by Emmons if ever there was. One day before the let-out and he wanted to mulch brains.

Not that Lucy seemed to mind. “AC, opposite,” she said, hunched over a diagram at Crystal’s desk, “sixteen units. BC, adjacent. 12 units.”

“Fuck.”

“Shut up and listen. AB, hypotenuse. 20 units.” She looked up from the diagram with a smug grin on her face. “So tell me, Crystal, what is sin ABC?”

“Sin ABC,” Crystal replied from the pink pillows on her bed, “equals two Bayer aspirin, because trig gives me a headache.”

Try. Write the diagram down just as I described it and put your brain to work.”

After the session it was Crystal’s turn. Gym class: Tips and tricks for the hopelessly inept, with Miss Lucy Sommer as its star pupil. They’d started work on the balance beam during the previous week, and seeing her friend flail her arms like a drunken Olive Oyl playing pin the tail on the donkey had brought Crystal close to tears.

“You’re not keeping your center tight,” she said presently, dabbing red polish on Lucy’s toenail. “By that I mean your hips. Your abdomen. And stop twisting so much when you’re up there.”

“I don’t twist.”

“You do. And it’s throwing off your center of gravity. Stay square and keep your eyes on the end of the beam.”

“No way. I have to look at my feet.”

Crystal gave a disgusted growl. “Listen, kid, there’s a right way and a wrong way to do things.” The nailbrush paused. “Speaking of that,” she added, “how are things in the boyfriend department? Got your eye on anyone?”

“No,” Lucy coughed out.

“Would you tell me if you did?”

“Of course!”

“Riggght.”

“I don’t see you chasing guys up and down the hall.”

“That’s because I have Jarett.”

The remark seemed to freeze Lucy in her tracks. Content to wait for a reaction, Crystal went back to painting. A gust of December wind blew past the window. They’d left the radio off for trigonometry, but now Crystal reached over and turned it on. Lose My Breath, by Destiny’s Child came out of the speaker. Lucy snapped it back off.

“Crystal,” she said, “you can’t just go out and get a forty year-old boyfriend. I don’t care how dashing he is or how many books he’s written.”

Crystal flashed her a look. Lucy had preached these practicalities before, of course, but now she sounded serious, which was irritating.

“I don’t care how rich he is,” she went on, ignoring the yellow light in Crystal’s eyes—this was a first, and it really set things off, red alert. “I don’t care how pretty he thinks you are. I don’t care—“

“Shut up.”

Lucy blinked. “What?”

“I said shut up. What are you, deaf?” The nail brush stabbed its way back into the jar and was screwed tight. “I mean I don’t get it. I tell you what I want a hundred times, and you’re still talking to me like you can’t believe your ears.”

“Yeah. Try saying it to yourself once and listen how it sounds.”

“I say it to myself every day.” Bitch, she almost added.

Lucy sprang from the bed as though she’d heard it. “Then you must be nuts!”

She stamped over to the window and looked out. Of course Crystal didn’t need to see her face to picture the expression on it: pouting, defiant.

“It’s not crazy to pursue something that interests you, Lucy,” she said. “It just seems that way to someone who has no idea how.”

“Hey I know how to get things just fine!” the other snapped, whirling around fast enough to make Crystal take a step back. “I want good grades, I study for tests and I get them! I want to buy someone a birthday present, I save my allowance and I buy it! You on the other hand”—she came at Crystal, who stood her ground this time—“seem to think pleated skirts and sparkly pom-poms are the answer to everything!”

“Don’t simplify me, you gangling twerp! I’m good at a lot of things, you’re great at one thing and pretty much suck at all the rest!”

“Mathematicians,” Lucy barked, giving Crystal a shove, “don’t need to be good at anything else!”

Crystal shoved back harder. She was slightly smaller than her friend, but far more wiry, and Lucy reeled, knocking an empty cookie plate off the desk. Shards of glass spewed over the floor, under the bed. Both girls fell silent. Crystal stared at the mess, not knowing what to say, or what was going to happen next. Part of her remained on guard, while another part began to wish the weekend would hurry up and end already.

“Hey!” came a muffled voice from the other side of the wall. “Shut up over there! I’m trying to read!”

“Sorry Hannah!” Lucy immediately replied.

Crystal let out a laugh. She and Lucy looked at each other…and in the next instant they were both doubled over on the bed, laughing almost too hard to breathe.

***

Later that night, when the lights were out, Lucy asked whether or not she’d kissed him yet.

“No,” Crystal answered, listening to the wind, “but we’re close. Really close.”

“Wow. And your mom doesn’t mind?”

“My mom knows he’s tutoring me twice a week and that’s it. Oh and that I pay him by doing chores around the house.” She looked at Lucy’s side of the bed. “You know he gave me the key while he’s on his lecturing tour? I go over and feed Chubby, shovel the walk. Stuff like that.”

The bedroom fell silent for a few moments.

“I guess you’re lucky,” Lucy said, as another gust of wind hit the glass. “Well, I know you’re lucky. But man, Crystal, if he ever kisses you and anyone finds out, he’ll go to jail. Right?”

“Right. But no one’s going to know until I’m eighteen. Then we’ll just tell everyone we fell in love all of a sudden.”

Crystal’s chest swelled. So far things were going just fine with Jarett, never mind that he would be gone until January, first on the lecture tour and then to spend Christmas with his family. The only thing she worried about—the one shadow at the back of her mind—was whether or not he already had a girlfriend. After several November afternoons spent in his company it seemed not (and according to the bio of him on Wikipedia he had never been married), but as Lucy sometimes liked to tell her, it never paid to be certain until all the facts were present. She would have to find out somehow. And if the answer was yes…heads would roll. Everywhere.

“Cool,” Lucy was saying. “Will you tell me how these little study sessions go, Crystal? Give me details?”

“Of course,” Crystal replied, not certain how truthful the words actually were. “Our first kiss is going to be on my birthday. Like I said, we’re already two-thirds there, so it shouldn’t be too hard to dupe him into giving me one as a kind of gift.”

Lucy giggled. “And what comes after your birthday? Hmm?”

“That is what you would call wait and see. But you know something, Luce?” Crystal took a deep breath and let it out slow.

“What? Tell me?”

“I have got the whole coming year with him plotted out. Month by month. And like I told you on Halloween: This man is mine.”

***

The next day—Sunday—did not bring a stop to the high winds. Quite the reverse. Lucretia agreed to drop Crystal off at the Jackson farm after driving Lucy home, and the trees were swaying like stalks of wheat as they approached. Chubby, with fur flying, offered up several angry barks at the sight of a new car, but turned friendly again when Crystal put down the window to say hello.

“You know,” Lucretia said, bringing the car to a halt, “I’ve lived in Monroeville all my life and never even knew this house was here.”

“I think that’s sort of the idea,” Crystal replied. “I asked my history teacher about it at school. He told me it served as a fort during the Civil War, and that its owner really wasn’t keen on ambushes.”

A snort came from the driver’s seat. “I bet. Who was the owner?”

“Andrew Jackson.”

“No way—“

“Not the Andrew Jackson. But yes, that was his name.”

“Well he did a hell of a job with the location. 2004 and you still need to drive through half a forest to get back here.” Her next question was one Crystal had already heard. “Is this Jarett Powell guy a farmer too?”

No doubt she had noticed the barn off to the left, and maybe even a few rows of wheat behind the house. Crystal replied that Jarett was indeed a farmer, but that she wasn’t expected to do any field work during his leave of absence.

“I hope not,” her mom stressed. Then, grinning: “Otherwise your new name is Apple Jack.”

“Mom.”

“Well gee whiz, Mister Powell,” she said, in her best imitation of that yellow cartoon pony’s voice, “I got the field all plowed but the orchard’s a mess and the haystacks still need pitchin’. Yee-haw!”

“She doesn’t talk like that!”

Crystal was let out of the car with a promise to call home for another ride once her duties were complete. She waved as Lucretia turned the car around, then gave Chubby a hug.

“First thing we’re gonna do is give you a bath. How does that sound, huh?”

Chubby’s happy bark sounded like this was the best idea he’d heard all day. She walked him to the side door with the wind whipping at her hair and skirt. Her key turned in the lock.

A dour atmosphere waited inside. Shadows brooded in every corner. A narrow hallway leading to the kitchen had turned gray, and the top of the staircase looked nearly pitch. After turning on a few lights, Crystal went left into the living room. Here she switched on the television, then another light in the dining room and one more in the kitchen. Yet the shadows would not be driven back so easily, and it soon became apparent that the house was too large and too old for one girl to spend a cloudy afternoon alone in. Paintings on the wall regarded her as she passed; cracks in ancient wooden doorframes seemed to twist into frowning faces.

Even Chubby felt it. His tail had gone still, his eager prance the same. Drawing in a deep breath, Crystal forced herself to walk back through the living room and upstairs. Here her nerve nearly broke. One dark doorway after another gaped in the hall, while outside the wind continued howl. Crystal could not help but remember the bearded man she had seen looking down at her from the bedroom window on her first official visit to the house. Had that been nothing more than imagination? Or was he still haunting these rooms?

“Boo,” she called out, trying to make herself relax.

When no one answered, she led Chubby to the end of the hall. There was a small, cheerful little bathroom here, and after closing the door—and locking it—Crystal began to feel better. She bundled Chubby into the tub while singing a tune from one of Hannah’s CDs. Twenty minutes later the dog was shaking himself dry on the tiles, giving his mistress a decent shower in the process.

“If you weren’t such a sweet dog I’d be mad at you for that,” she told him, reaching into a cabinet for some paper towels. “No going outside until you’re completely dry, okay? House rules.”

Chubby gave a bark to show that he understood.

“Woof yourself.”

Once back in the hallway she got creeped out all over again. The urge to run downstairs, finish her chores, and get out of the house pressed on her thoughts. She went to the top of the staircase…and stopped.

A wide open door to Jarett’s bedroom was at the opposite end of the hall, giving birth to an altogether different—and formidable—urge. Crystal took a hesitant step towards it. Her fear of the environment was vague; she didn’t know how much of the supernatural she believed in, if any at all. On the other hand, her curiosity was becoming sharper by the moment. She was standing alone and unsupervised near the empty bedroom of the man she craved, the man she loved. Did it really make sense to let a few childish qualms—what Hannah sometimes called the heebie-jeebies—act as a barrier against what might be found inside?

“No way,” Crystal said to herself, “not this girl.”

She went down to the bedroom and snapped on the light. Blue carpet and brown paneling sprang into view. Heavy curtains hung over the window. An alarm clock ticked on the headboard of a neatly made bed.

“Let’s check out the closet,” she said to Chubby. “How’s that sound?”

The reproachful look on Chubby’s face required no further castings for his opinion.

“Oh stop it. You’ve done worse.”

She opened the door. Most of Jarett’s wardrobe, as she was already well aware, was dark. Beneath it were two pairs of boots: one black, one brown. In fact everything about the closet looked very masculine. Crystal felt her curiosity jump, and then take off at a full sprint.

She removed a black shirt from the rod, carried it to the bed.

“No telling,” she said to Chubby, unbuttoning her blouse.

After a moment’s thought, she took off her brassiere as well, so as to throw Jarett’s shirt on over a completely bare chest. The effect forced a soft sigh from her lips. Her nipples grew hard and sharp. She walked back to the closet, selected another shirt, and tried that on. It felt nice, but surely there were more treasures to be found in the depths of Powell’s wardrobe, provided she had the gumption to look.

Crystal’s hand closed around a pair of faded blue-jeans. She brought them down to her nose, then down lower to her chest. From here the next step didn’t take long to ascertain, and she felt no hesitation whatsoever about carrying it out. Within seconds she was sitting on the bed, removing her shoes and socks. Then came the skirt. Her panties she thought about leaving on for a moment, until another axiom of Lucretia’s materialized in the accumulating steam: If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing right.

Of course it is.

“Thanks, Mom,” she giggled, pulling the last of her clothing off.

That was all the further she got. Because now the most intimate, sensitive parts of her body were in contact with the counterpane—Jarett Powell’s counterpane. All at once Crystal did not want to try on the faded jeans. All at once, Crystal did not want to try on a single damned thing.

She stretched back. The mattress was soft, the blankets tempting. It would be nice to hunker down into both for a nap. But of course that was a bad idea. Unfinished chores were in wait all over the house. Her mom was expecting a call before dark.

Crystal sat up…and that was when she noticed for the first time the one bit of color in all the darkness of Jarett’s closet. It came in the form of a box on the top shelf—a shoebox, or so it appeared from this distance. A pink shoebox.

She stood. Her bare feet padded across the room. The shelf looked a little too high to reach, presenting her with a divergence. Should she be content with what she had already discovered in this room today—which was more than enough—or try to uncover just a little bit more?

Throwing Powell’s shirt back on as a kind of nightgown, she went in search of something to use as a step. His writing chair was in the room next door. Crystal lugged it through the hall, stood on it and grabbed the box. It was heavy with something that shifted from side to side as she stepped down. Crystal was pretty sure she knew what.

Once back on the bed she pulled the cover off. And there they were. Dozens—hundreds, maybe—of folded papers. Most were letters, written in Jarett’s hand, yet betwixt and between these rather lengthy missives came an occasional, yellowed newspaper clipping from another age.

She decided to browse the clippings first. The dates on them clarified their decayed appearance. The latest had come off the press in May of 1981—almost twenty-five years ago.

Jarett Powell’s 5 RBI Game Seals Win For Truckers, one headline read.

Crystal wasn’t sure what RBI meant, though she knew it was somehow related to baseball. Two other articles in the box—one from 1980 and another from ’81—were also about high school baseball. It seemed that Jarett had been quite a star in his day for the Norwalk Truckers, which was bemusing, since no author bio Crystal had ever read made even passing mention of the fact.

The other clippings did not seem related in any way, either to baseball or themselves. One from 1978 talked about a July 4th fireworks raid on West Main Street, again in Jarett’s hometown of Norwalk. Another dated 1979 looked to be a fluff piece about video game arcades. The author thought they were a great place for kids to hang out and have fun, though he barely expounded upon why. He then called for entrepreneurs to move into town and set up shop. As newspaper articles went, Crystal felt pretty sure this one had been phoned in.

And then there were the letters.

At first she almost didn’t bother. There were many of them, they were lengthy (most were covered front to back in Jarett’s small, nervous handwriting), and the time was getting late. But when the addressee’s name flashed up from one of the pages—a girl by the name of Vicky—her heart sank into a pit of coals, where it began to smolder in fury. She picked up five more letters, only to find the same name on each. A random plunge to the bottom of the box brought back the name yet again. Seven letters, all addressed to the same girl. Chances were the entire box had been dedicated to her.

“Who the hell?” she hissed, as a cyclone of dry leaves rattled against the window pane.

But the letters couldn’t be new. They had to have come from the same time period as the clippings. A quick check on some of the dates written after the closings—Sincerely, Love Always, Yours Forever—confirmed this. It mellowed Crystal.

A little.

Still, she had to know who this Vicky person was. And so she started to read.

Before she finished it became necessary to get dressed and switch on some of the lights around the house. The day had run out of patience with her. And just a few minutes after full dark, Lucretia did too. It took five blows on the car horn to get Crystal to put the box back and storm outside, kicking stones.

It was no wonder the box was pink. It was dedicated to a girl. Someone near and dear to Jarett’s heart. Someone he would never forget.

Well…perhaps not that last. Perhaps, Crystal thought, slamming the car door shut opposite her mother’s curious expression, Jarett wouldn’t have a choice in the matter. If indeed he was still hanging on to some high school princess he’d once loved and lost, the time for jettisoning had arrived.

Because the new princess was here. And as Crystal had already figured out months earlier, there was only room in his world for one.







9

 

The trig quiz on the 17th went about as well as Crystal could have hoped. Some of the questions stymied her, but not all. After the break Mr. Emmons handed it back with a C+ written at the top of page one.

“Good enough,” she said to Lucy at lunch. “A+ for you?”

The other girl had raised her can of Diet Pepsi in mock salute. “Of course.”

“Well don’t fall off the balance beam this afternoon or I’ll feel like a freeloader.”

Before all of this, of course, were the holidays. They provided a welcome respite from the unpleasant discovery Crystal had made in Jarett’s shoebox. Her thoughts, busy with baking cookies and wrapping presents, had very little time to spend on the outside world. At just after midnight on the 22nd, Hannah knocked on her door bearing gifts. She stood in the candlelit hallway with a scarf in one hand and a pair of pink mittens in the other. Crystal was overwhelmed. Thanking her sister as best she knew how, she invited her in. They chatted on the bed for a few minutes before Crystal presented her own gift: a music box with a twirling ballerina on the inside. By this time snow was falling beyond the frosted glass of the reading nook (which now twinkled with Christmas lights), and the girls lay in bed together watching it until three in the morning, at which point Hannah at last fell asleep, freeing Crystal to sneak downstairs for a secret glass of Canei Mellow Rose.

On Christmas Eve Lucretia woke up with a cough. By the middle of January, she was in the hospital with pneumonia. It wasn’t serious, the doctors assured, but she needed to be confined until the affliction was under control. From this announcement there came a swift and awkward dilemma.

“Who’s going to stay with the two of you at home?” Lucretia asked as a nurse wheeled her to her room.

Crystal looked at Hannah, who only shrugged. Both girls were a little out of breath keeping up with the nurse’s brisk pace, but perhaps that dealt them a helping hand, for an idea sprang into Crystal’s stimulated mind that was as brilliant as it was spontaneous.

“That’s a lot to impose on a man I’ve never even met,” was Lucretia’s response after hearing the pitch.

“He won’t mind. He’s all alone in that big house.”

“And how well do you trust him? Not that the judgment of an eleven year-old girl is something to bet on.”

The nurse helped her into a bed. An IV was tapped into her arm. She coughed, took in a ragged breath and let it out slow. Seeing it almost made Crystal want to quit cigarettes cold turkey.

“I trust him a lot, Mom, he’s my teacher. Look how well my writing’s improved since Halloween.”

A choked laugh came from the other side of the bed. Crystal shot Hannah a look but said nothing. She knew that for this to work any and all conflict with her sister had to be cut for at least the rest of the day.

“Let’s call him up,” she proposed. “I know his number.”

Lucretia’s brow wrinkled as if something awful had just been put in her mouth. “Are you out of your mind? I’m not going to call your teacher up on the phone and dump two bodacious girls into his lap for a week.”

“What’s bodacious?” Hannah wanted to know.

“It’s something like a pain in the ass.”

“Oh.”

“Anyway, forget it.”

Crystal stamped her foot. “Come on, Mom!”

“I said forget it.

“Then what are we going to do?”

“I’m thinking, I’m thinking.”

Except Lucretia couldn’t think when she was sick, or so it appeared to Crystal. She closed her eyes, put her hand on her head, and snuffled through her nose for several minutes without uttering a word.

“Your grandparents live in Florida,” she pointed out with finality.

“Yeah, we know,” Crystal replied. “What, are we gonna pack for a trip?”

“Shut up.”

More minutes went by. Hannah found a chair in the corner of the room and sat down. Crystal took the edge of the bed. January, gray and brutally cold, idled outside the window. The icy sepulcher of an Ohio winter.

“I’m burning up with fever,” Lucretia went on with eyes still closed, “otherwise the ill-mannered, imposing suggestion you made a few minutes ago would never come close to entertaining my thoughts.”

“You’ll be feeling better soon,” Crystal said.

“Uh-huh. Then I can go to this Jarett Powell’s house on my knees and beg him to forgive me my trespass.”

“So I can call him?”

Lucretia thought about it for one, final moment before acquiescing to a weak nod from the pillows.

Things didn’t turn out as bad as she feared. Jarett was not only very kind and understanding over the phone (as Crystal had already known he would be) but eager to meet the mother of his student after so many weeks of delay. He arrived at the hospital within the hour carrying a bouquet of roses with a get well soon card. A blade of unexpected anxiety cut across Crystal’s heart as her mother gushed out one thank you after the next. Both the adults were single; both were about the same age. What if a terrible explosion were to occur beneath the bridge Crystal had so carefully been building over the past months? Terrible and—yes—goddamned grotesque?

She shot over to the bed, almost knocking the flowers out of Jarett’s hand. Her mom made a face and asked what the hell was going on.

“You can’t put those flowers here,” she said to Jarett, “the table’s way too small. How about by the TV?”

“Good idea.”

“No!”

The author jumped and looked back at her. “No?”

“Changed my mind,” Crystal told him. “My mom will see them by the TV.”

“That’s sort of the whole point—“

“I mean they’ll block the screen!”

“You can put them in the window, Mr. Powell,” Lucretia came out with after a second grimace towards her daughter, “and I thank you again for the thought.”

Jarett blushed. “I had pneumonia a few years ago, ma’am. It’s an uphill battle but you’ll get through.”

The two spent the next half hour getting further acquainted, but to Crystal’s great relief there didn’t seem to be any sparks. Her lessons were the hotter topic of interest. Lucretia asked a great many questions, to which Jarett provided satisfactory if not especially meticulous answers. One of those questions was in concern of payment for his services. Lucretia informed him that she would be more than happy to provide these in the form of cash on a per lesson basis.

“Perhaps we can talk about that at a later time, ma’am,” Jarett said. Then, with a glance towards Crystal: “But honestly, you daughter is pulling her own weight. She cooks and cleans for me. She looks after my dog when I’m away. Having an extra pair of hands like that is invaluable on a farm.”

“If you like her cooking,” Hannah put in from her corner chair.

“In which case you might be suicidal,” said Lucretia amidst another flurry of coughs.

Crystal raised her hand. “That’s enough, Mommy Dearest.”

Indeed it was. Seconds later a nurse arrived and told everybody to leave. Goodbyes were exchanged. Crystal kissed her mother on the cheek and promised to return the next day. Hannah did the same.

Before they went out Lucretia had one final piece of instruction for Jarett Powell. “Don’t let the girls bully you,” she said, “don’t let them push you around. You’re the boss.”

“Of course.”

She snorted. “Yeah, this time next week you’ll be regretting that casual tone.”

***

Only there were no acts of insubordination in the days that followed. Crystal continued with her lessons, delivering subtle smiles of invitation over the coffee table from time to time, as well as the occasional light-hearted comment in regard to wanting more practice with holding her breath. Much to her delight, Jarett’s responses became less and less awkward. He seemed to be turning braver by the day. More suave. On Thursday he told her not to worry about her time limit, that she had a gasp as pretty as a summer breeze. Crystal knew the birthday kiss she wanted next month was in the bag.

Hannah proved herself an obedient if somewhat shy houseguest. She made quick friends with Chubby…as everyone who visited the farm did. She fed the chickens and washed the dishes.

On Friday afternoon the good news came that Lucretia was out of the woods, though her doctor would hear nothing about dismissing her at this time. He wanted another forty-eight hours of observation as a safeguard against relapse.

The family doctor—a silver-haired man of a thousand strong opinions--agreed.

“Jesus Christ,” he growled, when Lucretia asked for the third time to go home. “You wanna be discharged and get goddamned sick again and have to come back? Wait two days like the guy said.”

Thus the three of them—Jarett, Crystal, and Hannah—left the hospital without her to attend, of all things, a farmers meeting at an old church in the hills outside of Monroeville. Crystal had known about this meeting since early in the week, but was unsure of what to expect. They arrived at dusk under a clear, icy sky. Middle-aged men dressed in denim idled in the parking lot. Some of them waved to Jarett. Breath puffed in the cold air. Tires crunched on gravel.

Eager to get warm, Jarett hustled Crystal and Hannah into the church. They walked past an open door to a cavernous sermon area lit with candles. Then it was down a flight of steps to the basement. Here a meeting room had been prepared. Rows of folding chairs, most of them occupied by men and women in their fifties, faced a podium with a microphone.

“Aren’t there any kids here?” Hannah asked, looking around.

“I don’t think so,” Jarett said. “At least not tonight. Crystal?”

“Right behind you.”

He turned, startled. “I think that’s the coffee table on the far wall. You’ll be helping us hicks to stay awake for this.”

“Got it. All I have to do is pour?”

“Yeah. Most farmers take it black anyway.”

“You take yours with cream, darling.”

He blinked down at her. There were fifty other people in the room, filling it with chattering voices. But Crystal wasn’t fooled. At that moment she and Jarett were completely alone.

“I do,” he said at last. “But I’m still a whipper-snapper compared to these folk.”

“Black, then.”

The meeting fumbled through a few minutes of stop-and-go discussion. Crystal and Hannah both served cup after cup of strong coffee to clown-faced men in overalls who drove Ford Rangers and Dodge Dakotas. None of them spoke very much beyond the occasional why thank you, young lady, or well that’ll dooder. The topic for the night—how best to take shelter during a tornado—was a serious one. Many suggestions put forth in regard to the matter were not.

“You get yourself two hands and a shovel, and you dig yourself a hole,” a man wearing a John Deere cap with the D crossed out and the letters Qu scribbled in its place said at one point. “Then you furnish that hole and you stock it with enough shit to get your family by for a day or two.”

“What the hell, Joey?” someone called from the audience. “This isn’t the Wizard of Oz. I don’t wanna dig a goddamned shelter.”

“Too much work for ya?”

“Shit no. But I’m a practical man. What’s wrong with going down the basement when the weather gets bad?”

“Well, when a tornado rips off the top of your house you ain’t got no basement anymore, do ya?”

“Sure I do! I just ain’t got no house!”

About thirty minutes into the meeting an incident in the kitchen stirred up even more turmoil. A woman feeling under the weather vomited onto a tray of cup-cakes just as it came time to serve them. Crystal later learned that her name was Eva Banks, a volunteer baker from Willard. Her accident deprived the farmers meeting of the only food it had. A lot of bellies were now defenseless against the strong coffee. Ulcers began to flare up. Groans about needing to go to the bathroom. Several of the men began to pass gas, tainting the air with a green smell.

“We have a bathroom,” Hannah protested, gaping at a man in the back row who had just released a loud fart.

“Yeah, one,” Jarett told her. Crystal could see him getting more nervous by the second. “And Graham Johns has been in there for ten minutes.” His hand flapped over the audience. “These guys are getting ready to shit their brains out. Pardon my language. We’re about to have a hell of a mess on our hands—it’s not funny!”

This last was directed straight at Crystal, whose amusement had begun to bubble over. Jarett watched her continue to laugh. His lip quivered…then conceded defeat with a smile of its own.

“Okay it’s funny. But it’s also a travesty, wouldn’t you think?” He jumped as another man near the back let out a braying plume of stink. It seemed to be the final push needed to send him over the edge. “God it’s not funny! We need help!”

Hannah covered her nose. “I can’t breathe! What are we gonna do?”

“Gentlemen please!” Jarett called, raising his arms. “I’m sorry about the cup-cakes! But if we could all take a few deep breaths and relax I’m sure things will be fine!”

“My stomach!” someone yelled. “I drank two cups of coffee thinking there’d be cake to go with it! Now I feel like the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl!”

Crystal looked at all the uncomfortable faces and decided she had seen enough. Still grinning, she made her way down to the podium. She was too short for it. Her head barely reached over the microphone. No matter. After several taps on it with her finger she got everyone’s attention.

“Okay!” she called out. Feedback whined. “Okay,” she repeated, a little more softly. “I think it best under the circumstances to postpone the meeting.”

“Here! Here!” Bill said, clutching his abdomen.

“My friend Mr. Powell will arrange a date and time for us to try again.” Crystal stood on tip-toe to get a better look at the crowd. “But in the meantime I need a show of hands. Who here hasn’t had any coffee tonight?”

Four sets of fingers from opposite ends of the gathering went up.

“Okay, beautiful. I need the four of you to assist with getting the rest out to their trucks. Is there anyone here who feels too sick to drive?” Her eyes searched the room; no one responded. “Even more beautiful. So let’s do what Jarett says and stay calm. Don’t poop your pants. Or if you do,” she added, “wait until you’re outside.”

Cautious, hesitant laughter spread over the room. Then came the squeaking of chairs as everyone stood up to leave. Crystal saw Jarett bolt to help one of the older gents into the hall. There was more farting, more belching.

“That’s it,” Crystal said into the mic. “Nice and easy.” Never in her life had she felt more like laughing and crying at the same time. “Everyone’s going to be just fine.”

The cold air outside proved helpful as well. Once exposed to it the men, instead of jumping into their trucks and racing home, took time under the stars to relish its clear, clean embrace. Some even began to look comfortable again. There were nods in Jarett’s direction. Tipped caps.

“Young lady, you were exactly what the doctor ordered,” said a burly man in denim to Crystal. “Thank you for keeping your head.”

Crystal raised one of her mittened hands. “Hey, we all get sick once in awhile.”

“Well you take care gettin’ home. Don’t let this guy”—he gave Jarett a friendly pat—“drive too fast.”

“No. In fact I need to get a decent meal into him before he goes to bed. That goes for you too, Hannah,” she called over to her sister.

“Aye-aye, Captain!”

Jarett was silent as they walked to the car, but Crystal thought she could guess how he felt. One glance into his brown eyes gave her more warmth than any winter coat could provide.

Hannah jumped into the back and slammed the door. Crystal walked round to the passenger side. Jarett looked at her over the hood, stopped for a moment…

And told her he loved her.

Not right out loud. At this stage in their relationship that would have been awkward no matter what the circumstances. Yet Crystal didn’t need to hear it. The best words from the heart come through the eyes. So she believed. And in that moment Jarett’s eyes recited poetry, with a delicate smile to serve as both rhythm and rhyme to the melody of his message.

I love you, he whispered.

And then the moment was gone. Gone, but like a fossilized flower on a tundra of rock, substantiated for all eternity.




























10

 

The birthday kiss did not arrive on time.

But that was okay. Crystal’s birthday—Valentine’s Day—fell on a Saturday, which didn’t occur to her until it was too late to arrange any special visits to the Jackson farm. Not that it would have been possible. Lucretia baked a yellow cake with chocolate frosting and put up a few balloons around the kitchen table. Then she and Hannah sang the happy birthday song as Crystal drew a deep breath and blew as hard as she could at twelve flickering cake candles. Only ten went out.

“Boo!” Hannah said.

Crystal smiled and told her to be quiet before puffing out the oppositionists.

Next to her were three presents—two from Lucretia and one from Hannah. She tore open Hannah’s first. It was a cook-book.

101 Cupcake Recipes,” Crystal read aloud. “Very funny, you.”

Hannah curtsied. “You’re welcome.”

The first present from Lucretia was a tiny pair of silver ear-rings shaped like scissors. They shined in Crystal’s hand, small yet somehow assertive. She liked them immediately.

“I saw those at the mall and wham,” her mom said, “I knew they were for you.”

“They’re very cool, Mom. I love them.”

Present number two turned out to be another pair—these Ray-Ban Wayfarers, in the classic green. Crystal opened the box with her mouth open, not quite able to believe what she was seeing. A black case fell into her hand. The inside was lined with red felt.

“Well?” Lucretia said. “Put them on! I want to see what a hundred and fifty dollars looks like on my daughter’s face.”

They were the most comfortable pair of shades Crystal had ever worn. It was as if a piece of her, lost for many years, had finally been found and returned to its proper place. She smiled up at her mom. Lucretia, now tinged over in dark green, smiled back.

“Audrey. Freaking. Hepburn.”

“I love these like you would not believe, Mom. Thank you.”

“Do I get a hug?”

“Hell yes, you get a hug!”

“Hey!”

Crystal put her arms around her and kissed her on the cheek. She thanked Hannah again for the cook-book. Then, still wearing the Ray-Bans, she cut the cake, and they sat down and talked about work, and school, and the final episode of Sex and the City.

“Twelve years old,” Lucretia said, as though realizing it for the first time. “High school in two years. My God.”

“What comes after high school?” Hannah asked.

“College. But before then I’m hoping Crystal figures out what she wants to do with her life.”

Crystal’s fork paused halfway to her lips. She already knew what she wanted out of life. To Lucretia it should have been obvious.

“I’m going to be a writer,” she said.

“Maybe,” her mom replied. “But you don’t go to college and major in creative writing. That’s a waste of time. Your main focus needs to be practical.”

“God, what’s practical these days?”

“Doctors. Lawyers.”

A piece of cake went smoothly down Crystal’s throat. “Oh yeah. That’s me all over.”

“Auto mechanics,” Hannah put in with a laugh.

“Wow you guys can see right through me.”

“How’s your trigonometry coming?” Lucretia suddenly asked in an odd tone of voice.

Crystal looked at her for a moment before shrugging her shoulders. “Not too bad. I’m about middle of the road compared to everyone else in my class.”

“Do you like your teacher?”

“Mr. Emmons?” She blinked. The fork scraped chocolate off the side of her plate. “I don’t know. Not really. Why?”

Lucretia shrugged back. “I didn’t like hardly any of my teachers in school. Maybe you could become a teacher. Maybe your kids will like you.”

“No way,” Crystal said. “Teaching is for people who can’t do. That will never be me.”

She looked at both mother and sister, waiting for a response. When none came she took off her new glasses and repeated the promise.

“That will never be me.”

***

“But I’m teaching you,” Jarett Powell said two days later in front of his fireplace. “Does that mean I can’t do?”

There was a tiny radio on the mantelpiece. He reached up and snapped it on. That was it. End of today’s lesson.

“I’m not really sure what I meant when I said that,” Crystal admitted. “I mean I’m teaching Lucy and Lucy’s teaching me. We both do just fine.”

Her eyes went back to the manuscript they were working on. None of the words on it seemed willing to give them a place to hide. Black lines of type danced without warmth across the page. Crystal had related the story of her birthday party to Jarett as a means to break the ice for her kiss. Instead, it had coated things with a new layer of frost. Her jab at teachers had offended him, caused him to rise from the couch and stoke the fireplace. The flames had risen as per instruction, but the frost remained.

“I know I didn’t mean you, Jarett,” she said, desperate to get the train back on its track. “It was just something I blurted out because the idea of being a teacher seems so…”

Ridiculous, she almost said, which would have been bad.

“Remote.”

Jarett put the stoking tool back on its rack. “You meant what you said.”

“I didn’t.”

He smiled, which caused her chest to loosen. Here was evidence that the error she’d made could at least be overcome.

“You may even be right,” he went on.

“But—“

“You know I haven’t put out a novel in two years?”

Crystal’s mouth snapped shut. Her head nodded. She did indeed know.

“Are you working on one now?” was the question that came next.

Jarett didn’t answer. His eyes went into the hearth and lingered as a weather report came over the radio.

“…expect clear skies during the week with daytime temperatures in the middle thirties…”

Placing the manuscript on the table, Crystal rose to her feet. From a fashion standpoint she had gone all out for this visit: a black sleeveless top with matching skirt, stockings, and dress shoes. Her eye-shadow was dark. The scissor-shaped ear-rings dangled from her lobes. All of this on the pretense that it was picture day at school…except that Jarett hadn’t asked any questions, which made her glad. Her first kiss would not come gift-wrapped with a lie.

“Jarett?”

She slipped the shoes off. Now visible through the stockings, her feet glided over the floor to where he stood. Still he wouldn’t look at her. The fire seemed more important. Or maybe it was something that burned there.

“Hey,” she said softly, “we don’t have to talk about it. Forget I asked.”

“…and now let’s move back into the music with an oldie from Don McClean. This one’s called Vincent…”

His head jerked, coming out of whatever reverie it had been in. A second, less stable smile surfaced on his face.

“I’m not working on anything right now, Crystal. Not even a short story.”

“That’s okay.”

“Tell that to my agent.”

“Get him on the phone and I will. But first I want my birthday kiss.”

He laughed. Crystal let him do it, standing her ground. Earlier in the day she’d gone over with herself a number of possible reactions in regard to this matter. One of them had been laughter. In fact she’d placed that one as the most likely to occur. Yes, of course he would laugh, try to fob the request—demand—off as a joke on her part. It was a desperate defense mechanism…and it stood about as much chance with her as a trailer park in a tornado.

“Now I know you’re not afraid,” she goaded, raising an eyebrow. “You write romance books for a living. And it’s not like I’m asking for an arrow through the heart. I just want a birthday kiss.”

“I’m not afraid. But Crystal, wouldn’t you rather have something like that from a boy your own age?”

“I like men, dear, not boys,” she rejoined instantly.

Jarett took a step in reverse. His butt bumped the accessory rack. Crystal moved forward, her lip curving into a serpentine smile. On the radio Don McClean reflected that perhaps it was time for the world to pay closer attention to messages hidden in lines of beauty. Crystal thought she’d never heard anything more wise.

She moved in closer, standing on tip-toe to put her hands on his shoulders. This gesture of physical contact appeared to relax Jarett a little. The cowering stopped. His broad chest came forward. Opening her lips, Crystal drew a deep breath. It brought her own, far more petite chest close enough to touch the fabric of his shirt.

“I can’t,” he whispered.

But Crystal could see the fire reflected in his eyes, showing a different truth.

“Sure you can. You just open your mouth and say Happy birthday, Crystal, here’s your kiss.”

“I haven’t kissed a girl in I don’t know how long.”

“I’ve never once been kissed by a boy. Let’s put an end to two dry spells. And hurry up because I can’t stand on tip-toe forever.”

She expected the remark to instigate another laugh. It didn’t. Instead, Jarett put his hands on her hips and lifted gently, easing some of the pressure from her legs.

“Oh, better,” she told him, grinning. Her fingers scurried around his neck. “We’re almost there.”

“I still don’t know if I can do it,” he said.

“Look at me, Jarett.”

His eyes, which had strayed to the window, returned to her face.

“Good boy. Now then.” Her head tilted, and she showed him the smallest, prettiest smile she had. “Happy birthday, Crystal. Say it.”

“Happy birthday, Crystal.”

“Yeah,” she whispered. “Lift me up just a little more.” She felt her toes lose contact with where they’d been, and her heart, now that she was fully in the arms of the only man in this world she would ever want, began to race with excitement. When she next spoke it was as much to herself as it was to him. “There you go, sweetheart, that’s it. Just relax. We can do this.”

“Crystal…”

“Shh. Shh.”

“…with eyes that watch the world and can’t forget…like the strangers that you’ve met…”

Though her eyes were closed, Crystal could sense his kiss was only centimeters away. Her lungs expanded with a faint, musky breath of aftershave. Hairs on the nape of his neck brushed her soft fingers. She bent her knee, bringing her toe away from the floor like a ballerina. It shifted her weight…

And their lips came together for the very first time.

The musky breath plumed out through her nose and was immediately dragged back in. Getting enough air to remain in the moment became an endeavor. All at once the room seemed to lack an adequate supply. Her chest heaved. A moan escaped her throat. Jarett responded to this with an appetite that was not surprising, given her retained knowledge of the fetish he kept. Crystal felt her body lifted even higher from the floor. Enjoying the ride, she smiled between gasps, digging her red nails into his hair. Her other knee bent. Now both of her feet were pointed at the opposite end of the room, as if to distract undesirables from witnessing their exchange. And indeed Crystal knew from someplace far away that what they were doing was forbidden, that it must never be seen, or even alluded to beyond the confines of this secret realm—fiery, snowy—that they’d created and would now share for all eternity.

Tragic, that. For it would have been a joy to describe how it was to tread the water in this typhoon, to huff for air between the waves of Jarett Powell’s virility. She tasted his lips with an appetite for being enveloped that matched and even overcame the beast for breathless girls he kept on his leash. Drawing another chestful of air, Crystal let her eyes flutter open. She was surprised to find that his, too, were open, yet took advantage of the coincidence by seizing them with her blue gaze, so as to dare with an arched brow further advancement into the storm, or better yet, invite a dangerous plunge to whatever beckoned from below.

Jarett was not ready for it.

He let her down with a flushed look that suggested he’d just come awake from a fever dream. Crystal decided to give him a few moments. Her hands had slid down to his chest, and there they remained while the fire in the grate danced on, and the radio played another song.

“Are you all right?” she asked.

He let her go before answering with eyes that had lost their courage. “Yes. But I think the lesson’s over.”

“Only for today I hope.”

She went to the couch, put the manuscript back in her bag. A rather interesting discovery awaited her upon turning around. There was a bulge in Jarett’s pants. Seeing it froze Crystal on the spot. She dropped her bag and stared like a starving girl set before a banquet.

At first Jarett took no notice—his gaze had fallen to the floor and seemed incapable of finding the strength to rise. But Crystal’s fascination was stubborn. It held her bewitched, until at last Jarett did look up…and caught her gawking.

He muttered something incomprehensible while his hands jumped at the radio, almost knocking it off the mantle. Steven Tyler was cut off mid-whoop: “Aieeeee--!”

“Oh come on,” Crystal said. Now that the discovery was no longer in view she could talk again. “I made you feel good. Don’t be ashamed of that. You made me feel good, too.”

“I’m not ashamed.”

He was, though. His body was still facing the mantle.

“Jarett?”

She waited, and when nothing happened, called his name again. This time he turned around. The bulge had wilted. Jarett Powell stood regarding her the way a man regards a poisonous snake. He was afraid of her.

Why? The age difference? Ridiculous! In both mind and body Crystal felt ready to escape her childhood, to set aside the plastic palette of water-colors she’d thus far been using to illustrate her ideals and explore richer, more complex mediums of the craft. Couldn’t Jarett see that, simply by the way she looked at him, or the buttered, beckoning tone of voice she used whilst in his company?

A frustrated part of her wanted to leap over the table at that very moment and strike like the hissing cobra he feared. But of course that would never do. That was painting with water-colors again—all chaos and fun. And Jarett, like herself, needed more. More time, more convincing. Most of all, more knowledge of who exactly Crystal Genesio was.

One vital piece of information in that last regard needed sending right away.

“I could be your girlfriend, Jarett,” she said, hoping he wouldn’t cringe. If he cringed she really would jump over the table, probably to slap him. “Yes,” she went on, confirming the offer. “I’d be happy to. More than happy.”

“I’m forty years old, Crystal.”

It was something to say—something to fill the void of awkwardness between them—so he said it. Good boy. There were a lot of things about him she could tolerate, but not his silence. It gave her nothing to swing at, to hit back onto his side of the court.

“I’m twelve,” she nodded, flashing an elfish smile that asked what’s your point? “At least that’s how many candles were on my last birthday cake.”

“I know how old you are. That’s the problem.”

“You see a problem. All I see are colors.”

She returned to where he stood and placed a hand on his cheek. It was a reach—she had to crane her neck and stand on tip-toe—but he was the one still climbing. His head turned away. Gently, Crystal tugged it back.

“I could give you all the things you need from a girl,” she whispered, “all the things you need.”

“You don’t know what I need.”

She stroked his stubble. “Yes I do. And I know you think I’m pretty, Jarett. I know you liked kissing me just now.”

“Yes.”

“Then don’t be afraid. I just want to make you happy.”

“Why?”

“Because that’s how it is when a girl falls in love.”

His eyes widened in shock. Crystal only nodded again, then eased his face down lower to plant one final kiss on his mouth before stepping away to pick up her bag.

“Ready to take me home?” she asked.

Several seconds went by before Jarett answered with a vague nod and a shrug.

“Good.” A giggle fluttered from her lips. “But wipe off the Maybelline first, dear. I got some of it on ya.”






















11

 

“Crystal Antoinette Genesio,” the judge intoned moodily from his bench, “please stand up.”

Her lawyer flashed another one of his shifty-eyed, shark grins before nodding that she should do as commanded. By now the expression, which he had shown over and over during the two consultations that came after her arrest, no longer disgusted Crystal. Now they only made her weary. Today it seemed to harbor a new ingredient; there was something sheepish as well as sharkish lurking within the greasy concoction on his face. What it signified was plain: They had lost the fight.

“Of the possession of tobacco on school property,” the judge went on, “this court finds you guilty.”

Sighs rose from the audience behind her. Sounds of shifting feet. From somewhere Crystal felt the tip of an icicle draw a slow, lazy line down her back. This, she knew, was the stare coming from her mother. They’d been fighting since the middle of May. That was when the contraband had turned up in her locker. Cigarettes—an entire carton of Marlboro Lights.

“You will not be charged with theft, since the tobacco in question does not appear to be stolen. However, as you are reluctant to name the establishment where you chose to make your purchase—“

“I cannot name the establishment, your honor,” Crystal broke in, “because as I said, the cigarettes are not mine—“

“Be quiet!” the judge snapped.

He was old. Did young judges even exist? Crystal didn’t think so. This one looked like an ex circus performer: bald on top with salt and pepper fluffs of hair around his ears. Black-framed glasses like the ones Drew Carey used to wear rested on a nose that bobbed up and down as he spoke.

“This is a sentencing, young lady!” that nose—for it really seemed the words were coming more from his nostrils than his lips—told her. “Your time for rebuttals is expired! Do you understand?”

Crystal nodded. “Yes.”

“Yes, what?

Now she blinked at the man. What more did he need? “Um…yes, thank you?” she tried.

It wasn’t even close. “Yes, your honor!” the clown bellowed, making Crystal jump high enough to bump her knee on the table.

“Of course, of course. Yes, your honor.

“Oh fuck me,” the lawyer muttered from his chair.

The judge’s next words were spoken loudly and in sarcastic chords that must’ve sounded very sweet to his own ears. “Crystal Genesio, this court finds you guilty of unlawful possession and sentences you to one hundred hours of community service, said service to be determined by the Huron County Department of Transitional Assistance. In the event that a suitable service cannot be agreed upon, a fine of one thousand U.S. dollars shall be enforced in lieu of the original punishment.” A dry crack! whipped across the room as the judge struck his anvil. “This session is now adjourned.”

***

The Huron County courthouse was in Norwalk. Riding home to Monroeville took fifteen minutes. It was pleasant…on the outside of the car. A warm, friendly sun lit the fields between the two towns on this first week of summer break, nourishing flowers and crops alike from a sky in which nary a cloud could be seen.

“Sorry,” Crystal said for the fifth time, as they cruised past a large house where a little girl was picking flowers by the porch.

“Very sincere,” Lucretia replied. “The depth of your remorse couldn’t be more obvious.”

“Well it’s hard to sound sincere when I didn’t do anything wrong.”

“Sure you didn’t.” She shot a quick, bullet-hard glance over the console that Crystal, still numb from the judge’s outburst, barely felt. “Let’s forget about why you were stupid enough to put a whole carton of cigarettes in your locker for now. Where did you buy them, Crystal?”

“I didn’t buy them, Mom. I wish you would believe that.”

“You stole them?”

Crystal looked at her. Lucretia Genesio, she realized at that moment, had always been a bit of a witch—usually a good one. From the cavalier advice she doled to her daughters (romance, fashion, schoolwork) to her love of candy, cookies, and presents on the holidays, the elder Genesio maintained a streak of little girl in her almost as strong as the ones she was raising. That playfulness had even allowed her to wink at Crystal’s occasional cigarette in the park or on the front walk (her first drag, in fact, had come from her mother’s own package of Virginia Slims, stolen out of curiosity).

But little girls were also stubborn. And fussy. And shrewd.

“Yeah,” Crystal said icily, “I stole them, Mom. I broke into Vanson’s one night and cleaned out their whole rack. Does that make you happy? Are you satisfied now?”

“I’ll tell you what’s going to make me satisfied, young lady: locking you in your room until school starts again. I might even shove your meals under the door so you feel more like the goddamned criminal you are.”

“I can’t believe you’re taking their word over mine! I just can’t believe it!” She kicked the glove compartment hard as she could while tears began to sting her eyes.

Lucretia was unmoved. “Stop it, Crystal. I know you can lie with the best of them.”

I’M NOT LYING ABOUT THIS! SOMEBODY PUT THOSE FUCKING CIGARETTES IN MY LOCKER!”

That finally did it. The witch’s face turned red as a brick, and her eyes burned. “Well I’m not lying about this one either, girly! You are grounded for the entire summer!”

I DON’T CARE!”

No television, no telephone! No lessons from Mr. Powell! NOTHING!”

I SAID I DON’T CARE!”

And if I see one cigarette in that filthy little mouth of yours, if I smell any, if I even THINK you’re smoking again—“

SHUT UP!”

I will lock you in the BASEMENT instead of your room! Do you understand? DO YOU?

YES! NOW SHUT UP AND LEAVE ME ALONE!”

I’ll leave you alone, all right. Very, very alone.”

***

She spent the rest of that day crying in bed. At just after six p.m. a tentative knock came to the door. It was Hannah. Dinner was ready. Crystal garbled from beneath her pillows that she wouldn’t be coming down today, that she wasn’t hungry.

“Mom says it’s okay,” Hannah added, but didn’t press the issue any further.

After she’d gone Crystal rolled over to stare at the ceiling with empty red eyes. The cheerful noontime sunlight had gone a sickly orange-yellow, and now tainted her reading nook with its poisonous rays.

Fuck off, she thought. Go supernova and put an end to this shitty excuse for a species.

Her mood didn’t change over the weekend. She lay in bed for two days wondering who exactly had put those cigarettes into her locker. Faces floated before her mind’s eye—teachers, classmates, the cheering team. One member from this latter category hovered for longer than the rest: Megan Holt. And why not? Apart from Crystal she was the most talented girl on the squad. She had a cunning, crooked smile that betrayed (perhaps) a gift for plots and assassinations. She didn’t seem to like Lucy very much. She had red hair.

“I’ll kill you,” Crystal said to the empty room. “I’ll jam a carton of cancer sticks right up that little freckled butt of yours and light the whole thing. Then every time you take a poop the surgeon general will send somebody to your porch to give a lecture.”

On Monday she snuck out of the house to see Jarett while Lucretia was at work. Their sessions had not gone well since the birthday kiss. She’d finished two stories and had them blandly critiqued by a man too frightened to sit on the same couch with her, choosing the recliner on the other side of the fireplace as a retreat. From here he would issue the occasional vague nod as she read aloud, with an even less frequent good, good, or an all but nonexistent piece of advice.

Crystal didn’t begrudge him—yet. He needed time to know that she could be trusted with their secret. That was fine and understood. But the clock had been ticking for almost four months now. To demand more proof of her underhandedness did not seem fair. She had kept the secret of their birthday kiss from everyone—even Lucy.

And perhaps he knew that she was getting frustrated, because today she was let into the Jackson farm with a warm welcome while Chubby pranced around her legs barking his happy barks. Wearing his typical blue jeans, hiking boots, and dress shirt, Jarett led her towards the kitchen before she could get out a single word about the cigarettes.

“I’m really glad you’re here today,” he blustered. “Really glad. I was hoping you’d come.”

Crystal laughed. Here was more excitement than she’d seen from him in months; its source put her on pins and needles. Chubby nudged her down the hallway with his cold nose, every bit as eager as his master to get her into the kitchen. A sharp smell stabbed at her as she stepped on the tiles.

“What’s that?” she asked, wrinkling her nose.

Jarett was spared the hurt this expression may have caused. He stood facing the counter, spatula in hand, and called cheerfully over his shoulder that there would be fried chicken for dinner, if she wanted any. Crystal supposed it necessary to believe him.

“I thought I was cooking for you,” she said, trying to stifle another laugh.

“You do, you do,” the other replied with a quick glance, “I love your cooking. But I caught this program on Food Network earlier and kind of got inspired.”

There came the sound of metal on metal as he flipped one of the pieces over. Grease flew across the kitchen in a sizzling spray that caused Chubby to dart for cover under the table.

“How much earlier?” Crystal, grinning, wanted to know.

“I think it was around three.”

“In the morning?”

“Yep!”

“Well let me get some plates so we can find out how fabulous this new hobby of yours really is.”

She set the table in a significantly better mood than the one she had come in with. Minutes later Jarett placed a basketful of meteorites onto the table. It was evident by the smile on his face that he was thrilled with his creation. Crystal offered a few complimentary remarks while keeping her own smile free of derision, then told him—crunching at the toasted remains of a wing—all about what had happened on the last week of school, as well as the punishment that went with it.

Jarett’s eyes became incredulous as she spoke. His chewing slowed. He took several swigs from the bottle of Beck’s he’d sat down with. By the time Crystal finished her story the smell of the chicken had faded, allowing an afternoon cornhusk breeze to permeate the kitchen through a window over the sink.

“One hundred hours,” Jarett said, nonplussed. “For a lousy carton of smokes?”

“That I did not even put there,” Crystal reminded him.

He paused, then slid the bottle of beer over to her. “Take a drink, kid. You need it.”

Crystal lifted the nozzle to her lips and took a tentative swallow. Much to her surprise, it tasted delicious. She took another with her eyes closed. A pleasant, dizzying sensation forked across her brain like lightning.

“What is this stuff, Jarett?”

“Germany at its finest.” He paused a second time. Then: “Who put the cigarettes in your locker?”

Hearing the question nearly made her choke as she drained the bottle. “You mean you actually believe me?” she asked.

“Of course I believe you. Why wouldn’t I?”

She wanted to kiss him—just jump over the table, throw her arms around his neck, and kiss him. “God, Jarett, you are the only one who does. Sincerely.”

He nodded. “But you are innocent?”

“Yes!”

“So who’s the perp? Any ideas?”

“One. A girl on my cheering team named Megan Holt.”

“Why her?”

“Because…” she began, but the reasons were slow in coming the second time around. They had something to do with her not liking Lucy, and having red hair. In other words they were stupid—too stupid to share out loud. Crystal looked wistfully at the empty bottle of Beck’s. She had no idea who’d framed her.

Reading her mind, Jarett rose and got a fresh beer from the fridge. He popped the top and handed it to her.

“Are you trying to get me drunk?” she said.

“No.”

“Rats.” She took a drink, winced, then told him: “I guess it wasn’t Megan after all. She’s a little mean-spirited sometimes but not harmful.”

“So you’re back to square one.”

“Yeah.”

“You said the cigarettes were in your locker. Is it a combination lock or key-fit?”

“Combination.”

“Who knows the number besides you?”

“No one.”

“That’s not true, Crystal. Someone does. Now think.”

Crystal swallowed more Beck’s, then took a bite from a slice of bread. “Well I haven’t told it to any of my friends. Or enemies,” she added, though the list in this category was short. In fact she could think of no one who disliked her enough to do such a thing. It was square one indeed.

“Faculty,” Jarett said, reaching for another piece of chicken. Apparently what courage he lacked in the romance department he more than made up for in the arena of ingestion.

“Oh come on, Jarett, none of my teachers are going to…”

The words trailed off. Her hand stiffened on the bottle, and as her eyes floated drunkenly around the room before coming to rest on the basket of black wings she muttered: “Shit-Shit.”

“What was that?” Jarret came back with.

“Shit-Shit.” She looked at him, nodded, then took a celebratory gulp of beer. “That’s our man.”

“Who the hell is Shit-Shit? Are we talking about a guy who doesn’t know how to wipe his ass? Give me that beer.” He took it from her and swigged it down to the half-way point. “I let you have it all and you really will be drunk.”

“The kids call him Shit-Shit because he smells bad. Maybe he doesn’t know how to wipe—“

“The janitor,” Jarett cut in.

She smiled back. “You remember.”

“I remember. All you had to do was mention a guy at that school who smelled. So he knows your locker combination?”

“He has access to all the locker combos. And he was really pissed at me that day of the fire. Pissed because we caught him with cigarettes.”

Jarett took another sip and handed the bottle back to her. “Yeah, a fire, right.” A wink that gave her goose-bumps came over the table. “I thought the whole school was going to burn down.”

“He put the cigarettes in my locker,” she said between gulps, “leaned them up against the door so they’d fall right out in front of everybody. Which they did.”

“That prick.”

“Yeah.” Another gulp. “Now my whole summer is shot to shit.”

They looked at each other over the table for a few moments, then burst out laughing.

“How many of these did you have before I came over here?” Crystal finally asked, raising the bottle.

“Three.”

“Fuck!”

Crystal!”

More laughing. Meanwhile Chubby had no idea what was going on. He looked up from his place beside Jarett’s chair as if both humans had on the spur of the moment gone insane.

“Want some chicken, boy?” Jarett asked.

Chubby put his head back down.

“Hell no he doesn’t,” Crystal giggled.

Jarett looked at the basket. The grin he was wearing widened. “Okay it sucks.”

“No no! I didn’t mean that—“

“Stop it, Crystal. I damned near choked to death on what”—another look went to the basket—“I think was a drumstick. I think. From some distant, deluded place in the back of my head. You,” he went on, “I must congratulate. You ate that black breast with a perfectly contented face. That took balls.”

“I thought it was a wing.”

“Maybe it was. Anyway, no more beer for you. And no more cooking for me.”

“No more cooking?” Her mouth gaped. “Jarett, who were you expecting to be after one try? Emeril Lagasse?”

“It’s okay. I never intended to get serious about it. It was just for fun.”

Crystal didn’t know whether or not to believe this. His spirits an hour ago had been stratospheric; now he looked ready to hide under the bed covers for the rest of the day.

“Probably the oil was too hot, that’s all,” she told him. “Did you use a meat thermometer to check the insides?”

He shrugged. “No, I guessed.”

“See then? This is an easy fix. For fried chicken you cook the meat to 165 degrees.”

“I’ll remember that.”

“Remember you’ve got me, too. I can cook whatever you need. My mom’s a pretty good coach.”

“But you won’t be here over the summer,” Jarett grinned. “You’ve got community service scheduled.”

“I’ll be here. One way or another.” Her eyes narrowed. “And you know what else, Teacher?”

“No, what?”

“Shit-Shit is in deep shit. I’m going to make him pay for what he did.”

“One way or another?”

“That’s just right,” Crystal nodded. “That’s square on the ball.”

***

Please let me know what you have planned before you actually do anything.

Those had been Jarett’s parting words as she’d walked out the door. She promised him she would, told him not to worry, and gave Chubby a pat on the head before setting off.

Was he still worried? Maybe a little. The message behind his advice suggested she reconsider any ideas concerning murder, and it pleased her in a morbid way to think he felt his student capable of such an act. She wasn’t, but that didn’t stop her from fantasizing during the walk back to the gulag. By the time she set foot back in her room the janitor had died a hundred different deaths, each more gruesome than the one preceding.

On Wednesday a letter arrived from the HCDTA. It informed the Genesio family that beginning on Monday of the following week, Crystal was to spend her weekday evenings as clean-up girl for a bible school in Norwalk. Lucretia shared the news with her tunelessly as she—Crystal—washed dishes after dinner.

“That puts a cramp in my days,” Lucretia went on. “I’ll have to drive you to and from. What other shitty habits do you plan on delving into this year? Crack? Ecstasy?”

Drinking, Crystal almost replied, with her mind’s eye trained on a bottle of Beck’s.

Later she met Hannah at the top of the stairs. The younger girl stuck out her tongue. Crystal showed off her middle finger and walked into her room, slamming the door.

***

That Monday she missed a session with Jarett. Crystal sat in the passenger seat on the way to Norwalk with her lip twisted in frustration. She would need to contact him before Thursday and propose mornings instead of afternoons. That was the only way around what the bastard judge down the street had sentenced.

Her work took place in the basement of an Episcopal shrine that dated back one hundred and fifty years. Its age showed. The upstairs room was dark, even with sunlight dancing in the stained glass windows along the west wall. On the opposite wall, lumpy brick mortar hung between the thumb prints of long dead applicators. Cracked, crooked door frames let onto black passage-ways behind the altar. Punctuating all it was the smell: musty and dry, like the broken stones piled out back in the church’s ancient graveyard.

“Is this the basement?” Crystal asked, sneering.

“No,” her guide—a tall nun who looked almost as old as everything else—replied curtly. “The choir practices here. And then of course on Sundays they perform in the newer building next door.”

“Of course.”

“The basement is downstairs,” the nun went on, accentuating the adverb as one would to a kindergartener.

No doubt she knew the circumstances that had brought Crystal to this place. From the right of the altar, one of the passage-ways led to a door, behind which a flight of creaky wooden steps dumped them into a basement classroom about the size of her own back in Monroeville’s junior high wing.

“Here,” the nun said, flipping on the lights. A weak and rather lonesome glow fell over rows of empty desks. She then read off from a list of chores left for Crystal by the teacher. They were very janitorial in nature: dusting, mopping, scrubbing. “You will also need to clean the toilet and wash the windows,” the nun added.

Crystal frowned. “Windows?”

The nun frowned back. “Along the bookshelf.” Don’t you know anything? her eyes flashed.

I guess not, Crystal thought, because there along the ceiling over a small library of children’s books was a row of windows—rectangular basement windows—she had failed to notice until now.

“But they’ve got decorations on them,” she said.

“Yes,” said the nun. And so what? her face retorted. “You take them off and put them back on. Carefully. Do not damage the children’s crafting.”

“Crafting.”

Yes.”

“All right,” Crystal shrugged. “Is there anything else?”

“Just that I have a detailed knowledge of everything that’s down here. If upon my return I find any of it missing you will be directly to blame. Understood?”

“Yes.”

“Fine. Please be finished with your chores by seven-thirty. Goodbye.”

Crystal listened to the nun’s slow footsteps move up the stairs. The door opened, closed. Then she could hold it no more. She burst out laughing at the empty room. How in the world did you find something missing? Oh, the labyrinthine corridors of the English language. No wonder writing was such a pain in the ass.

She set to work washing the chalkboard first. A bucket and a sponge had been provided for the task. Her fingers dove in, and soon there was as much soap on her hands as there was time on her mind. The time, she decided, would be used to plot revenge on Shit-Shit. And why not? She couldn’t sulk forever in the jaws of his childish trap. Something had to be done. Something epic. Maybe even a little bit surreal. After all, Shitty had certainly gotten surreal, turning her into—of all things—a janitor for what had happened in the art wing that day.

Maybe, Crystal thought, squeezing the sponge, I can turn him into something even worse.

On the heels of this thought came the usual teenaged crudities: blowing up his car, burning down his house. Fun things, yes, but transient as well. Crystal wanted more.

She reached over her head to place the sponge on top of the chalkboard…and the answer came. Directly above the chalkboard was a crucifix. A bare-chested Jesus, carved in brass, hung on the edge of death. King of the Jews, king of the martyrs.

In the myriad shadows of the basement classroom, Crystal grinned. She dragged the sponge down, leaving a trail of cleansing water on the slate. On a clean slate, she knew, you could write anything. Numbers and music. Poems and stories. Letters and lies. It didn’t matter what.

Anything was possible.















12

 

Nothing was ever easy.

Like most other laws in life, Crystal had discovered this one early on. Thus she considered herself more suitably prepared for the dilemmas that came about in developing her payback scheme than the average prankster. That was certainly a good thing, for the dilemmas were copious.

Rather than allow herself to be suffocated by them all in one fell swoop, Crystal decided to face each as a singular beast. The first involved choosing a day of the week to execute her plan. Wednesday seemed to offer the most favorable odds; Shit-Shit was likely to be home during the middle of the week, waiting for Friday’s paycheck from whatever summer job he’d taken. A better bet still was Sunday. He’d be tired from a weekend of drinking at the local bar. Sluggish. Catching him unaware would be a breeze.

Thus at ten o’clock that Sunday (six nights after her debut at the Episcopal Church), Crystal opened her bedroom door and peeked out. A single, low-watt light burned in the hallway. From behind Lucretia’s door came the burbling of a television; Hannah’s door was absolutely silent.

Steady as a rock, Crystal tip-toed down the stairs and out the front door. And just like that problem number two—getting away from the house without being seen—was slain.

The third obstacle turned out to be something of a paper tiger as well. Lucy Sommer arrived on time at their rendezvous point in the park dressed in black from head to foot. Crystal congratulated her with a high five, then asked if she had run into any trouble getting out of the house.

“No,” the other said with a delicate smile. “My room is right over our porch—“

“That’s right!” Crystal broke in. “You probably just jumped right onto the roof.”

“Onto the roof and into the streets,” Lucy said. Her eyes turned doubtful. “But Crystal, promise me I only need to stand guard while you do whatever crazy thing it is that you’re going to do.”

“That’s all,” Crystal said, “other than getting us to Shitty’s house. Are you sure you know where he lives?”

“I’m sure.” The girl made a face. “But why don’t you? Everyone at school makes fun of his trailer.”

“By everyone do you mean everyone? Or everyone on the geek squad?”

“He lives in the woods off Milan Street,” Lucy said.

“Then let’s scoot on over there.”

***

Her friend spoke very little from that point, which wasn’t surprising. As they walked Crystal tried her best to smooth things over using a verbal cocktail of light banter mixed with solemn vows of success in the face of adversity. They cut across the silent, shadowy field to where Hamilton Street dead-ended at a ridge overlooking the park. Here, too, things were quiet. Dark windows overlooked barren sidewalks. Dormant sprinkler systems glowed beneath moth-blown arc-sodium streetlamps. Monroeville was a small town, and like most small towns, it went to bed early.

Most of it did anyway.

The girls turned left onto Hollister Street, which dumped them onto Milan Street at the outskirts of town. Crystal stopped at the curb to get a lay of the land. She knew it well already, of course. Milan Street was the route her mother often used on her way to Norwalk or Sandusky. Nevertheless it looked ever so much different at present. Tonight she wasn’t just passing through on her way to noisier places. Tonight it and she had business.

“Are those the woods you mean?” Crystal said, pointing into a dense area of chestnuts, elms, and oaks across the street.

“Yes,” Lucy replied.

“Then those little lights I see must be his.”

“They are. He doesn’t live very far back.”

Crystal looked left. An enormous green field of corn grew along the edge of the woods. It would give them perfect cover for moving in.

“Hey Lucy,” she said, never taking her eyes off the husks, “remember what we did last Halloween at Jarett’s house?”

“How could I forget?”

“Yeah. Well we’re about to do it again here—only this time no eggs, and no dogs.”

“How do you know he doesn’t have a dog?”

The question begged a small wince from Crystal. “Shit. You’re right. I don’t.”

“So we abort?”

Now she gave her friend an irritated look. “What the fuck, Lucy? Is this Battlestar Galactica? No, we don’t abort.

“What then?”

“Let me think.”

“Oh shit.”

“Shut up.”

Half a minute went by. One car passed in the direction of Norwalk without slowing down. A raccoon scuttled across the road and was dive-bombed by a bat.

“You should see yourself,” Lucy laughed. “You need to grow a beard so you can stroke your chin.”

“All right, fuck it,” Crystal said. “We sneak in through the corn. If there’s any sign of a dog, we leave. Sound good?”

Good is not the word that leaps to mind. For me acceptable works much better.”

They crossed the street and plunged into the first row of stalks. Each of these stalks was at least Crystal’s height plus half that again. Within minutes the girls were in back of the janitor’s trailer. It was a rusty, ugly thing that had once been green but now looked more like the rotting carcass of a slaughtered hippopotamus. Junk tools—wheelbarrows, pitchforks, shovels—littered the yard amidst a chorus of insect song.

“Depressing,” Lucy whispered from her crouched position in the corn beside Crystal, “especially under the stars.”

“I disagree,” Crystal said, “because I don’t see a dog house, or even any dog shit. So I’m cheerful.”

“Bark, bark!”

Only one window in the trailer was lit up. Crystal asked Lucy to watch the driveway, then—minding the rusted hunks of who knew what at her feet—began a slow skulk across the lawn. Soon she was beneath the window. No good; she wasn’t tall enough. A flight of crooked doorsteps near the front enabled her to see more. Now she had a partial view of the trailer’s living room. Beyond a veil of thin, cheap curtains was a television (flickering against a wall of peeling paint) and a ceiling fan with dusty blades.

Pleased with the operation so far, Crystal returned to the back of the trailer. Here she faced the same problem as before, only with a different window: She was too short. Something to climb on seemed necessary. For this the janitor’s yard offered help in abundance. Plenty of junk looked like it could be stacked and stood upon. After a few minutes she found an old ladder buried in the grass. It was filthy and almost too heavy to lift, but for tonight at least, Crystal didn’t mind getting dirty. She was here on dirty business.

Once she got the ladder set beneath the window, she returned to Lucy.

“Now what?” her friend wanted to know.

“Now,” Crystal said, dusting her hands, “we wait for a light to come on in that window.”

“Why?”

“I figure that’s either his bathroom or his bedroom. Either way, once he’s inside I’m going to use this”—she pulled a pink camera from beneath her shirt—“to make his life a living hell.”

Lucy appeared flummoxed. “You’re going to…what? Post pictures of him on the internet?”

Naked pictures, my dear. Dick pics.”

What?”

“You heard me.”

“That’s nuts!”

“Watch my speed, Lucy.”

And before her friend could say anything else Crystal was off across the lawn. In seconds she arrived back at the trailer. The ladder took her weight without making a sound. Through the window lay a gloomy bathroom. Crouched in one corner was a toilet with a chipped seat. Hanging in another was a shower curtain covered in soap scum.

Crystal waited. It took an hour for the janitor to finally turn on the light. By that time she was so bored she almost missed her chance. Almost…but not quite. In the end she got two pictures, both of them disgusting, clear enough to use for stage two of her plan.

“Don’t post anything online,” Lucy told her on the way home, “they’ll be too easy to trace.”

“Where then?” Crystal asked.

“I know somebody who might be able to help. A fellow member of the geek squad. Why don’t you call me tomorrow?”

Minutes later they were back in the park. The night was still quiet. Not a breeze stirred among the trees. Crystal gave her friend a hug and thanked her for braving the elements.

The gesture appeared to surprise Lucy. “Me?” she said. “Nah. My mom and dad think I’m a golden girl, so they never suspect anything. You on the other hand,” she added with a hint of dreariness in her tone, “are down to your last strike. So be careful.”

“Lucy,” Crystal laughed, “I’ve never once been caught doing stuff like this, and I never once will be.”

They parted ways. By 12:30 Crystal was back on her porch. She put her key in the lock, opened the door…

And froze.

“Busted,” Hannah said, grinning from ear to ear.

Next to her, looking baleful enough to commit infanticide on the spot, stood Lucretia. “Young lady,” she grumbled.

Nothing that came after mattered. The ax had fallen.






































13

 

The summer promised to pass more slowly than any she had ever known, or ever would know. Weeks of solitary confinement, under virtual lock and key, loomed. On weekday afternoons Lucretia Genesio drove her daughter to the church in Norwalk; in the evenings she drove her home. For the time spent in between, Crystal had two choices: lie down in her bedroom or sit down at the dinner table.

She mostly preferred the former. Though she hated to be alone, the alternative—or rather, facing the alternative—was far, far worse. It amounted to this: Hannah, her younger sister, was now her babysitter.

Her babysitter!

No one in the house used the word but really…did a more precise one even exist? Whenever Lucretia was at the office Hannah had instructions to take note on everything Crystal did. And at the end of every day there would be a report. That was babysitting, all right.

“Where are you going?” Hannah would ask, every time Crystal set foot outside her room.

“Stuff it up your ass,” was the reply Crystal always gave.

“I’m telling Mom.”

“What, that I went to the bathroom? Fine.”

On one of these toilet trips towards the end of her first week in isolation she locked the door, sat down on the edge of the tub, and cried for half an hour. She missed Jarett and Lucy. She missed the Jackson farm and the land it stood on. She even missed Chubby, and wondered what wild game the smiling dog might be chasing at that very moment.

Now what? her sobs seemed to be asking. Now what?

The answer came in the form of a long soak. She spent the next hour submersed in hot, bubbly bathwater. Steam rose; tiles dripped. Crystal washed the tears from her cheeks and waited for them to return. When they didn’t, she began to feel better. Yes, the final dilemma in her plot—getting back into the house undetected—had proven too heavy for her luck to carry, but in the end it wouldn’t matter. Not for Shit-Shit the Johnny Appleseed of cigarettes. What she had in store for him would still be his, oh yes. In spades it would still be his.

Taking a deep breath, Crystal slipped under the water. Five seconds passed. Ten. Jarett’s face, pensive and irresistibly tragic as always, appeared above the surface. His hand reached under. She felt his fingers on her neck, caressing the adam’s apple.

“Will I see you again soon, Crystal?”

It was a fair question. She’d missed two lessons already; he deserved an explanation for that. Also…

Well, no way she could let Hannah keep her in the house. That would be ridiculous.

Just then a stabbing pain—a rusty knife—tore through Crystal’s bare chest. She winced and blew a flurry of bubbles up at Jarret’s face. When the storm cleared, he was gone. Not for long though. She would see him at least one more time this summer whether anyone else liked it or not.

 

On Tuesday morning of the following week—the last Tuesday of that June—she walked out of the house while Hannah wasn’t looking. The sun did not greet her. Heavy gray clouds hung overhead, thieving the season of its color, and by the time she was halfway to Jarett’s house there was thunder in the western skies.

Its rumble escorted her from here. The clouds grew darker and more fitful, so that Jarett’s drive, when at last she reached it, took on the appearance of a cave. Not the least bit frightened, Crystal delved into the trees, breathing in the smells of wildflowers and ripe foliage. Halfway to the house Chubby came charging down the drive, happy as ever to see the new girl who’d been spending so much time with his master this year, and after a hug and a few sloppy licks, Crystal followed him towards the front door. He didn’t lead her straight to it, but veered around the side of the house instead. Curious, she followed, past a granite lawn ornament (a giant turtle), and a stick swing hanging from one of the larger oaks.

“Hello?” Crystal called, cresting a slope that overlooked the corn field.

A gust of cool wind answered, stirring a set of wind-chimes on the back porch. She turned to find Jarett seated in a lawn chair with Chubby on one side and a mug of coffee on the other. Looking tentative (was he ever not tentative?), he smiled down at her.

“Hey, Crystal,” he said. “Welcome back. Come on up before the rain starts.”

She sprang up the steps with an apology for missing this week’s lessons gushing from her lips. The writer told her not to worry, that it was all right, before redeeming himself of disinterest in her affairs with an invitation to sit down and explain what had happened.

“Well which part do you want to hear first?” Crystal asked, placing her bottom in the chair opposite. “The good or the bad?”

“The bad.”

“I got busted.”

“Ha! What for this time?”

“That’s the good part. Remember I told you I was going to make Shit-Shit pay?”

“Oh yes. With great clarity.”

Crystal crossed her legs and leaned forward. “Well he’s about to become the laughing stock of this entire town.”

“Okay,” Jarett replied, his tone cautious. “How do you mean?”

First she described her midnight excursion to the janitor’s trailer. Jarett looked puzzled early on, but then burst out laughing when she told him about the pictures.

“Oh boy,” he said, rubbing his eyes. “Oh boy. And now you’re going to upload them to the internet?”

“Nope. Lucy says that’s too dangerous. We’re going to have copies made and hang them up around town instead.”

What?”

“You heard me.”

He shook his head. “So when I drive to the post office I’m gonna see this guy’s dick pointing me towards the door?”

“That’s the plan. You might wanna hold off on entering any sweepstakes for awhile.”

But of course not quite everything had gone according to plan, and this she shared with him too, just as another, stronger gust of wind swept through the cornfield and a bolt of lightning split the sky.

“Ears!” Jarett suddenly yelled, hands jumping to his head.

Crystal opened her mouth to ask what he was talking about when the heaviest clap of thunder she’d ever heard exploded over the house. A scream tore from her throat…and later, she thought that if the roof over the porch had been just a bit lower she might have banged her head on it.

To his credit, Chubby didn’t look scared at all. He lay between Crystal and Jarett wearing his favorite smile as an assortment of leaves, twigs, and flower petals soared over the yard. Crystal imagined a thousand different scents passing into his nose. Her own fear was short-lived; storms had never scared her very much. She gave Chubby a pat on the head and wondered aloud how she was going to get home.

“I’ll give you a lift,” Jarett offered.

“You can’t. I’m grounded for the rest of the summer. I’m not even allowed to come and see you.”

“Strange to hear you say that while we’re sitting on my back porch.”

“You know how I feel about rules, Jarett.”

He nodded and took a drink of coffee as she spoke. “I do indeed. And I’d say to be careful about breaking things that offend you if I thought it’d do any good.”

“I don’t break everything. Sometimes I just…have to have what I want.”

The rain came then, a slanted sheet. The three of them—man, girl, and dog—watched it together for several minutes without making a sound. Crystal found her eyes jumping from place to place through the scene below, as if in effort to elude the downpour. From the first row of corn they went left to a tree stump which according to Jarett belonged to a mighty elm that had been struck down by lightning in 1978. Nearby was a grapevine, devoid of fruit in this season, as was the apple orchard behind the barn. She took a deep breath. Sweet-smelling raindrops sprinkled over her face.

“All I ever wanted was to write books and live in a castle,” Jarett said.

Crystal blinked at him. It was an odd thing to hear; she didn’t know what to make of it.

“Well from the look of things, that’s what you’ve got,” she pointed out gingerly. “But are you happy being alone?”

“Not always. At least Chubby’s here.”

She had to laugh at that. “Okay, Jarett, by alone I meant—“

“I know what you meant. But most of the time I’m all right.”

“And what happens during the times when you’re not all right?”

“I lie awake. I look at the ceiling. Sometimes I come out here for a cigar and watch the corn.”

“Does it help?”

The wind began to taper off. Jarett’s eyes were set on something far away. A memory, perhaps, that the corn blocked from Crystal’s view.

“Jarett?”

“A little,” he sighed, giving Chubby a pat on the head. “It carries me downstream to the next mooring at least.”

“She must have been quite a girl,” Crystal chanced.

That shocked him from his reverie. “Who?” he asked.

“The one who slipped away. The one who couldn’t be replaced. Who kept you from getting married.”

“You ascertain all that from the way I brood in the rain?”

“I know a broken heart when I hear one. By the way…you said at your lecture that you didn’t like writing. So why tell me now that it’s all you ever wanted to do?”

He took another drink of coffee before answering, and though it may have been her imagination, she thought the cup hit the table a trifle harder than normal as he put it down.

“I don’t like it, Crystal, but I still want it.”

“What the hell does that mean?”

“I have no fucking idea.”

She pondered this mystery by herself for a minute before giving it up as a bad job and moving on to the next part of his wish.

“Is this farm your castle?” she asked.

“Yes it is. And I love it very much. Way, way more than I do writing.”

“So quit writing. Tend your crops.”

An instant after the words were out Crystal slapped her forehead in disgust.

“Jesus, what am I saying? I love all your books.”

“Don’t worry,” Jarett told her. “I can’t quit.”

“Too many stories left to tell,” she mused.

“No. I have three books left in my publishing contract. Damn,” he added after a moment. “The rain’s stopped. That means back to work.”

“On the book?”

“Hell no. The farm. Are you sure you don’t want that ride home?”

Crystal felt her heart sink. It was obvious what the question meant. Their time was up. She thanked him for his offer but thought it’d be safer for them both if she walked. He agreed, keeping his gaze on the corn as she stood up. Whether or not that meant anything was hard to tell. Maybe his mind was somewhere else (castles, lost loves). Or maybe he thought it would hurt too much to watch her go.

“Chances are I won’t be seeing you again until school starts,” she poured out with deliberate fineness.

It earned her a glance—quick, almost skittish. Then he went back to hiding in the husks.

“I hope that’s okay,” she continued. “I don’t want our sessions to stop.”

His shoulders twitched. “Of course. No problem.”

“Do you want me to cook you anything before I leave?”

“No. Thank you. I’ll be all right.”

So that was that. Angry without really knowing why (what indeed had she been hoping for by coming out here today?), Crystal knelt to give Chubby one last scratch for the summer. Then she stepped off the porch and into the wet grass. A dogwood petal flew into her hair. She brushed at it, setting it free, only to have another one land on her arm. This one she left alone.

“Jarett?” she called, turning back towards the house.

He looked at her with his brow raised in mock innocence. It didn’t work for even a moment.

“Are you afraid of me?” she heard herself ask.

The word that came back sounded honest and frail as the dogwood petal.

“Yes.”

Crystal gave a slow, thoughtful nod. “Maybe you should stop that. Maybe if you did you’d find something you like about writing after all.”

And without waiting for a reply, she turned on her heel and walked off.



































 




























PART THREE: Pretty Bubbles























14

 

Middle age had crept up on Lucretia Genesio like a jungle predator. It had tracked her through her thirties, as she worked and played with energetic beauty, biding its time for just the right early morning, just the right bathroom mirror, to pounce on her—savagely—with wrinkles, dark circles, and stiff joints.

Today she was nearing fifty…and from what Crystal could see at present, that predator was still biding. True, she was wearing her hair shorter these days, and her nail polish had changed from brick red to beige. Admittedly, she no longer took sugar in her coffee, or ate bacon and eggs for breakfast. And yes, the car she drove was more quiet, more slow, the shoes she wore, the same. None of it mattered. Lucretia was still ahead in the game. The proof lay in her eyes, which were wide and alert as ever, even over an internet video chat that extended ten thousand miles.

“You’re eternal,” Crystal told her, iPad in one hand and coffee in the other, “you know that?”

The older woman gave a laugh through the screen. “Don’t go casting your evil spells on me.”

“I’m not. I’m pouring out my envy. Seriously, how do you keep time from beating down the gates, Mom? What’s your secret?”

“Time doesn’t beat down gates, Crystal. It creeps through underneath. One night when I was forty I went to bed and had a dream about pearls; in the morning I woke up with gray hair in my bangs.”

“I don’t understand what that means.”

“Time is subtle, Crystal, that’s what I’m trying to say. Time is subtle. Except for you. You look like hell.”

“Mom!”

“I’m kidding, I’m kidding. Speaking of time, what is it there? Ten o’clock?”

“It’s midnight,” Crystal replied. “I’m sitting at my kitchen table. Alone,” she added, almost to herself.

“And the typhoon?”

“What about it?”

Lucretia blinked as if the question were stupid.

“Is everyone okay?”

“Oh yes, it’s gone.”

“Good. Hannah says to lay off the rice.”

“She always says that and she knows I never touch the stuff. Tell Joey and Eva Aunt Crystal says hi.”

They chatted a bit more about nothing in particular. And yet Crystal thought that her mother could sense something in the wind, some revelation lying in wait beyond the sandy dunes of their trivialities. In between topics she would stop to lean her head to one side, like a lost woman studying a map. Except that Lucretia was not the one who was lost.

What’s wrong, Crystal? that tilted head seemed to ask.

And the hell of it was…Crystal really didn’t know. She only knew that things here in the Philippines—her job, her marriage—weren’t right.

“Hey, Mom,” she said tentatively, “how would you feel about my coming home for a little while? I could bring the baby.”

The tilted head on the screen went straight in a blur.

“I would love that,” Lucretia replied. “I’ve missed you. Hannah too. And this town”—her eyes rolled as she spoke—“this town, Jesus, Crystal, it’s gotten even slower since you’ve left. Why shouldn’t it? You were…without doubt a bolt of color in the fabric.”

“All right, all right,” Crystal laughed. “Jeez, I didn’t expect you to lay it on that way. I expected something more like—“

“Is there something wrong between you and Miko?”

That,” Crystal finished, shoulders dropping.

“Well?” Lucretia nodded. “Is there?”

Crystal glanced over her shoulder before answering. It was enough for the woman on the other end. She asked what was the matter, to which Crystal replied nothing. Nothing, she went on to add, was precisely what the problem could be called.

“I don’t follow,” Lucretia said.

“We’re not…like a couple anymore, Mom. We don’t…I don’t know,” she trailed off, frustrated.

But having finally stumbled upon the revelation, her mother wasn’t about to walk off without investigating.

“Don’t what?” she said. “Tell me.”

“Can’t,” Crystal replied after draining her mug, “it’s too hard to articulate.”

“Stop it. You’ve never had trouble with articulation. You were insubordinate, insensitive, and inquisitive. But never inarticulate.”

“Mom.”

“So tell me. If the candle’s flickering there must be a reason.”

“Lack of oxygen.”

“Meaning what?”

Crystal drew a deep breath without knowing what was going to come out next. She and Miko didn’t love each other the way they used to. Hell, they didn’t love each other at all. He had stopped looking at her, stopped listening to her. The same thing went for her students at work. It was something that couldn’t have been predicted in a million years. Crystal Ilagen, focal point of one of the most widely publicized criminal events in the history of Ohio, had graduated high school, gotten married…and become the invisible woman.

“Only Luke seems to notice me these days,” she said, after spilling all of this to Lucretia in jagged, stuttering sentences. “And Mom…I just don’t know what to do about it. Except walk away. Me and Luke together.”

“Maybe that’s the right thing to do, Crystal,” the other woman told her. “Maybe. But remember you left here because of something you wanted to get away from. Did it work?”

The remark puzzled Crystal. Blinking, she said, “I left Monroeville because Miko took a job here.”

“There was more to it than that. Don’t try to fool your own mom.”

“Are you talking about Jarett?”

“Was there another pedophile here who seduced you and—“

He wasn’t a pedophile and he didn’t seduce me.”

Blood erupted into Crystal’s cheeks as she spoke. On the screen, Lucretia gave her a twisted look; the memories of Jarett Powell were still garden fresh in her mind—or rather, garbage spoiled and covered with maggots. In any case the man’s name was poison to her and always would be. But she had barely known Jarett, and knew even less of the truth between him and her daughter. Whenever they spoke about what had happened in Monroeville nine years ago (which was almost never), she proceeded from complete ignorance. It always infuriated Crystal to hear the blame put on Jarett, and that Lucretia was doing it over a long-distance internet chat didn’t seem to make a whit of difference. She suddenly wanted to reach through the screen and backhand her mother across the face.

“You don’t know what he was, Crystal,” Lucretia cooed, with plastic wisdom in her eyes. “You were too young. Men like that are impossible to understand. They’re scum.”

“Mom,” Crystal ground out, as a little voice counted to ten in her mind, “we need to stop talking about this. I don’t want to come home mad at you.”

“All right. You know there’s plenty of room here at the house. What will you tell Miko?”

After a deep breath, Crystal said: “I’m going to lie to him.”

“Don’t do that. Tell things to him like they are, Crystal. Break it off clean.”

“I can’t. He might put up a fight for Luke. And who knows? Maybe things really will get better between us after some time apart.”

“Now you’re lying to yourself.”

“Mom—“

Lucretia waved her hand at the screen. “Never mind. I shouldn’t be passing out advice from halfway around the world.” She took a moment to blink, leading Crystal to wonder if there were tears behind those wide blue eyes. But her next words came out steady. “Just come home, honey. Any way you can. Do you need help with plane fare?”

“No, I’ll be all right with that. Listen, Mom, it’s almost one a.m. here.”

“Go to bed.”

Crystal laughed. “God, you just made me feel thirteen again. Only this time I’ll listen to you.”

“I knew I’d break through eventually.”

“I’m going to call you again when I’m ready to leave.”

“I’ll pick you up at Hopkins. Just give me your plane number and arrival time.”

Crystal opened her mouth to agree…and was shocked to find that the words would not come. Her throat tightened, her vision blurred.

So, she thought, I’m the one who’s going to cry.

Either having the finality of her marriage spoken out loud to another had hurt more than she’d anticipated, or Lucretia’s clear desire to see her again in the flesh was bringing back love for the woman in earnest. Whichever, it made Crystal snatch at the tissue box on the table. She was too slow. Tears spilled down her cheeks and she had to turn away from the screen.

“Sorry,” she got out, chest hitching.

And when Crystal looked at the screen to see that Lucretia was crying, too, she started to laugh instead. Her giggles were every bit as contagious as her tears. Upon seeing what was happening to her daughter, Lucretia instantly followed suit, until neither woman (or so it seemed to Crystal) could tell her pain apart from her pleasure.

***

On the following Monday night a chaos descended upon Benton, Asia. This stood to reason, as it was Monday morning on the company’s front-burning stew of clients—the United States—a time of week which never failed to induce boisterousness among its blue-carpeted rows of tech support agents.

Voices of every pitch on the musical scale swirled around Crystal’s workstation. Her quarterly report to Roberta, due this coming Wednesday, proceeded like molasses as a result. She couldn’t seem to keep her mind focused on the charts and numbers glowing above her computer keyboard. Compounding the issue was the near perpetual foot traffic that to-ed and fro-ed in the aisles. Some of that traffic would even stop from time to time to ask about her next class or her next smoke break.

By midnight Crystal decided that a smoke break was precisely what she needed. Grimacing at the nonsense she had typed and would later delete, she stood up. Her chair rolled backward over a pair of prim, black boots belonging to DoDo Garcia.

“Hey!” she giggled. “Why don’t you install a pair of reverse lights on that thing?”

“Cut due to budget constraints,” Crystal told her.

Like Crystal, DoDo had been a slave to the cigarette since her early teens. Now at forty, the constant worshipping showed mainly through dry, leathery skin, and a head of hair that had gone chalk gray around the ears. Premature dotage notwithstanding, she never made Crystal want to quit. She was always too cheerful, always too willing to either tell or listen to the latest joke making rounds among the agents. She also spent off and on time with Roberta at some of the bars in Quezon City. This provided Crystal with a nice pipeline of dirt on the woman with her very own penis dangling between her legs.

It so happened that tonight DoDo had enough dirt for a backhoe. She offered to join Crystal outside for a yosi, as smoking was called in the Philippines. A look Crystal had seen many times before shined in her eye, a shark-grin look that seemed to whisper: Wait ‘til you hear this.

All too willing to entertain, Crystal accepted, and soon they were standing beneath the trains along Aurora Boulevard, fully indulged in their habit as traffic raced everywhere. Nor were they the only ones. Other employees of the call center waved from the shadows. Homeless children held out their hands for money; stray dogs sniffed for food.

“Well!” DoDo shouted over a Jeepney horn. “I am done with alcohol! No more getting drunk on the weekends!”

Crystal’s cigarette froze halfway to her lips. Here was a resolution she never expected to come from this particular woman.

“Come off it,” she said. “Whatever happened couldn’t have topped the anniversary party in Subic.”

“I don’t remember that party.”

“Exactly.”

Smoke puffed from DoDo’s mouth as she shook her head. “But this tops it, Crystal. This tops everything.”

“So let’s hear it.”

“Okay. First of all, were you here Friday night?”

Growing more intrigued by the moment, Crystal nodded.

“But you know that Roberta wasn’t?” DoDo went on.

“She called off sick. No one on our floor was especially heartbroken.”

More smoke chortled through the other woman’s nostrils. “Ha! Sick, right! She suffered an acute and rather painful kind of ailment.”

“What—“

“You’re gonna love this, Crystal, oh God!”

“Well spit it out, girl!”

DoDo took a few moments to compose herself, during which time two other female agents joined them. The extra company didn’t make her hesitant in the least. Quite the reverse.

“I got a text on my cell phone,” she began, “from Roberta. She wanted a ride home from the hospital. It scared me at first. She didn’t tell me what was wrong. Just that she needed a ride.”

“And?” one of the agents goaded with a sparkle in her eye.

“And I went to get her. She’d gone through the emergency room. That scared me even more. I asked for her by name and one of the doctors cut me off.”

“Let me guess,” Crystal said, “she got drunk and passed out in front of a bar.”

Way better than that. And what makes it funnier is that she wasn’t even drunk when it happened.”

“When what happened, DoDo?” the other girl pleaded. “Come on! Tell us!”

But Crystal’s friend had begun to laugh too hard to answer. Crystal patted her on the back and told her to calm down. It did very little good. Now doubled over in guffaws, DoDo gasped that she couldn’t go on, she just couldn’t.

Crystal had had enough.

“Somebody stuck a firecracker up her ass,” she ventured.

Much to her surprise, DoDo’s posture instantly straightened, and her eyes bulged.

“Close!” she nodded. “Very close!”

“I—“

“She stuck a flower vase up her own ass!”

What in the fucking hell?” Crystal shouted as a train roared by overhead.

Within seconds the laughter had spread from DoDo to the rest of the group. In between breaths Crystal noticed several inquisitive heads turn in their direction. Their curiosity, she knew, would be short-lived. Word traveled fast in a call center.

“Why, DoDo?” one of the younger girls finally managed.

“Oh she insists it was an accident! She says she sat on it!”

“Yeah!” Crystal clapped. “She probably did—while watching a porn video!”

“That’s where my money’s at,” DoDo said. “Anyway, I guess the vase went in really deep. She couldn’t get it out herself.”

All four girls stared at each other…

And then it was off to the races again. Crystal knew that she and DoDo—and no doubt the entire call center—would be laughing about this story for years to come. It was so much fun she forgot to tell her friend that tonight began the first of her final ten at Benton, Asia. She forgot to tell her friend she was resigning and going back home.

 

She forgot to tell DoDo, but she could not forget to tell Roberta. They had a meeting scheduled for two a.m. to discuss it, and thanks to what she’d heard on her cigarette break, Crystal looked forward to it like a glass of Beck’s after a hot day.

With her mind cleared of its previous muggy fog, the quarterly report came out in a clean flood. Her fingers raced over the keys almost as fast as the thoughts that stimulated them, so that by the time two o’clock rolled around she was halfway finished with the whole thing. She stood, stretched, and took a long swig of Coke from the bottle on her desk.

“Thanks,” she said to DoDo, who grinned up from her seat.

“Where you off to?”

“Meeting with Roberta.”

“Send her my love. Or maybe we can just buy flowers.”

***

“Sit,” Roberta said, glancing up from the frog on her desk.

Be mindful of the corn, the frog’s caption now read.

Crystal looked at the chair but didn’t sit. No matter what other consequences arose from leaving Benton, she would never take orders from the cold, dark individual sitting in this room again. She—he—didn’t know it yet, but Roberta was about to lose a sled-puller.

“What are you waiting for?” she asked.

Maintaining her disobedience, Crystal said: “I’ll be resigning from the company. I’d like to put in my two weeks’ notice.”

“I see. Are you going back to the States?”

“That’s right. I bought a farm,” she suddenly added, without knowing why. “I’m going to grow crops. Raise pigs and chickens and horses.”

“Sounds like a lot of hard work,” Roberta replied, her face stony. And I know you’re not much for working hard, she may as well have clipped on, to judge by her tone.

Crystal refused to let it phase her. “I like to get my hands dirty.”

“Indeed you do.” The account manager’s brow went up. “When is your next class?”

“Four.”

“Great. Make sure that Arthur Ramos accompanies you so he can report how things went. In the meantime…what’s so funny?”

Crystal’s hand went to her mouth, but she’d gotten to giggling as Roberta spoke and it normally took her a long time to get stopped.

How’s your asshole, Roberta? a voice in back of her mind kept insisting to know.

“In the meantime,” the dark woman went on through tight teeth, “you can submit your LOR to me ASAP.”

F-U-C-K, the voice said, in perfect mockery of her boss’ tone.

Now it was either lean on the desk or fall into the chair. Crystal chose to lean, nodding as best she could through laughter almost as impish as it had been with DoDo outside.

“Would you care to let me in on the joke?” she heard Roberta say.

In no way did Crystal wish to respond to that with a yes. She regained her composure by force of will and repeated some folderol about an agent ripping his pants that was already months past. Roberta did not so much as pretend to find it funny (no surprise there), but did dismiss her without further comment. Relieved, Crystal made her escape.

***

An hour later she returned to the office with her letter of resignation, only to find Roberta’s chair empty. She was about to leave the letter on the desk and be gone when a convenient piece of office bric-a-brac caught her eye: A flower vase, also empty, stood next to a row of books on a stainless steel shelf.

Pocketing the letter for a later time, Crystal grabbed the vase and carefully placed it in the middle of the account queen’s chair.






































15

 

What time is it now?

Said the fish in the hall

To the clock on the wall.

I cannot see your face.

 

What love do you nurse,

Said the clock on the wall,

For these blood-black lines

Mapping out your disgrace?

 

What time is it now?

Said the fish in the hall.

Please, I have no room

In this ice-cold place.

 

But the clock on the wall

Maintained its resolve.

For oh that little fish!

She did not have a case.

 

She did not have a case at all.

***

For the first time in a month, the school cafeteria was noisy.

Crystal heard it before she saw it. She’d made a brief stop at the girls’ toilet before lunch, slipping out of line and down a flight of basement steps (at the bottom of which the restroom she preferred to use of late was located) with her eyes on the sneakers of her cheerleading uniform. And five minutes later, as she came back to the hall, there it was: chatter, laughter, clanging silverware. The students were beginning to move on. They were beginning to put what had happened in November behind them.

That wasn’t so easy for some. Crystal sat down with her lunch—mashed potatoes, milk, an apple—in a deep and quiet corner, where a poster that read A nation’s treasure is in its scholars hung on the wall. Neither this proverb nor the food interested her. She’d lost five pounds over the past month, even with Thanksgiving thrown in. What she really wanted was a cigarette. For these her appetite had struck off in the opposite direction, despite Hannah’s tattle-tales and Lucretia’s fists of wrath. She could now get through an entire pack in just five days.

Nibbling on her apple, she watched the school. The lunch counter line had disappeared. Kids now stood in front of the milkshake machine, jabbering about typical things: music, movies, sports. Closer by, the cheerleading table where Crystal used to sit on Fridays was full to brimming with yellow sweaters, with one in particular—Megan Holt’s—at the center of attention. To the surprise of no one, Megan had gone through November without the slightest inkling of condolence for students or staff. Indeed, she seemed to wonder at times (by means of a vacant smile in the halls) where all the sudden, campus-wide sadness had come from.

She seemed to wonder…but of course she knew. Everyone knew.

“Fuck her.”

Crystal jumped in her seat and turned to see that Lucy Sommer had crept up at some point. The glasses she wore rested crookedly on her face, as usual. In her bag, however, was something most unusual: a semester report card showing all Cs.

“Oh my god,” Crystal muttered, after accepting Lucy’s offer to see it. Her fingers plucked it away from the other’s grasp as if it would burst into flames at any moment. “Oh God, Lucy, this isn’t yours. This can’t be yours.”

“Don’t worry about me,” Lucy said, “I’ll rebound.”

“But—“

“Look,” Lucy continued, sweeping a hand over the cafeteria. “It’s happening all over. People are getting on.”

“I noticed that. But Lucy, they’re a little further removed than you and I.”

“I never wanted to hurt anyone, Crystal. And I know you didn’t, either.”

Crystal looked down at her friend’s report card again. C, C, C, C+, C. The last grade was for trigonometry.

“This is totally my fault,” she said. She felt her lip begin to quiver—a tremor before the eruption. “I ruined your grades, Lucy. I’m so sorry.”

“Stop it. At the end of next week we’re on Christmas break. And when we come back, everything will be reset. Don’t cry, Crystal, come on.”

“Lucy,” Crystal said, reaching into her bag for a tissue, “you have got to be the only girl in the world who would tell another girl not to cry.”

“That was kind of silly, wasn’t it?” Lucy laughed. “Anyway, about Megan. I hope you weren’t sitting here trying to figure her out. That’s a waste of time.”

“No. I’ve got too much figuring out about myself to do.”

Lucy stared at the other cheerleader. She was giggling at full tilt about something while another girl leaned on her shoulder. Seeing the contemplative look on Lucy’s face, Crystal began to wonder whether her friend was taking her own advice.

“What about you?” she asked, blinking away the last of her tears. “Are you trying to figure Megan out?”

Lucy shook her head. “No. I’m just wondering what her secret is. How she always manages to have so much fun.”

“That’s called trying to figure someone out, dear.”

“Yeah, well fuck it.” She put the report card back into her bag. “If she wants to bob on the waves like the buoyant little bitch she is, why should I care?”

“You’re sure talking a lot different these days,” Crystal smirked. “I didn’t know you had all those nasty words in your encyclopedia.”

“It’s Miko. He swears all the time. And you, of course.”

Crystal had taken another bite from her apple. Now she stopped chewing. Thoughts of Lucy’s friend from the nerd gallery were scarce since he’d finished printing the pictures from Crystal’s camera. Had he, like Crystal, taken to brooding in quiet corners?

“How is Miko?” she asked, fearing the worst.

But Lucy only shrugged. “Not bad. Not good, mind you, but not bad. He hates you, of course.”

“Of course. Do you think he’ll spill the beans about what we did?”

“No way in hell. Which isn’t to say the police won’t figure it out regardless. They have all the pictures in their possession.”

Crystal felt her stomach tighten. The police, Jesus. And they wouldn’t be curious about stolen cigarettes this time around.

“Thanks a-fucking lot for reminding me of that, Luce.”

“It’s a long shot, Crystal. They’re still wondering why Shit-Shit did what he did.”

“But they have the pictures.”

“None of them show his face clearly. Only the people who knew him could tell it was him.”

“And those people will talk.”

“I suppose they will.”

Crystal slumped back in her seat. Her half-eaten apple rolled off the table and disappeared.

“Jesus did this ever turn out to be a mess. A great big fucking mess.”

“Throw away your camera if you haven’t already,” Lucy advised.

“It’s gone.”

***

Two weeks later the holidays came…and pretty soon they were gone, too. Considering they marked the end of a terrible year, Crystal would have kicked them out the door with a steel-toed boot had it been possible. She didn’t even bother to buy presents for anyone, though Hannah (who had asked for a scrapbook) gave her a new pair of shoelaces and a chain for her sunglasses.

The alone time continued. Crystal allowed it to do so long after the expiration of her sentence, going outside only for school and lessons with Jarett. Part of the blame lay with the weather, which had turned brutally cold after November, leaving the sidewalks icy and the trees around Marsh Field black and bare as frozen skeletons lost to a doomed expedition. Another, far larger component of her solitude owed its origins to the previous summer. That night in June when she and Lucy had walked up the hill to visit Shit-Shit’s pathetic trailer now seemed to lurk behind every memory she had. Crystal supposed it would be that way forever.

She came back from the break with her eyes between her boots, no longer concerned enough with the goings-on of the school to investigate whether or not Lucy’s prediction (everything will be reset) had come to pass. Lectures droned through icy mornings, coughs, and sniffles. She failed a pop quiz in trig on the tenth, and then another in biology on the thirteenth. On lunch periods she sat in her corner like the little boy in the nursery rhyme, sometimes with Lucy, but mostly alone. More and more often it was Miko that her friend dined with, a choice Crystal did not blame her for, though the memories of their once tight friendship were becoming more bittersweet by the day.

Yet for all that went wrong during that autumn of 2005 and into the winter of 2006, there were some nuggets of comfort to be found. For one thing, the police never came knocking. For another, Lucretia had put the cigarette incident behind her, and was now back to her old cavalier self. She talked to Crystal and Hannah at the dinner table the way she’d been doing a year ago—which was to say, with grins and jokes and sarcastic barbs about single parenthood in equal measure. She did not even seem to notice her older daughter’s worsening habit with what had caused all the trouble in the first place, though Crystal scarcely attempted to conceal it.

Another, less surprising bright spot transpired in the form of Jarett. The reason for her sudden detachment from both school and literature, Crystal knew, could not have been lost on him. Yet he never mentioned it during their study sessions, choosing instead to keep a tactful focus on her assignments. As always, his guidance was charming, his touting the same, even if this latter performance looked ludicrous beside the diminishing quality in Crystal’s stories.

Then came February.

***

On the ninth, five days before her thirteenth birthday, she walked straight to the Jackson farm from school. No one—not even Lucy—waved goodbye to her. Only Hannah felt obliged to chase her down at the end of West Street to warn of an approaching snow storm, which had been the talk of the hallways all day. Crystal sent her off with a vacant promise to be home early. At that same moment the first few white flakes began to fall around her boots. Ignoring them, Crystal turned her back on Hannah and walked on.

This soon became cause for regret. She reached the wooden bridge on Jarett’s property in a squall, and by the time she got to his front door, everything behind her was a total white-out. Now shivering with cold, Crystal tried to twist the bell handle, but it had frozen solid over Christmas and would not move. A sudden gust of wind shoved her forward on the step, and as she stumbled, something tremendous—a tree branch perhaps—crashed down in the woods.

Jarett!” she screamed.

Her fist, tiny and delicate, pounded at the door to zero effect. God, what if he wasn’t home? She turned her head to the right. The view was like a blank movie screen, and eliminated any thoughts she had about making her way around to the back porch. One miscalculation would lead her off into the woods, or down into the fields.

Jarett!” she cried again.

Still no answer.

Desperate, she gave the bell handle a hard kick. A ding! sound from the other side provided hope that the ice had broken free, and sure enough, when she twisted the handle this time, it responded (cling!cling!cling!) as it had been doing for over a hundred years. Seconds later the door came unlocked, and was yanked open to reveal an appalled Jarett Powell on the threshold. But before he could even open his mouth to ask what she thought she was doing outside in weather like this, Crystal fell into his arms, with a command to close the door and lock it until springtime, if necessary.

His chiding was almost sweet as he led her into the kitchen for a mug of hot chocolate. Had she lost her mind? Didn’t she watch the news, or even listen to the radio? A blizzard was coming down, the worst since 1978. Of course the lesson was cancelled for the day—or should have been. She was lucky, damned lucky. And stupid.

Crystal listened to all of this as she sipped her cocoa, and then listened to it again, this time from Lucretia, after Jarett called her mother’s cell phone. There was an “I told you so” from Hannah in the background mere moments before the power went out, giving the world over to gray and black. Crystal let out a scream, almost dropping the phone. And when she next put it to her ear the signal was dead.

“That’s that,” she said to Jarett. “We’re snowed in.”

***

Half an hour later he had a fire going in the living room. Crystal sat on the couch with one of Jarett’s shirts buttoned around her like a nightgown. In her bare lap lay the head of a very nervous dog. Every gust of wind against the living room’s frosty window—and there were many all that night and into the next morning—made Chubby jump as if bitten by a flea. Crystal stroked his fur, telling him not to worry, that it was only a storm.

When he calmed down well enough to be left alone, she used Jarett’s kerosene heater to warm up some leftovers from the refrigerator, then set the table for a candlelight meal over a series of furtive glances and muted conversation. One thing she wanted to know concerned the animals outside. Would they be all right? Jarett responded by saying that he had provided fresh hay in both the barn and the chicken coop. He was also keeping an ax handy in case he needed to chop ice for water.

“Sounds like you thought of everything,” she said, with genuine respect.

“You have to on a farm. Especially when the hired help gets closed off.”

Another fist from outside struck the window, rattling coffee mugs on their hooks.

“God,” Crystal gasped, holding her chest. “Were you really planning to sit this out alone? That would terrify me.”

“This is a very big house,” Jarett agreed. Then, with a smile that shimmered as much as the candles: “And now it’s very dark.”

“Stop it. I’m creeped out enough as it is.”

“You’ve spent some time here alone.”

“Yes. In daylight. With the power on.”

“Will you be able to sleep tonight?” he asked.

Crystal’s eyes roved around the kitchen. Shadows cast by candlelight danced everywhere to the music of cold fingers under the back door. In the archway to the dining room, a single oil lamp burned from a table she’d never eaten at. All the other rooms, without question, were at this moment pitch black.

“I don’t know,” she answered with a shiver in her bones.

“Well I’m sorry I teased you just now. I’ve come to love this farm so much I could never think of it doing me wrong.”

“I saw a man in the window upstairs,” she blurted, as if to cast doubt on his certitude.

Jarett looked bemused. “Oh? When was this?”

“My first time coming here. Well, the second time. I was outside in the driveway.”

“It was probably me.”

“No. This guy was dressed like a general from 1860. All medals and gold buttons.”

“Interesting. Have you seen him again since?”

Crystal shook her head, then asked if he was finished eating as a method to change the subject. Bringing it up had been a mistake. The night promised to be long enough without talk of specters dressed for battle. Jarett pronounced that he was, and they washed dishes together over bulletins from the radio.

Those bulletins carried no surprises by way of grimness. The storm was now officially a blizzard. A level three snow emergency had been declared throughout Huron County. All vehicles not designated as a snow plow were forbidden from the roads. On route 2 near Cleveland a semi truck had turned over into a ditch; the driver, a 38 year-old male, was pronounced dead at the scene.

“And this is almost needless to say,” the broadcaster went on, “but all Cleveland public schools are closed for tomorrow. Check the area you live in for local closings.”

“They should have closed the schools today,” Jarett put in. “I wonder how many kids got stuck on the way home.”

Once the dishes were cleaned there was little else to do but return to the living room and proceed with the day’s writing lesson. With Crystal’s latest story the run-on sentence bug had bitten once more. Jarett patiently showed her how to shorten them, how to make her work more crisp and stimulating for the reader’s brain. Crystal took another gulp of wine, which Jarett had poured from a freshly opened bottle, and explained that the draft lying before him was rough and by no means something she would turn in for publication.

“Always behind on your assignments,” he said, with a playful poke to her ribs.

“Yeah. So much for that New Year resolution. But then bad as last year was I think I’ll just stay under the covers for awhile.”

Jarett refilled his glass as she spoke. They hadn’t talked about anything sensitive since last summer on the back porch. Now here Crystal was, acknowledging a very large elephant in the room. Why? The wine made for an easy target to blame, but there had to be something else.

In the end it came down to this: She’d had enough of the doldrums. Guilty or no, she wanted to put them behind her and do what the rest of Monroeville High was already busy with: move on. And some part of her knew that Jarett was the man to turn to for help. It made sense. Besides Lucy and Miko, he was the only one who knew the truth. Who probably knew the truth. He was the only one who knew why the school janitor had killed himself last November.

“That’s always an option,” she heard him say. “Hiding under the covers I mean. But Crystal?” She tilted her head, waiting for him to go on. The fire danced in Jarett’s eyes as gleefully as it did over her past. Tonight, its fandango carried wisdom instead of pain. “Hiding is not healing. Hiding only lets the trouble grow. And when at last you come out everyone will notice you even more.”

“Maybe I should just stay in then.”

“You can’t do that. That isn’t Crystal Genesio.”

She opened her mouth to rebuke this observation…but nothing came out. He was right. Hadn’t she just chided herself about the doldrums? They didn’t sit well in the hearts of mischievous cheerleaders. Chicanery needed sunny days for inspiration and starry nights for implementation. In the rain you could do nothing but, as a certain author of children’s books had pointed out long ago, sit, sit, sit, sit.

And what about snow? the voice of that cheerleader purred from the back of her mind.

Crystal welcomed it home with an open smile that must have puzzled the man sitting opposite. No matter. He wouldn’t be puzzled for long. Now that the cheerleader had her spirit back, she had some planning to do. Manipulation and seduction. Deviltry to get afoot.

“I’ll come out,” she said, hoping the smile on her lips wouldn’t scare him. “But it won’t happen overnight.”

Like hell it won’t, the cheerleader purred some more. Already she had an idea as to how.

“No,” Jarett agreed. “You can’t expect it to. A storm like this doesn’t blow over and disappear like a blizzard. It’s going to take time.”

Crystal nodded, then gulped down the rest of her wine so fast it made Jarett bluster.

“Wow,” he said. “You must really like that vintage.”

“Yes,” she replied, “thank you. I’m remembering how to like a lot of things.”

“Like what?”

“Oh,” Crystal said, giving him a wink, “maybe we’ll see. Maybe we’ll just see.”






































16

 

She asked him, innocently as she knew how, if he thought the house would still have hot water for a bath with the power gone. Jarett replied that the Jackson Farm’s hot water relied upon the gas company, and that, since he lived alone, there should be plenty for her to use. Satisfied, Crystal rose from the couch. She told him that she would love a bath, but was too frightened of the dark to take one alone. Would he be a dear and stand outside the door while she washed?

“Of course,” Jarett said. “Yes, that’s fine. I’ll get you some candles too.”

They spent a few more minutes tidying up on the ground floor, then ascended the stairs—with Chubby close behind—by oil lamp. Outside, the wind continued to howl, rattling windows all over the house. At the top step a wave of relief swept over Crystal when she saw that both doorways to the empty bedrooms were closed. She had no interest whatsoever in what might be on the other side of them tonight; tonight, anything off the beaten track was to be avoided at all costs.

Jarett led her to the small, neat bathroom at the end of the hallway. He placed the lamp on the toilet seat and lit two more candles while Crystal tried the water. It came out cold at first but soon turned hot enough to scald.

“Great!” she said. “Do you have any bubble bath?”

He didn’t, but offered to sacrifice some of his shampoo. Crystal poured enough of it into the tub to get a good lather brewing, then shooed Jarett into the hallway so she could pee. She performed this act of nature with the door open, staring at Jarett’s back. Being so close to him while undressed made her lips swell and her breath heavy. Surprised by these sensations but ready to explore them further, she took off Jarett’s shirt, exposing her breasts. They had grown pert since the previous summer, and now, with the same rush of blood that affected her lips, the nipples had become sharp. Crystal suddenly felt confident enough—sexy enough—to seek out a pole at a strip club and make some fast money.

But the bath would do just fine in a pinch. She went to it completely nude. Had Jarett decided at that moment to turn around he would have seen the bare butt of a JV cheerleader as she stood in a fervor of steam and candlelight. Exciting as this thought was, the water looked too tempting put off. Crystal lowered herself into the bubbles with a deep sigh. The day had been a long one, full of bad test scores and even worse memories. Tonight, with a blizzard and a bath (and maybe something more) it was being put into the past. Finally and forever.

“You’re right,” she said to Jarett. “The water’s plenty hot enough.”

“Told you so,” his voice called back from the hall.

“You can come in here now, boss. I’m safe from your prying eyes.”

He didn’t obey at first. Crystal began to wash, letting her eye wander to the door at random intervals. A small, frosted window near the ceiling let in a light draft that distressed the candles. Inspired, Crystal changed her command to a plea. Would he please sit nearby with a lighter just in case one of the wicks went out?

Jarett appeared in the doorway, then moved carefully to the toilet seat, never once looking in her direction. That was silly, of course. The water came all the way up to Crystal’s neck. She was covered. Cloaked. Yet to Jarett it didn’t seem to matter. Despite the advice she’d given him last summer, he was still afraid.

Well then.

Smiling, she said: “My writing has gotten better, yes?”

“Yes it has,” Jarett replied, giving her a peek. “You’re not telling me anymore. You’re showing me. That’s a huge step. And your prose has gotten far more concise.”

“Thank you. Practice helps. I’ve gotten better at holding my breath, too,” she added, watching him closely.

Now he looked at her. Really looked. Success.

“Have you?” he put forth. “How much better?”

“Do you want me to tell you or do you want me to show you?”

Crystal filled her chest with as much air as it could hold…and dropped under the surface. As always, the cheerleading lungs felt perky and strong, eager for a challenge. This was a good thing, for Jarett’s tub—an antique clawfoot—was very deep. A surprising amount of pressure squeezed at her ribs and throat. Also, the water was still hot. Her body burned as if immersed in a Jacuzzi.

After twenty seconds Crystal pursed her lips. Her chest was beginning to hurt. Did Jarett know yet? Could he see the discomfort in her twitched brow, her curled fingers? A flurry of bubbles plumed from her nose. And the pain, the tightness, kept coming. Harder and harder. Suddenly she let out an underwater yelp, spewing hundreds more bubbles of air to the surface.

“Come on,” Jarett said as she passed thirty seconds. “Fight it, Crystal.”

Thirty-five seconds. The need to breathe was an agony now. Perky or not, her lungs were about to become water balloons. With a desperate heave—HAAUUUHH!—Crystal broke through the surface. The act put her bare breasts on full display for the man in wait, and it pleased her to see his eyes drop and take the view in. Good boy. Now that she had him interested in the prize it was time to see what tricks he could do.

“I think that’s a personal best,” Jarett said.

“Maybe,” she gasped back. “Maybe. But I want to try again. This time you hold me.”

His face looked as if he hadn’t heard her right. That was fine. She knew how to repeat herself and did so.

“Hold you?” he asked, giving her a handful of confused blinks.

His frustration was charming, particularly since she was the one taking all the chances.

“That’s right, Jarett,” Crystal smiled, slipping her breasts back down beneath the water.

“Well…okay. For how long?”

Her smile became toothy, her appetite like a piranha’s. “Until I beg you to let go. That is if you think you can make me beg.”

His hands came out slowly to take hold of her shoulders. Raising them to meet his touch, Crystal drew in a deep breath and let it out. The lungs felt strong again. Ready for another dive.

“I like that,” Jarett managed to say, between a few heavy breaths of his own. His large, strong hands gave her a squeeze. Then, in a cautious voice: “But you’d better get a deeper one.”

“Oooh,” Crystal purred, goading him on, “somebody’s getting excited.”

Even if he hadn’t already admitted as much the evidence was everywhere to be seen. Jarett’s eyes were dilated, his arms shaking and covered in goose-bumps. Beads of sweat gleamed on his temples. To Crystal, it all made for a fascinating—and arousing—paradox. Here was she, the damsel in peril, about to be pinned underwater without air by a man twice her size, locking her gaze with that very same man and daring him to do so, while he remained tentative despite the smoky imminence in his words.

Tentative…but not unwilling. Sensing that the time had come, Crystal arched her back, giving Jarett another view of the small, pretty chest she used to scream cheers on the basketball court, and gasped in hard. In an instant her lungs were filled tight. True to his word, Jarett pushed her to the bottom, keeping a firm pressure on her shoulders so that she had no choice but to keep her lips pursed and wait.

All the same, the author’s face continued to look worried, as if she were tasked to escape from a set of chains to which she had no key. She gave him a smile of reassurance, keeping her lips closed. At that same moment a faint, distant thunder began to rumble along the horizon of her endurance. Crystal bent her knees. Her fingers curled into thoughtful fists. And ever so slightly, the smile on her face faltered.

Its effect on Jarett was immediate. He narrowed his eyes and pressed her down harder against the bottom (forcing a small, bubbly yelp from her throat). “You’re not going anywhere,” he said. “Come on, Crystal, show off those lungs.”

His out of nowhere sinister behavior caught her off guard. She made a twisted face, as if to say: Huh? What’s going on? But either the message didn’t get through or he chose to ignore it. The grip on her shoulders remained firm, even when a sudden, stabbing pain tore through her lungs, forcing out an enormous plume of ever so precious air.

Jarett?she tried to ask him with her eyes. Jarett, can you please let me go now?

The answer was apparently still no. Crystal’s tiny hands seized hold of his biceps to claw uselessly at the muscles detaining her. She squirmed first to the left and then to the right, splashing water over the edge of the tub. But Jarett gave no quarter. The smile on his face had become more like a leer. She moved up a fraction of an inch and he pushed her right back down. What was wrong with him? Did he think a girl could hold her breath forever? She needed air! Air!

Jarett please! Please PLEASE!

And later she became convinced that it was this word, pealing in red screams like a fire bell from her eyes, that caused him at the very final moment to pull her body to the surface.

Her gasps could not have been more desperate, more greedy. With steam rising from her naked body, she clung to him until the air came back. Then, when there was sufficient breath for independent function, she did the first thing that popped into her head.

She kissed him hard on the mouth.

He tried to back away, but now she was the captor, the controller. Her fingernails clawed into his scalp and pulled. A hard breath—his­ breath—burst from his lungs while she kept her own in check, waiting, holding, using what was hers, what had been hers since the very moment she’d decided to knock on the door of his house.

The urge to indulge even further upon that possession took all of her might to resist. After all, this was a new place, a new territory, made up not of flowers and color like her own, but of steel that shined silver under fiery stars. Might and muscle. A place of guardians by which to stand, soft and naked, and feel safe. Yet for all of that she knew that his was still a world cast over by fear. Long ago, something had happened amongst these dark edifices, something to which Jarett still paid a deep and solemn respect. There were always tears in his eyes, even though she had never seen him cry.

Thus, between every kiss, at the crest of every sigh, she whispered words of encouragement, telling him to let go, that he didn’t have to be afraid anymore. He responded by placing a hand over her back and tracing along the spine. Crystal told him yes, that was it, that was just lovely. She opened his shirt so he could shrug it away from shoulders double the width of her own. His hard, strong chest came forward…but then froze. Crystal kissed him again, the water splashing as her weight shifted to close what little distance was left between them.

“Relax,” she whispered. “Relax, baby. It’s okay.”

“But—“

“Shh. You’re gonna be fine. You’re gonna be fine, Jarett, I’ve got you.”

More water splashed as she rose to her knees, and then, before he could object further, stood to her full height. Now Jarett, still seated on the toilet, was a very accessible target. Graceful as a ballerina, Crystal stepped out of the tub to let him behold her soft nakedness from head to toe.

“What are you feeling?” Jarett asked.

“Red,” she replied with honesty. “Like fruit on a tree.”

He looked at her for a long time without moving, then unfolded a towel from a hook and rose to wrap it around her. This dampened Crystal’s spirits at first, but she soon discovered that his motivations were not rooted in rejection, but in protection from the cold. With her body now cloaked in heavy cotton, she was lifted off her feet and carried down the hall to Jarett’s bedroom, where the blizzard could be heard blowing its strongest yet.

***

Afterward there was sleep. It came more peacefully to Crystal than in any time she could remember. She lay naked in his arms like a goddess and dreamed blankness—blankness on which any story she liked could be written. Nearby, convenient, was a pen. She picked it up, and had the tip pressed to the paper when Hannah of all people came dancing into the room.

“Now what?” she asked, smiling through her blonde hair.

Crystal just laughed. “Now anything, Hannah. All the doors are open.”

“Of course!”

And as if on cue a door at the other end of the room banged open. In it stood Jarett. In one hand he held a key. The other was hidden behind his back.

Crystal opened her mouth to ask what gift he bore (flowers? chocolates?), but she never found out, because at that moment the blizzard came back, and the bedroom, and the blankets. She was awake.

Blinking, she reached for Jarett’s alarm clock on the bedside table.

“It’s just after one,” her partner said as she fumbled with the light.

Crystal peered at him from under the quilt. “Have you slept yet?”

“Some. What about you?”

“Yeah. Some.” She slithered forward to plant a kiss on his mouth, and then another next to his ear. “That was…really awesome. What we did. You know that?”

“We’re in trouble.”

“No we’re not. This is our secret, Jarett.”

“You can’t keep secrets in a small town.”

She kissed his ear again. “That’s pulp fiction nonsense, boss. Cheap drama for bad writers. That isn’t us.”

“What are we then?” he asked, his head tilting in the dark.

“Oh we’re lovers now. I hope you don’t mind that. Because boss”—her kisses came back round to his lips, then down to his neck and chest—“I am going to take advantage of you.”

“Haven’t you been doing that since the day we met?”

His tone was reproachful, but Crystal felt a different truth hardening in between his legs.

“Yup,” she said, unabashed.

“But why me, Crystal?” he countered, breath quickening as her kisses sank lower and lower.

“You don’t ask questions about love. Remember that line?”

“No.”

“You wrote it, dummy. The Girl And The Grotto.

His hands rose from the bed to fondle her hair. He was surrendering again. His erect penis was a white flag.

“Why do I get the feeling that’s a personal favorite of yours?” she heard him say.

“Because you’re right. Because that’s where I found out you like your girls…a little on the breathless side, Jarett.”

“So you held your breath for me.”

A gust of wind, the thousandth that night, swept past the house; there was a heavy crash as something huge fell over in the woods.

“I sure did. And I’ll do it some more for you, Jarett. As many times as you like.”

“But did you like it?”

“Boss,” Crystal said, “I loved it.”

And she gasped in for another dive beneath his steamy waters.

 

 

 

 

 

 








17

 

At some point before dawn the snow stopped. In its wake lay a town that had done the same. As she made Jarett’s breakfast and put on the coffee, Crystal listened to one horror story after the next come in over the radio. They ranged from traffic accidents to missing persons to broken power lines spewing sparks beneath mammoth drifts that swallowed whatever victims they could find—cars, school buses, people—whole.

None of it distressed her. Today there was no such thing as pain. Her thoughts were clear and bright as the snow. Even the dead janitor’s ghost had fled for the time being.

“I know it’s sunny outside but please stay indoors,” the radio begged. “We’ve got blowing and drifting snow, and more people missing it seems like than found.”

Everything was perfect.

Wrapped in another one of Jarett’s dress shirts, Crystal sang as she flipped eggs and buttered toast (the latter cooked the old fashioned way from a frying pan). Jarett clopped in minutes later, covered with frost from shoveling the back porch. Appalled, she gave him a long hug, then ordered him to sit down this instant, filling his mug with percolated coffee as he shook the last shiver from his bones.

“You’re going to get frostbite,” she said as she cut his egg.

“Nah. I’m used to working in the cold.”

“What’s the point in shoveling the back porch? Are you expecting slaves from the underground railroad?”

“It’s just a farmer’s habit. Not to let the weather gain too much ground over his crop.”

“The porch,” she told him, filling her own mug with coffee, “is not your crop.”

“It is though,” he replied in a tone grave enough to make her pause. “Everything a farmer owns is his crop.”

He took a bite of bacon, then gave a piece to Chubby, who had been loitering under the table for just such an offer.

“Fair enough,” Crystal allowed, crunching down on a piece of toast. “But you know…I’m rather passionate about tending my crops, too, Mister.”

Jarett peered at her over his coffee. “I absolutely know that,” he said.

The journey back to Eagle View Drive proved impossible that day, a fact which made Crystal almost dizzy with bliss. Meanwhile Jarett put checking the house for storm damage at the top of their list of things to do. There was very little to be found, which did not surprise Crystal considering how many winters these walls had already survived. A light lunch of grilled cheese sandwiches and Coke followed, then another tutoring session, this time with a twist: Jarett wanted Crystal to come up with an idea for a novel, complete with theme and outline.

She stared at him from the couch, gobsmacked. Was he serious? she asked. Why not? he replied. If she intended to be a novelist one day there was no time like the present to get started. And even if she never actually wrote the novel for this particular assignment, he added, it would still provide useful insights for them both on the importance of structure and foundation.

“All right,” she agreed, though the task seemed akin to fighting a dragon after only a few fencing lessons.

Part of her acceptance had to do with the way Jarett was walking back and forth in front of the fireplace. His words were as passionate as she had ever heard them, laced with gesticulations that were almost frantic in nature. At one point he spun around with his finger in the air, eyes alight with whatever fresh idea he was about to pitch, and knocked a picture off the mantle with the other hand. The frame shattered as it struck the hearthstones, but with barely a glance at what he had done Jarett went right on talking.

“Once you have your idea,” he said, “I want a theme that you care about attached to it. If you can’t come up with a theme then don’t bother with the idea at all.”

“So it’s idea first and then theme?” Crystal asked, charmed as always to discover something new in this man.

“Not always,” Jarett allowed. “But you need to care about both, Crystal. A lot. Because most writers take at least a year to work on a novel. I normally take two. That’s a hell of a long time, so you’re going to need a shitload of coal to shovel.”

“Got it,” she said.

“Once you have your idea and your theme down, I want you to write in one or two short, simple sentences what the book is supposed to be about. Don’t give me any bullshit, long-winded crap that makes me need to sit down and smoke a pipe while I try to understand it.”

“Um…”

“Short and simple. What is your fucking book about?

“Jarett, I don’t know if I’m ready to write a novel.”

“You will be once you have your theme and outline. I want a list of your main characters, too, with descriptions for each. Tell me about their personalities, their traits.” He stopped pacing again. “Are you writing this down?”

Crystal snatched guiltily at her notebook. “Oh fuck. Sorry, sorry. Is there a deadline?”

“Bet your ass there is. I want everything in two weeks.”

“The theme and outline you mean, not the whole novel. I hope.”

“Of course not the whole novel,” he laughed. “I don’t expect you to be William fucking Goldman. I do expect you to be disciplined. If you want to write books you goddamned well need to be.”

“I’m disciplined, boss,” she said, thinking of her near fatal breath-holding performance in the bathtub last night.

Jarett went to the closet as she spoke and got out a broom.

“You’re getting there,” he said. “But we haven’t been aggressive enough with these lessons. That’s my fault. I’ve been treating you with kid gloves.”

“I—“

“Starting today we’re going to take bigger strides. You turn thirteen on Valentine’s Day, right?”

“Yes,” Crystal said, blushing happily.

“Hell, that’s only four days away. But you know what?” He brushed the broken glass into a dust pan. “You’re going to have a huge head start on being a novelist. Huge.”

Crystal kept smiling, though her buoyancy sprouted from a different source than his own. Ideas and outlines interested her far less than this newly awakened man who had gotten out of bed with her a few hours ago.

She followed him into the kitchen, where his chatter turned to more pedestrian topics. The house was still a concern. It had pipes that tended to freeze in weather like this, and a furnace that was getting too old for Ohio Februaries. And had he told her about the roof on the tool shed? It leaked, but only when it rained. He’d yet to fix it. He kept putting it off and off. Stupid. Also there were some rotten boards on the back porch that needed replacing—

Crystal touched his chin, cutting the litany off in its tracks.

“It’s okay, Jarett,” she said. “Whatever’s broken around here, we’ll fix it.”

“There’s nothing serious. I mean seriously wrong. The house, you know, just needs a little love—“

She kissed him. The effort proved a stretch considering their height difference, but her posture was graceful, and his shoulders made for strong anchors.

When it was over her cell phone rang from the other room. Leaving him to percolate with the coffee, Crystal went to answer it. Already she knew who it was. Only one person in the entire world could be so cluelessly inconvenient.

“Mom,” she said.

Silence for a moment on the other end. Then: “Yeah. How’d you guess?”

“I was hoping you’d call once the networks came back up,” she lied. “How is everything over there?”

“We’re good, we’re good. Cold but good. Hannah won’t come out from under the quilts.”

“Smart girl.”

“What about you? Is the house still standing?”

“Of course. Jarett put me up in a spare bedroom. Everything’s cool.”

“Great! I mean…you know, great. But I guess you still can’t make it home today. The drifts are like ten feet high on the roads.”

“Oh darn.”

“Will Jarett be okay keeping you just one more night? Can I talk to him?”

“Sure can. He’s right here.”

He was, in fact, standing in the kitchen doorway. Crystal waved him over, and after he took the phone, she jumped up on the coffee table to plant myriad kisses on his neck whilst her mother’s voice, now tinny with distance, hovered between them.

“It’s not a problem, Ms. Genesio, I assure you. February in Ohio is about as predictable as…well, it’s just really unpredictable.”

More talking from the other end of the line, though Crystal was far from caring what it said. Her eyes were closed as she began to chew on Jarett’s skin like a vampire.

“Yes,” Jarett laughed, “yes I do get paid to dream up fascinating similes, thank you.”

“And how is Crystal’s writing these days?” she quite by accident heard Lucretia ask.

“Oh, her style is very unique.” Crystal wrapped one leg around his waist. “The way she communicates her ideas is inimitable. Yes ma’am. Oh, you know that already? Well that makes sense.”

“Zabbazabbazrr-rrr-rr,” Lucretia said, as Crystal’s hand found its way beneath the button of her teacher’s pants.

“How’s that?” Jarett asked. “Is she making trouble for me? Oh no, no, no, no. No, no.” He coughed. “No.” Then, stunned: “Am I asking her to do what?

“Zabbazabbazrr-rrr-rr.”

“Oh! Oh, right. I’m not asking her to mold another Macbeth at all, Ms. Genesio.”

Laughing, Crystal buried her face into Jarett’s shoulder. But she wasn’t quick enough.

“Yes, that’s her, Ms. Genesio. She’s laughing at Chubby. That’s my dog. Yeah. He’s begging for a treat.”

“Has she had any cigarettes while she’s been with you?”

Sweaty with distrust, this question came through clear as a bell. Crystal felt almost obligated to do what she did next. While Jarett fumbled for a proper reply, she dropped from his shoulders, went to the coat rack, and lit up from a pack he kept in his wool-lined parka.

“She told me she was banned and as far as I know she’s sticking to it,” Jarett said, looking straight into her eyes. “Yes, ma’am. No, ma’am. It’s all right. You and Hannah take care. Thank you. Goodbye.”

He put the phone back on the table and they stared at each other for what seemed to Crystal like a hundred years. She continued to let out puff after dainty puff from the cigarette, doing what she hoped was a fair impersonation of Audrey Hepburn.

“We’re in trouble,” Jarett said, echoing his concern from the night before.

But this time Crystal had no contradictions to give. She pursed her lips into the shape of a kiss to blow more smoke across the room, and said:

“It’ll be worth it, baby. I promise you that.”

***

She slept in his arms again that night, hunkered deep under the quilts. Coming out again before spring did not seem plausible. The temperature outside was twenty below zero. Icicles hung from every tree branch and power line Crystal could see before coming to bed. It was all right, though. Better than that. It gave her an excuse to be here, where not only had she taken Jarett as her own, officially and eternally, but where she could also find solace from the horror of last autumn.

That solace had become more tempered than ever not long after Lucretia’s phone call. Seeing Crystal smoke had perhaps reminded Jarett of the dead janitor, for on that afternoon he breached the subject in direct fashion for the first time.

His audacity did not sit well with her at the outset. She’d glared at him from the stove, a hamburger sizzling in the frying pan, and asked him to repeat himself.

“The janitor,” Jarett obliged. “Does he haunt you? And by that I mean—“

“Do I think about him a lot. I know what you mean.” She flipped the burger over. Hot grease spattered her arms. “Ouch! Dammit!”

“Is that a yes?” Jarett said, handing her a dishrag, which she snatched at like a cornered animal.

“That’s a shut up and let me finish making dinner.”

“Crystal.”

“Why are you asking me this? We’re having a wonderful couple of days here. Please don’t spoil it.”

“Because hiding isn’t healing, remember?” He placed a hand on her shoulder. “And if you need to talk about it, then talk. To me. As much as you want.”

During their meal Crystal told him about how things were at school: the lunch hours spent alone, the growing distance between her and Lucy. As promised, Jarett honored them with his full attention, nodding at times but never interrupting. And to her surprise, Crystal found that she did indeed feel better, not because a ghost in her mind had been exorcised (she wasn’t so naïve as to think this would ever be possible), but because by acknowledging it, she had deprived it of its concealment. Under the bright light of her regard, it wasn’t so frightening as she’d made it out to be, especially with a protecting champion by her side.

That night in the bathtub she even found the courage to confess her guilt out loud.

“I killed him,” she said. “Right?”

The champion had no time to answer, so fast was the alibi that rose to her lips.

God, that wasn’t how it was supposed to turn out. I swear it. I just wanted to humiliate him the way he humiliated me.”

“Of course you didn’t mean to kill him,” Jarett said, as if she were being ridiculous.

Except that lying in his arms this way, watching the steamy air through golden candlelight, Crystal felt anything but ridiculous.

“Did you see the pictures?” she asked.

“I’m pretty sure everyone did. You and Lucy spoiled a lot of Thanksgiving feasts with that stunt.”

“Am I a good photographer or what?”

“Maybe a little too good. You’re dangerous when you get your mind made up.”

Crystal nodded. It was the simple truth.

“He shouldn’t have messed with me,” she said.

“And what about me?”

“You didn’t mess with me. I wanted you, so I took you.”

“Easy pickings,” he mused, in a tone that was almost remorseful.

“No you weren’t. It took me over a year, Jarett.”

“Ooh, so I was a project. Interesting.”

“You were a project all right. You were practically a dissertation.”

“Oh come on,” he laughed. “What about that birthday kiss last year?”

“That birthday kiss,” she told him, “got me through all of 2005.”

“I don’t kiss that well.”

“Like hell you don’t.”

Her testimony comprised a sturdy foundation. Even if last night had never occurred, her memory of the event in question could not have been more clear.

It was your first kiss, Crystal, she tried to tell herself, of course it was perfect.

But that didn’t tally with other things she’d anticipated over the years that turned out to be disappointing upon achievement. Her first cell phone (boring). Y2K (a hilarious let-down). Hell, even her first period, which had graced itself of a very messy introduction at the age of nine, turned out to be more of a hair shirt than a happy milestone. Jarett, however, had delivered. Like the best postman in all the world.

“Well?” he asked.

Her eyes fluttered. Had he spoken just now?

“I’m sorry,” she said. “What did you say?”

“I said what would miss sugar and spice like for her birthday.”

“Oh! Oh. Goodness, Jarett, I hadn’t thought about it. You can surprise me.”

“Really?”

“Sure. You’re good at that, too.”

 

Before falling asleep she began composition on a poem. This was another first, and all Jarett’s idea. He put forth that if she could write about how she felt regarding last autumn, she would at the very least have a representation of her pain to ball up and stuff into the garbage. As a kind of springboard for the piece (after she’d told him that she’d never written a poem before in her life and didn’t know where to start), he’d asked her a question, simple and direct.

“How do you feel every day at school?” he’d wanted to know, his arms stroking her under the covers.

“Like a fish that got moved from a very large aquarium to a very small bowl. As a punishment. Because—“

“Because one of the other fish died and you got blamed for it.”

“Right.”

“And now?”

“Now I’m waiting for my sentence to end.”

“Good,” he said, sounding satisfied. “You can start there.”

She was quiet for a long time, content to lie in the heat of his embrace while the world outside froze. Yet like it or no, her reluctance towards writing a poem slowly returned. In that arena of literature there was only one thing she could see herself doing: writing cheap rhymes with an uncultivated message. In the end she capitulated, under terms that she voiced before he could fall asleep.

“I’ll tell you how I feel, Jarett, but only if you do the same for me.”

“You want to know how I feel? About what?”

“Are you still afraid of me?”

“Yes,” he answered, in shockingly short order.

“Then why did you let me in?”

“Oooh.”

She peered up at him from the depths of the quilt. “Come on. Do you love me?”

“Crystal.”

“Yes? No? Maybe?”

“Crystal.”

She glared at him for a moment longer…and then smiled. “Sorry. I couldn’t resist teasing you a little. But Jarett? I remind you of somebody, don’t I?”

“No,” he answered—again, quick and clipped.

“Yes I do.”

Here was where he’d at last fallen silent. Ever the one for biding her time, Crystal let the matter be. For now. Yet the knowledge that there was another girl in the room could not be ignored. She lived in the closet, hidden at the bottom of a pink shoebox. Her name had come up in Crystal’s mind not long after Jarett’s hiding isn’t healing remark…because Jarett didn’t seem to be following his own wisdom here.

On a lonely, windy day during one of his lecture tours, Crystal had stumbled upon a box of love letters to a girl named Vicky. They’d been written by Jarett in the early 1980s, while he was still in high school. The dates he’d put on them showed that. They also showed that his feelings were those of a man committed to spend the rest of his life by her side.

Had she reciprocated? And if not, how had Jarett coped?

Perhaps he was still coping. That was the fear that went along with winning his love. Did he see Crystal as nothing more than a chance to redeem some lost wonderland from his youth? If so, she would not cope. Oh no. Sharing Jarett’s love with a memory had never been part of the plan. The very idea was as insulting as it was ridiculous.

Thus, some further detective work would need to commence. And if her fears turned out to be true, Crystal would throw the letters in Jarett’s face and demand he burn them. Burn them or be burned, painfully and permanently.



























































PART FOUR: The Secret Flown



























18

 

Lady, Crystal thought, if you tell me my luggage is missing one more time I’m gonna give that wrinkled face of yours a mud mask with Luke’s diaper.

“You’ll need to fill out a Property Irregularity Report,” the lady, who looked old enough to have worked for the Wright Brothers, said from behind the counter. “Submit it to me. Then you can monitor the airline’s tracing progress. If after twenty-one days—“

“Don’t spew jargon at me,” Crystal said, shifting Luke to her other arm. “I want my luggage.”

“Ma’am, the airline apologizes for any inconvenience you’ve had, but this is standard procedure.” Here she took a moment to peek at Crystal’s boarding pass. “You’re here from Vanilla Ice Cream?”

“Yes,” Crystal hissed. “I’ve been at thirty-seven thousand feet for twenty-four hours. Finally making it to Cleveland was supposed to make me happy.”

“I’m sorry, ma’am, but you really need to start with a PIR. From there we can find out what happened and recover your bag.”

Bags, lady, bags. There are two missing.”

“I’m sorry, ma’am,” the lady repeated.

At almost the same time a man standing behind Crystal let out a cough that was too loud. She whirled on him, scarcely noticing the long line that had formed over the past few minutes.

“Got a cold?” she demanded to know.

Now the man looked stunned. Blinking, he gave the line a glace over his shoulder.

“Nope,” Crystal told him, “I’m talking to you.”

His eyes went to Luke next. But of course the baby wasn’t going to help.

“No,” he said with a tiny, relenting shrug. “I don’t have a cold. It’s the middle of August—“

“You are still creating chaos every place you go,” a voice suddenly broke in.

Crystal turned in its direction and met the eyes of a woman with short, black hair wearing a low-cut, V-necked blouse. She wasn’t as old as the woman behind the counter, but her youth, whether she cared to admit it or not, had long flown. Her blue eyes, once deep and warm as an island lagoon, had frosted over, and at some point since Crystal’s departure from Ohio, her jewelry had gotten clunky.

“You garage sale gypsy,” Crystal said.

What?”

“Mom!”

And less than a second later they had their arms around each other, with Luke trapped somewhere in between.

***

“Five years!” Lucretia bellowed as she drove them down route two towards Monroeville. “Five years since you last saw me, and the first thing pops out of your mouth is garage sale gypsy!

“It was spoken with undying affection,” Crystal insisted.

“Yeah, yeah. You’re still sarcastic, too. Did you bring anything new back from the Philippines?”

“Luke.”

Lucretia gave a quick glance back at the car seat, where the baby was still looking around with eyes so wide Crystal felt pretty sure the kid believed he’d landed on another planet. It was exactly the way she’d felt after landing in Manila five years ago.

“My grandson,” Lucretia said proudly.

“Yes.”

“Fair warning: I intend to spoil that boy. I’m doing a fine job of it with Joey and Eva so far.”

“He’s already spoiled.”

“But what I meant was: What did you bring back with you on the inside?”

Crystal thought about how to answer that for a few moments. When nothing useful came to the surface she was forced to give up. “I’m too jet-lagged to answer deep questions right now, Mom.”

“All right,” Lucretia said, “I’ll stick with the easy ones. For now.”

“Can I ask you a question first?” Crystal said.

“Of course.”

“Did you change into this gypsy after we stopped using the iPad? Because you sure looked different across ten thousand miles—“

“Oh be quiet!”

***

But Lucretia was aging gracefully and Crystal knew it. So was everything else in this part of Ohio, it seemed. Twilight had fallen by the time they reached Monroeville, yet there was still enough light for Crystal to see that nothing here had changed. She saw neither growth nor shrinkage amidst the quiet streets. There was the hardware store at the corner of Main and Milan. There was the post office right next to it. The police station, the furniture store. And of course, the high school.

“My God,” Crystal said as they stopped in front of the house on Eagle View Drive. “I feel like I just left here ten minutes ago. Everything looks so…fixed.”

“You’ve been gone five years, dear, not fifty. And anyway, Monroeville doesn’t change. It watches the trucks pass by on route 20 and thinks about what change is like.”

Change is always change for the worse, Crystal thought.

It was an old line she remembered from a book about ghosts, and the wisdom of it had been taught to her the hard way. But then her life wasn’t all regret. The tide she’d rode out on from this place had given back at least one thing in return.

“Luke,” she said, leaning into the back seat, “you awake?”

“Da ba-ba!”

“I’m on it. Let’s just get you out of that car seat first.”

Lucretia insisted on carrying the baby inside while Crystal handled the bags. There was a playpen already set up in the living room, and balloons taped to the walls. One press from Lucretia on the TV remote put Disney Junior on the screen, and Luke, after being put in the playpen, got right to work on a number of new toys. Lucretia then asked about the plane ride while Crystal fixed up a bottle of milk.

“Did it bother Luke much?”

“No,” Crystal said. “He barely cried at all. Isn’t that weird?”

“Maybe he was afraid the TSA would throw him out the window. What about you?”

Crystal began shaking the bottle over the kitchen sink, her fingers pinched around the nipple.

“Oh I cried pretty much the whole way.”

“Didn’t that turn a few heads?”

“Nah. I’m still a quiet weeper, Mom.”

Dinner came in over the phone an hour later—Hawaiian style pizza, a meal Lucretia chose purposefully out of an assumption that Crystal would be exasperated with anything that included rice. In fact, a lot of assumptions she had about Manila turned out to be wrong, this despite their many long distance conversations over the years. As they set the table Crystal ticked off a number of first world amenities that the Philippines’ third world city possessed. Bad cable TV (Crystal sometimes thought that Disney Junior really was the best thing going on the dial these days); dubious internet service; corrupt politicians; corrupt police officers; video games (Miko spent far more time with these than Crystal); cheap beer; expensive beer; extended holidays; bad drivers; terrible drivers; and indeed, a fast food joint on practically every corner there was to get on a bus at. The west had nothing on Manila, unless you counted snowy winters and grouchy meat butchers, and who needed either of those?

“It’s mostly McDonald’s and KFC,” Crystal said, pertaining to restaurants, “but Subways are pretty easy to find, too. And Luke is going to miss the hell out of Jollibee if I can’t find one here.”

“I’ve never heard of it.”

“Now that will make him cry.”

They ate their meal with an Italian red wine that Lucretia had, once again, purchased in advance specifically for the occasion, and for the first time it occurred to Crystal that her mother had something in common with Jarett: They both liked to be prepared, even if it meant doing research on the side. Of course, that it wouldn’t do to bring this fact up to her was a no-brainer, though Crystal supposed the writer’s name would surface between them sooner or later.

It turned out to be sooner. That very night in fact, and later on after they’d gone to bed, Crystal was thankful Lucretia had stopped drinking after two glasses, or else things might have been much worse.

The exchange began innocently enough. Lucretia asked (whilst breaking a piece of mozzarella cheese from her lip) what Crystal planned to do now that she was home again.

“Visit Hannah,” Crystal replied. “Say hello to Joey and Eva in person instead of over the phone.”

“We’ll driver over to North Fairfield,” Lucretia said, nodding. “Luke will probably like seeing them as well. And of course Hannah’s excited to meet her nephew for the first time.”

“Why isn’t she here tonight?”

“Joey has the chicken pox.”

Crystal’s eyes widened. “Oh, goddamn. We’ll have to wait then.”

“For a few days, at least. And don’t swear in front of your baby.”

“Oh please. It’s not like he can repeat it.”

Luke laughed and banged his spoon on the tray of his high chair.

“God-da! God-da!”

“Or,” Crystal said, blushing, “maybe he can.”

“Take him outside tomorrow anyway,” Lucretia said. “Show him the park.”

“I’ll do that. I’m thinking of going back to the Jackson farm, too. Is it still there?”

Here Lucretia’s stare had turned cold.

“Why would you want to see that place again?” she wanted to know.

Crystal shrugged. “I still think about it a lot. I miss it.”

“Miss it?”

“It’s a beautiful place, Mom. The memories are good.”

The cold stare turned colder. “A place where you were raped and almost killed. That’s beautiful. That gives good memories.”

“I’m not sure what you mean by raped.”

Lucretia’s fork clanged onto her plate. “Statutory, Crystal. Look it up if you don’t know what it means.”

“I know what it means just fine,” Crystal snapped. “But don’t sit there and tell me I was too young to know any better. Because today, at twenty-five, I’m still glad it happened.”

The other woman fell silent for a long time. Crystal took another drink of wine. She wiped Luke’s face with a napkin. An absurd feeling that she was about to be sent to bed early swept over her. But if Lucretia wanted that she didn’t let on. Instead, she asked:

“Did you really seduce him, Crystal? Did you?”

“I did, Mom,” Crystal replied, as Luke’s tiny hand squeezed her finger. “And I would do it again.”

The older woman made a face. “Don’t touch the baby while you talk like that.”

“Like what?”

“Like a whore.”

Crystal pulled her finger away. “What?”

“You heard me. Did he pay you, Crystal? Buy you new clothes and jewelry?”

I was paying him.”

This reply instigated a snort loud enough to make Luke laugh.

“Yeah, you sure were. That was one hell of a tuition fee ole Hemingway dumped on you. Spilled on you.”

At that Crystal stood up, knocking her chair over backwards. “Now you’re being disgusting!”

“And what came out of it, Crystal?” Lucretia went on. “What did you get in return? I certainly haven’t seen any of your novels at the bookstore.”

“That isn’t his fault.”

“Ha! Congratulations, girl. You said that just like the victim you are.”

Crystal bent to pick up the chair. Her hands shook with fury; tears could not be far off. Hell of it was, she’d known this conversation would happen, prepared herself for it in advance. Do not get angry, she’d told herself over and over. No matter what she says, do not get angry.

Well, so much for that strategy. Lucretia’s sarcasm had sliced it to pieces with almost comical ease. All Crystal could do now was retreat.

“I think I’ll take the baby upstairs and go to bed early,” she said, tight-lipped. “I’m sorry I mentioned the Jackson farm.”

“It wasn’t very tactful,” Lucretia informed. By that time she too was standing, and her hands were busy with gathering empty plates.

“Come on, you,” Crystal said to Luke. “Let’s get cleaned up and go beddy-bye.”

Lucretia let them get halfway across the living room before calling out. Crystal turned and raised her brow, expecting some last, brutal yank on the line that would really lodge the hook in deep. It didn’t come. What did was an answer to the question that had started this whole mess.

“The farm is still there, Crystal,” Lucretia said. She hadn’t moved from the table, but her eyes were able to cross the distance between them with eerie brusqueness. “The new owners don’t like visitors, though. Fair warning.”

“How do you know that?”

“There’s a NO TRESPASSING sign at the corner of Wye Street, right where you drive down into the woods.”

“I guess I’ll stay away then,” Crystal lied.

“You’re lying. And you’re as terrible at it as you’ve always been.”

“Why do you care either way, Mom? I don’t understand.”

Lucretia picked up the stack of plates. “Just go to bed.”

There it was—the parent’s timeless command. But instead of rising to the remark (as she had many times as a child), Crystal decided to do as she was told. As a consequence it was still light out when, less than an hour later, both she and Luke were under the covers with a storybook and a bottle of milk.

The baby fell asleep at 9:30. By midnight, Crystal knew, he would be awake again; thus, she tried her hardest to use these next couple hours for some sleep of her own. The task proved difficult. Every time she closed her eyes the bed seemed to rise from the floor and take flight like the 747 she’d arrived on. Then there was Lucretia. It would never do to let her stay angry. A way to smooth things over needed to be found. That, or a new place to live.

A new place to live…

Isn’t that why you left Monroeville in the first place, Crystal? And isn’t it why you came back?

Indeed. Yet things had not gone well in either the small town or the big city. Where did that leave? She needed to know. For Luke’s sake even more than hers, she needed to know. A child could not learn to stand without a place to put his feet, nor could a woman learn to live without a place for her heart.

At midnight she got out of bed. The room looked much the same as she’d left it five years ago. The part of it she remembered best—and still liked the best—was the reading nook, and here she went to wait until Luke woke up for a diaper change.

What to do? What to do?

There were no answers in the park beyond the window. Save for a single arc-sodium lamp over the baseball diamond, it was pitch black, and utterly devoid.

Crystal sighed. Perhaps coming home had been a mistake. Perhaps she should have stayed in Manila, gone on being the good wife and teacher. It was silly to run from one hive of bad memories to another. If she wanted to start her life anew, why had she returned to Monroeville, where everything old was still old and always would be?

She went back to bed and lay down. You’re all problems and no solutions, Crystal. It was an accusation Roberta used to make from time to time. Tonight, at last, Crystal was beginning to think she’d had a point.

Ten minutes later the baby woke up. She changed his diaper. For the time being, it was all she knew how to change.













































19

 

“Tell me about when you were young,” Crystal asked.

After thinking long and hard about how best to learn more about Vicky, this was the approach she decided to use. It wasn’t her first choice. Going back to the shoebox and reading through each and every one of the love letters again seemed more logical. Problem was, she hadn’t been alone in the house since the day of their discovery, and indeed, didn’t much like the idea of reliving those circumstances. Tough she was. Independent too. But damn, was the Jackson farm ever spooky without company around.

Jarett simply had to be with her, which meant no snooping. So she waited until their next lesson—a week after the blizzard—to put forth a cautious request for entry into his past. It earned her a quizzical look from the other side of the coffee table, where Jarett, whilst puffing a cigar, sat reading the first ever poem by Crystal Genesio. The first and, if she had any say in the matter, the last.

“What do you want to know?”

“What was school like?” Crystal lifted a brow. “Were any of the girls like me?”

Jarett’s gaze went to the window as he thought about this. She gave him the time, taking another bite of leftover birthday cake. Aggression wasn’t the answer here. If she wanted to learn more about Vicky, she would need to use the same method she’d used to learn more about his sex: tact.

“I don’t know,” Jarett said. “I didn’t talk to many girls in school.”

“Why not?”

He was still looking out the window when he answered. “Baseball.”

Ah, here was a piece of the puzzle she already had, but one with notches where others would surely fit.

“All year you thought about baseball?” Crystal asked, keeping her tone innocent. “Doesn’t it end in October?”

“Well…I mean, yeah. It does. But not the training. The training is year-round.”

Jarett, stop fucking with me.

She almost said it out loud, but of course you didn’t use the word fuck when engaged in tactics. Alas, this puzzle piece would have to go back in the box for now.

“Tell me a story about when you were young,” she said, delving for another.

“All right,” he shrugged. “A true story?”

“Of course. The truer the better.”

“By the way, this poem is pretty good. However I don’t think many readers are going to know what to make of it. Remember you need to make a connection, let people etch their own markings.”

“I’m not sure I can be a poetess. I kept wanting to ball that thing up burn it.”

Jarett dumped the remains of the cigar in his coffee. “It’s nowhere near that bad. But what you said does remind me of a story.”

“Tell it.”

“Me and my brother and a friend who lived down the street…we almost got arrested once for shooting off fireworks in our backyard.”

Crystal nodded. Serendipity seemed to be with her today. The story she was about to hear came straight from the shoebox where Vicky lived. A way to connect these pieces had to be near at hand. It was only a matter of listening for the proper clues.

“What happened?” she asked, leaning forward. “Tell me, tell me, tell me.”

***

“In Ohio fireworks are illegal. You know that. It’s been that way for as long as I can remember. But we didn’t care—not when we were kids. If there was a way to buy them, we bought them. And there were ways. There’s a specialty shop in Sandusky that’s still open where a kid can get things powerful enough to sever body parts. You just have to sign a waiver first that says you’re going to maim yourself out of state. Lady-fingers and cherry bombs were popular back then, mainly because they packed a good, fast whollop. You lit one, it exploded, and then you ran away before the police showed up. Fun, right?”

“I guess so,” Crystal said, “if you like to blow things up.”

“Yeah. But that wasn’t what we were about. Me and Todd and Ted. For us the big thrill was bottle rockets. Again though, illegal. And most of the time we didn’t have a way to get to Sandusky.”

“So how did you buy them?”

“Under the table. We traded baseball cards and packs of bubble gum with other kids who had relatives in West Virginia. Ted’s dad smoked, and sometimes we stole his cigarettes and traded those. A lot of grown-ups don’t know about these things, but there is some heavy wheeling and dealing that goes down among kids. How do you get your cigarettes, Crystal?”

“Ooh,” she grinned, “trade secrets, Jarett.”

“But you know a dealer, right?”

“Of course.”

“And I’ll just bet you meet up with him in some run-down public restroom or under a rusty stairwell.”

“Her.”

“So you get the idea. Contraband flows heavy. It’s just a matter of finding the proper culverts.”

She laughed. “If you don’t mind, I’m not going to write that one down for later use.”

“Shut up, I’m getting into gossip mode here.”

Crystal pinched her thumb and finger together and drew them over her lips.

“One summer night in…oh, this must have been ’78 or ’79, I can’t remember which, we took a packet of bottle rockets to my house. Some dopey kid who used to live on Cortland Street gave them to us. I think he took one of my dad’s Playboy magazines for that. Again, I can’t remember. The cops were on high alert because it was close to July 4th. Crackle crackle, boom boom and all that. The locals were throwing parties at night and occasionally you’d get a guy who was crazy enough or drunk enough to try and blow something up with whatever nuclear warhead he’d happened to bring home from Sandusky. My neighbor, Doug Reed, was also on high alert. He absolutely detested people shooting off fireworks close to his house. Every July he’d make about ten or fifteen calls to the police to bitch about it. Or at least it seemed that way to me.”

“You grew up in Norwalk, right?” Crystal said.

“That’s right. On West Main Street. My house overlooked a valley that the B&O Railroad ran through. Still runs through. That’s Baltimore and Ohio, in case you’re wondering,” Jarett added.

“Got it.”

“We had a patio out back that you had to go down the basement and through a sliding glass door to get to. It was surrounded by trees, with of course the valley right in front, so we felt pretty safe about setting off a few rockets without getting caught.”

“But you did get caught,” Crystal said, remembering the newspaper clipping she’d read just over a year ago—the one Jarett kept locked in his closet.

“Damned near,” the other allowed. “Like I said, the three of us were in back of the house at around midnight, having a good time with our stash. The darkness was almost pitch. I had just lit a fuse on one of the rockets and was stepping back to watch it go, when all of a sudden Todd’s telling us to run! run! I looked up, totally dumbfounded, but by then he had already disappeared through the door. Next thing I know, the bottle rocket’s shooting up into the air…and there’s this huge, black shape coming through the garden. A cop. A big fucking cop, wearing a badge and a gun. Handcuffs. Me and Ted just about shit our pants.”

Crystal nodded, sipping a Diet Coke she’d fetched from the refrigerator. The story interested her, but it was still a ways off from where she wanted it to be. By now she felt almost certain that Vicky wouldn’t be in it.

“Of course we didn’t stick around to listen to him read us our Miranda rights,” Jarett went on. “Ted bolted through the door, and then me. I slammed the door shut on its track, which really impressed the other two, because that door had a tendency to get jammed. If it had that time the cop probably would have followed me right into the house.”

“What happened then?”

“Oh, we ran all the way up two flights of stairs. Ted hid in one of the bedrooms while Todd and I went out to the roof. By then flashlights were shining through the windows. Somebody knocked very hard on the front door—hard enough to shake the walls. Then we heard the living room door open.”

“Holy shit.”

“So I ran back inside to get Ted. He was hiding under the covers in Todd’s room. He looked up at me and smiled, but I could tell he was terrified. So was I. I told him we had to go to the roof and jump off. He said no way, it was too high. But there’s a place over the kitchen of that house that’s only about fifteen feet to the ground. I knew we could do it. I managed to get Ted out into the hallway. Right at that same time a flashlight beam hit the staircase.”

“So you didn’t have a choice,” Crystal said.

“We didn’t have a choice. We ran out to that roof and jumped off. Then we hauled ass through a lot of backyards, climbed over a few fences. Eventually we got to Ted’s house, and that’s where we stayed until the heat died down. About two hours. Two days later an article about a fireworks raid on West Main Street showed up in the newspaper. It covered everything except the fact that the cops came into our house. Chances are that part of the story was left out of the police report.”

“Because it was illegal.”

“Because it was illegal.”

“The cops never came back to the house to question anyone?”

“No,” Jarett said, sounding as surprised about this as Crystal felt. “Maybe they figured that one good scare would put some sense into us. Which it did. There were no more fireworks at my house for the rest of that summer.”

Bingo, Crystal thought, an opening.

“At least not the kind you light,” she said, watching him over the Coke can. “But what about the kind you and I had last week, loverboy?”

He flushed. “What about that kind?”

“Did you have any girls over? Ever?”

“My brother would have laughed his ass off at me had I done that. Then again he was always laughing his ass off at me. I was a pretty big joke to him.”

“Why’s that? Wasn’t he the younger?”

“Younger, but taller and better looking. And way more popular at school.”

“And where is he today?” Crystal asked, ready to help Jarett away from these feelings at first.

But then she began to think otherwise. After all, if he was going to open up to her about Vicky, she needed him vulnerable. Unconfident. Back on his heels.

“Saint Paul, Minnesota,” Jarett said, “making his way up the ladder of some law firm. But don’t get any ideas”—he tipped her a wink—“he’s as gay as they come.”

“Oh, darn. I was getting all excited about another conquest.”

“Nope. You can stop holding your breath.”

“Ha! There you go down that road again.”

“Sorry.”

Crystal shook her head as she swallowed the last of her Coke. She’d been meaning to ask him about this fetish anyway. Why not make it now?

“No, no,” she said, “it’s okay. But tell me something, Jarett: Why breath-holding? What is it that excites you about seeing a girl…” she trailed off, smiling. “God, look at you!”

Jarett pretended to look surprised. “Whaaat?” he whined.

“Your cheeks are red. You’re blinking like Hugh Grant in Four Weddings. Just talking about this makes you hot!”

“No it doesn’t!”

She fell back into the cushions, giggling. “It’s okay, sweetheart, it’s okay. I like it actually. It gives me a leash to tug you around on.”

“Woof woof, Crystal,” Jarett said flatly.

“But tell me why, Jarett. What’s the connection for you?”

“The connection to sex?”

“Yeah.”

Jarett leaned back in his chair. His eyes had stopped blinking.

“Well,” he said, “I think that sex and holding your breath have…similar qualities. Or effects on the body, if you will. With both you have this tension that keeps building and building. Eventually there comes a crescendo. With breath-holding it’s the pain in your lungs. With sex it’s the pleasure in…other places. And then comes the release—the gasp at the surface, the orgasm down below.”

“I hadn’t ever thought of it that way,” Crystal admitted after a few moments.

It was the truth, but hearing Jarett’s explanation, it all seemed so simple. He’d drawn a series of lines between two sets of very different dots, and against heavy odds, created a picture worth looking at. A picture they could both look at together.

“I don’t know if most women are too crazy about getting off the beaten track when it comes to sex,” Jarett said.

“Oh, but that is so not true,” Crystal rejoined, “at least not for me.”

“Not for you,” the other had to allow. “In fact I think you need the adventure.”

“But not every girl does?”

“Of course not.”

She leaned away from the cushions to challenge him on this, not only because she found it ridiculous, but because it might finally get him talking about Vicky.

“Name one,” she said. “One girl. Go on. I’m listening.”

Jarett didn’t waste any time. “Your friend,” he said. “What about her?”

Crystal blinked. “Lucy?”

“That’s the one.”

She stared at him, shaking her head. Then she laughed and threw the empty Coke can at his face.

“Hey!” Jarett cried, blocking her shot with his arm.

“Shut up! That was a lucky guess!”

The can rolled across the floor, prompting Chubby, who’d been lying near the fireplace, to trot over and investigate.

Jarett watched him. His face registered surprise but, as far as Crystal could tell, no anger. Seconds later her intuition proved accurate when he looked away from the dog and grinned.

“It wasn’t a guess,” he told her. “Five minutes with her is all you need to know she’s not one of those kids who yearn for a cliff face to hang-glide from.”

“We were together when I got the pictures of Shit-Shit,” Crystal pointed out, wincing inwardly at the way this subject had managed to bubble to the surface again. “Plus she has a boyfriend now. She’s making lots of progress.”

A noise of disgust came from the other side of the table.

“The pictures,” Jarett said, his cheeks pale. “There goes my appetite for dinner.”

“Bad memories are no match for my cooking. But come on, Jarett,” she continued. Her patience for tact had come to an end; it was time to go for broke. “I know I’m not your first girlfriend. Tell me about another. Tell me about your first.”

He laughed again. “Why on earth would you want to know about her?”

“Well somebody had to put this idea in your head about all of us being worshipers of Snow White.”

“Now now. That’s an exaggeration.”

“Isn’t that what writers do?”

“Some of them do. Comedians do.”

Crystal stood up. “Well I’m not joking here.”

A look of fear took hold of Jarett’s features. “I’m sorry if I offended you,” he said, moving back in his seat. “My opinion is purely—“

“No, no,” Crystal smiled. She sat down in his lap, kicking her legs up over the arm of the chair. “You didn’t offend me, sweetheart. I just want to know more about you.”

With that, she began to plant kisses around the corners of his mouth, one after the next.

“Tell me,” she whispered. “And stop looking out the window. No one’s ever going to catch us.”

“My first girlfriend?”

“Yeah.”

And if you lie to me, Mister, I’m going to know right away.

Jarett began to stroke her hair, as if that would somehow tease what memories he needed to find into the foreground of his thoughts. Then he kissed the side of her neck before whispering into her ear:

“Well…I guess I should start with her name.”

“That’s a good place,” Crystal nodded.

“Okay.” He kissed her again. “Okay.”

Yet several more seconds went by without another word. Jarett’s lips moved lower, until Crystal was obliged to tilt her head back and let his hot breath puff against her throat. Enjoying his appetite, she craned her neck over the side of the chair to take in an upside-down view of the fireplace.

“Her name,” Jarett said again.

And perhaps he really did need Crystal to help with those memories, for his fingers continued to explore her body, moving from her hair down to the hem of her blouse, which they lifted to reveal her ribs as they rose with a high, deep breath.

That breath she held, knowing it would excite him, give him courage. Jarett hesitated for just one final moment, and said:

“Her name was Vicky. She’s the love of my life. She always will be.”

And Crystal immediately looked up, letting her breath out like dragon fire.






















20

 

“Fuck!” she yelled.

Jarett’s kisses stopped. “What?”

“Look out the window!”

“But you just told me not to—“

Crystal slapped the top of his head. “Look, dammit! It’s my mother!”

“Oh son of a fucking bitch!”

He let go of the blouse, which by then had been pulled up well past the lacy decorations on Crystal’s brassier, and ran into the kitchen with his hands scrambling at the bulge in his crotch. Crystal followed. A car door slammed from outside. Then came the sound of approaching feet. She found a magnetic mirror on the refrigerator and began to straighten her hair and blouse. Both were a mess.

“What are we going to do?” Jarett almost squealed.

“It’s all right, it’s all right.”

But one look between his legs told her it wasn’t all right. Jarett was still hard and horny as a gorilla. God knew how Lucretia would react if she saw it.

At that instant the woman in question knocked on the door.

“Crystal!” her mother’s voice called. “Open this door, young lady! I know what you’re up to!”

Oh my fucking god, are you KIDDING me? Crystal’s mind babbled.

She spun around to see Jarett frozen in front of the sink. His eyes looked ready to pop out of his skull, and his lips were drawn back like those of a corpse. For a moment Crystal was reminded of Sardonicus from the old Ray Russell story, but rather than laugh, she ran back into the living room, tripped over Chubby and went flying head first over the arm of the sofa.

Lucretia knocked again, harder. “Outside! Now! You are in big trouble!”

Gasping, Crystal tried to stand up. Her knee banged on the coffee table. How could Lucretia know? What had happened? It didn’t make sense! There’d been just the two sexual encounters with Jarett this month, both in the middle of the night, both with the entire town buried under three feet of snow.

CRYSTAL!”

“Coming,” she croaked.

Jarett appeared an instant later, shaking from head to foot.

“Let me talk to her,” he said.

“I don’t understand how she could know,” Crystal replied, keeping her voice down. “I really don’t. Unless—“

She stopped. The stoolie’s name, so obvious, had just now popped into her mind.

“That…bitch!

Jarett gaped at her. “What?”

“Lucy!”

“What about her?”

“She told on us! She had to have! She’s the only one who knows!”

You told Lucy?” Jarett hissed.

But there was no time for further talk. Suddenly more furious than scared, Crystal went to the door and yanked it open.

“Mom, it’s all bull—“

And she had to stop herself again, for standing on the other side of the threshold was a sight she wouldn’t have expected to see in a million years. Lucretia had one hand on her belly and the other up against the frame. This seemed the only posture she could manage, her laughter was so hard.

“Mom?” Crystal asked, dumbfounded.

“Gotcha,” the other just barely managed. “Gotcha good!” The hand went from belly to eyes in an effort to wipe away tears. “Funny right?”

“Oh, hilarious.”

A very audible sigh plumed from behind her. Crystal turned around just in time to see the last of the green drain from Jarett’s cheeks.

“Sorry, sorry,” Lucretia said, stepping through the door. “I just couldn’t resist. You’re such a trouble-maker, Crystal, I wanted to give you a dose of your own medicine.”

“Mom, I—“

Lucretia’s eyes widened at something past Crystal’s shoulder. “Whoa! That’s the biggest thing I’ve ever seen!”

What!”

She whirled, almost tripping over her own legs. It was astonishing the way this clumsiness had come on over the past few minutes. All traces of the virtuoso cheerleader had utterly flown. Crystal was now a klutz, a doofus. Less graceful than even Lucy.

“I mean this is the first time I’ve ever looked at Chubby up close,” Lucretia went on. “He is a much bigger dog than I would have imagined.”

“Oh yes!” Jarett cut in, sounding like a man about ready to vomit. “Yes, these border collies can be surprising sometimes. And Chubby here, he loves his junk food.”

Chubby walked over to the fireplace and sat down. He liked to smile whenever he knew people were talking about him, and the case was no different now. Crystal usually found this trait cute; today, she envied his pleasure.

“Okay then!” she blurted out, raising her hands. “That was fun! Jarett, thank you for the lesson. I’ll be sure and finish that story up for you by next week.”

He looked stupid. “What story? OH YES! Yes! The story, of course.”

Crystal flashed him a scowl that shut him up before any further damage could be done.

“Super,” Lucretia said. “Crystal, how about Vanson’s on the way home? Hannah went with leftover pizza and I haven’t cooked any dinner.”

“All right, Mom, that sounds good.”

Like I’m actually going to be able to eat anything after this heart-attack drill.

“Take care, Crystal,” Jarett managed.

“Yeah,” she said. “But before I leave…I just need to use the bathroom.”

The author’s hand went to his forehead. “Oh me too. I mean…you know, later,” he added, after a sharp look from Lucretia.

***

After that day everything slowed down for a little while. Crystal attended school and lessons with Jarett with a kind of sobriety she had not felt since Hannah’s age. She did her homework, cleaned her room. She cooked meals for Jarett. She gave Chubby baths. Evening phone calls with Lucy were kept short, although in this regard it was hard to say whether or not the near miss in Jarett’s living room played a role. The bigger reason more than likely had to do with Miko, the part-time friend in Lucy’s life who’d become full-time boyfriend last fall. Or at least it seemed that way from Crystal’s distance. Getting closer to them, finding out more about their relationship, was proving to be a chore. More than once she’d asked Lucy for details over the phone, or in the halls at school. And more than once—every time, in fact—Lucy had just smiled and said they were doing all right. Apparently it was the truth. She and Miko were still taking lunches together, without Crystal. He was carrying her books, holding open doors, pulling out chairs. All of these chivalrous things and more that were supposed to be dead and buried with the Titanic.

Such high-minded progression would have bothered Crystal under ordinary circumstances, but for the time being at least, she felt happy to be ignored. She began eating her lunches with the cheerleading squad, content to let Megan or some other girl contribute most of the school gossip. That gossip, to her further relief, no longer included their dearly departed janitor. Indeed, by mid-March of that year, the entire school seemed ready for spring. The boys were talking about baseball; the girls were talking about the beach.

Meanwhile, Jarett hadn’t stopped asking for the outline he wanted for Crystal’s so-called novel. It was unfortunate considering she had no interest in the project, but the way he kept bringing it up at the end of every lesson—always just before she could get down off the front porch, as if the cracked paint there put him in mind of procrastination—showed that he meant to have his wish granted. As a result, many of Crystal’s evenings were spent alone in her room with a pad and pencil, trying on ideas the way she sometimes tried on shoes at the mall. None of them fit. Her lack of enterprise was a bane to creativity. She didn’t want to write a novel. She was too young, too inexperienced. Also, long-term projects almost always turned out to be a bore. The only one she’d been able to stick with of late was the re-imaging of Lucy, which now looked to be complete. Indeed, this perhaps was the reason Crystal felt like she had nothing left in the tank. Perhaps she needed a rest.

Only one flicker of hope shined amongst the dreariness: Vicky.

She’d listened to Jarett’s account of their past together with fox-like intensity, waiting for a lie. Everything he said matched up well enough with what was in the love letters to contain her spite. For the time being. And while his honesty had nearly gotten them in serious trouble (she’d been so caught up in his subsequent kisses her mother had nearly walked in on them half-naked across the chair), it also made Crystal more curious than ever to know more. And as long as her curiosity was sparked, why not turn it to some form of creative advantage? In short, why not use Jarett’s past as an idea for his own assignment?

On a chilly night towards the end of March, Crystal wrote this sentence down in her notepad: A boy meets and falls in love with a girl, only to lose her to a devastating illness. She thought it over for a few minutes while listening to the wind slap rain against her bedroom window. Then, for a theme, she wrote: coping with heartbreak.

“There now,” she said to one of her stuffed animals, “two hurdles cleared. Maybe I should have gone out for track and field instead of cheerleading, eh?”

The stuffed animal had no opinions to give on the matter. Crystal went back to the notepad and began to outline chapter one. Nothing worthwhile would surface, however, and after half an hour of futility she tossed her work onto the headboard and reached for the TV remote.

“Wasteland!” a bald man screamed as channel 57 came into view.

“Yeah, no shit,” Crystal told him. “It’s about time somebody gives the truth about cable programming.”

The bald man smiled at her, and said: “Your present, your future, your life, is more than just going to work and paying the bills! Let us prove it! Come to the arcade of arts at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History and experience what wonders lurk inside us all!”

Crystal lowered the volume as he burbled on about paintings and sculptures and other such nonsense. His use of the word arcade had given her an idea. According to Jarett, he had met Vicky at a video arcade in Norwalk. He’d given her a street name before going on to explain that the business had closed years ago. Today it was nothing more than an abandoned building.

She snapped the TV back off. The idea began to grow stronger, hotter. If she could somehow get to Norwalk and find the building, a stroll around the premises might very well be the shot in the arm her inspiration needed. At the very least, it would facilitate the structuring of chapter one.

Crystal’s feet swung out of bed. She needed a ride to Norwalk, and it just so happened that one of her friends was going there with her family this weekend. One of her old friends. One that she trusted…until recently.

She grabbed her phone, dialed a number so familiar her fingers knew it better than her brain, and waited. It was picked up after three rings.

“Hello?” a vacant voice asked.

“Lucy! Is that you?”

“Crystal,” the voice replied. Flat, matter-of-fact. “Yeah, it’s me.”

“Great! Hey, are you still going to Norwalk on Saturday?”

“Yeah.”

“Can I come too?”

The other girl hesitated, but not long enough to make Crystal care. “I…suppose so.”

“Hot damn! Thanks, Luce! I’ll explain everything on Saturday, don’t worry. What time are you leaving?”

***

They ate lunch at a Chinese restaurant on West Main Street that Crystal had heard stories about. Headless cats in trash cans, pee-water on the back doorstep. One bite of their fried rice with baby corn dispelled all of them. You didn’t cook food this succulent with cat meat—or if you did, and eating it made Crystal a kitty carnivore, then so be it.

She thanked Lucy’s mom and dad both for the meal and for reminding her of how good Chinese food was. The dad laughed. The mom asked how things were going at school. Were she and Lucy still studying together? It seemed like they weren’t talking as much as they used to. Why was that?

Crystal did her best to smooth things over with a folderol of excuses. End of semester exams were coming up, which meant the students were buckling down; the weather of late had been too unpleasant to go outdoors; her cell phone needed a new battery.

Meanwhile the study partner in question maintained her odd silence. And though Crystal considered herself an excellent talker, every so often she needed to stop and catch her breath. These instances were met with no help from the other side of the table. Crystal would finish one of her sentences, raise her brow over at Lucy…and get nothing but a nod, or a shrug of the shoulders.

Nevertheless, she did a good enough job of just being there for her parents to let them escape for awhile, this so they could shop for antiques downtown without having two bored girls underfoot. After agreeing to meet up in front of the restaurant in one hour, the two pairs parted ways. Crystal took Lucy across the street under cold, cloudy skies, where a row of flags in front of the courthouse flapped in the wind. Above them, a broken clock tower with quiet hands gave the incorrect time.

“This isn’t spring,” Lucy muttered, pulling at the zipper on her coat.

Crystal led her to a narrow, sloping street behind the courthouse that consisted of a bowling alley, a bar, and several parking lots. A green sign on the corner—SEMINARY STREET—told her they were in the right place.

“What right place?” Lucy asked, after Crystal spoke it aloud.

“The place I told you about at the house while your dad was trying to find his car keys.”

Lucy’s brown hair whipped at her shoulders as she first looked down-street, towards a closed sporting goods store, and then back at the bowling alley.

“I don’t see anything that looks remotely like a video arcade,” she said.

They walked to the sporting goods store, where cracked, empty windows sagged within frames of curled paint. On the other side of it was another parking lot, this one even more empty than the rest. Weeds sprouted from broken concrete. Shards of glass shimmered along the curb. The lot looked to have been paved for a one level building the color of watered out brown. Crystal pointed her finger at one of its black windows.

“There,” she said.

Her friend regarded it without speaking.

“Well?” Crystal asked, irritated.

Lucy gave her a look. “Well what? If you say that’s the place, then fine.”

Snorting, Crystal stormed off across the lot. The window got bigger and bigger yet remained dark. Determined to know its secrets, she cupped her hands on the glass and peered inside. A gloomy veil of grayness showed nothing at first. Then, bit by bit, the mess. Overturned furniture. Broken light fixtures. Dust. Crystal’s eyes moved back and forth, hoping the desolation would yield up a clue to reinforce her hypothesis.

And then she found it.

A poster on the wall, its color all but completely faded, that read: We’ve Got To Stop Eating Like This. Above those words were four ghosts, one of them captured in the process of being devoured by…

“Pac-Man,” Crystal said.

“Come again?”

Her backward glance lasted only a moment before she struck off down an alley on the side of the building. Spewing protests, Lucy followed. Her words were incredulous despite the fact that Crystal had provided a full outline of what she intended to do. Are you crazy? she kept asking. You’re not really going to break into this old building just to poke around for plot points to a novel.

Finally Crystal could stand it no more. She told Lucy to shut up, her eyes narrowing over the plywood nailed across one window, the rusty screen wedged inside of another.

“Dammit.”

“What if the police come?” Lucy said, chastened.

“I’ll just tell them we’re doing a school project about the eighties.”

“Yeah but it’s still trespassing.”

“Let’s try the back door.”

The suggestion brought a groan from her friend, but she followed Crystal down to a second alley, this one wide enough to drive a car through. Here they found a small, white door hidden behind a stack of milk crates. Crystal kicked the crates over, and was just reaching to try the knob when Lucy said:

“I still can’t handle it.”

Crystal’s hand froze. Later, she had to admit to herself that her reply was a kind of feigned ignorance. She’d known immediately what Lucy meant, but still told her:

“Well if you don’t want to come inside, wait here and keep a lookout.”

“Is that all you ever want me around for, Crystal? Fun and games?”

She shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe. But you don’t seem very good at it anymore.”

“You’re right,” Lucy nodded. “I kind of lost my appetite after the last time we played it got somebody killed.”

Crystal felt her chest swell with anger. She didn’t need reminding about what had happened to Shit-Shit, not when she was so close to putting it in the past for good. And now here was Lucy, still dragging his corpse around, even after all that talk about the school getting on, getting healed. What horseshit.

“That wasn’t our fault!” she snapped.

“It wasn’t my fault,” the other said. “Or maybe it was, a little, for not trying to talk you out of what you did.”

“I don’t get this, Lucy. Just a few weeks ago you were preaching to me about letting go. What’s going on? You been watching Cold Case episodes on CBS?”

“I know what I should do, Crystal. That’s easy. But you know what’s hard?”

“I do,” Crystal answered, “I really do.”

Lucy looked down at her shoes. “What? Tell me.”

“What’s hard are the things that you make hard for yourself.”

“That wasn’t what I was going to say.”

“But it’s true.”

“Sometimes. And sometimes,” the friend went on, “sometimes things are just…hard to do. You can talk about doing them all you want, but…”

Her words died off, and when she blinked, Crystal saw a tear run down her cheek.

Rolling her eyes, she told Lucy that she didn’t have time for this. Then, as if to demonstrate that doing things was in fact very simple, she took hold the doorknob.

“It won’t open,” Lucy sniffed.

“Wanna bet?”

Crystal turned the knob…

And the door squeaked open.

“There!” she cried, looking back at her teary-eyed friend. “That, Lucy, is called doing.













































21

 

At this point in the story there is the need to take a brief diversion into territories more elucidative of the landscape upon which our characters dwell. For many readers, such diversions are a boon, as their intention is to fortify his or her knowledge of either the characters, the characters’ interests, or, as in this case, the setting. These three things by no means define the limits of what may benefit the reader, but they do seem to be the most commonly addressed.

The northern Ohio counties of Ashland, Erie, Huron, and Ottawa are known universally as the Firelands. The name Firelands was given to this 500,000 acre tract of land (originally as the Fire Lands) by the Connecticut legislature in the year 1792 as an act of restitution for certain Connecticut residents whose homes had been burned by the British during the American Revolutionary War. The largest portion of this restitution—and the one in which the towns of Monroeville and Norwalk lie—is Huron county.

Norwalk is today the county seat, where one can still find structures—houses, business blocks—dating back to its inception in the early part of the 19th century. This too in Monroeville, though it has not grown as ambitiously as its neighbor to the east. As of today its population consists of 1,400 people, compared to 17,000 in Norwalk.

Having lived in both towns for a number of years, I would contest that Monroeville is the happier of the two places. The great difference in their populations has mostly to do with this (unless, of course, the gentle reader prefers a noisier, more chaotic lifestyle); however, a number of other factors need to be addressed, and shall be within the following paragraphs.

To my knowledge there are at least eight establishments in Norwalk linked to the purchase and consumption of spirits. Bars, if you will. Two of them are located at the bottom of Benedict Avenue, in an area known as The Flats by those old enough to remember the name, or, by those even older still, Brooklyn. Two more bars are located directly to the east of this area, but close enough to contribute to the unpleasantness in this small valley of dirty water and abandoned buildings. Knives, guns, and even the occasional murder have all played roles in the grotesquery of the place. A drunken man was once decapitated by a passing train. Another man, also drunk, was shot in the chest over a duel for the affection of a so-called lady. Police presence is a nightly thing in The Flats, and with good reason: We, the human race, are not responsible with our leisure.

To my increasing dread, Norwalk has also become more and more cavalier of late with its own history. That is not to say your walk along Main Street, should you chance to visit the town, won’t be a pleasant one. Majestic homes of many popular nineteenth century styles line the tree-shaded walks. Greek revival, Georgian, Queen Anne, Victorian—all of these architectural voices and more await your analysis. I also do not wish to impart the opinion that these structures are not well cared for. The wealthiest settlers of the original Norwalk plat (approved by a common pleas court in 1819) built their homes along Main Street, and most of them still stand today.

But I bid you take note of these recent events from other parts of the town: A one hundred and thirty year-old house on State Street was razed in the late ‘90s for the expansion of a church parking lot; another house of the same age, this one on South Pleasant, came down for the necessity (really?) of expanding parking at an elementary school; during this same time period, East Seminary Street lost one of its fine old homes to a fire set by unsupervised teenagers at a party, while across the way on West Seminary, a beautiful Queen Anne mansion, once the Norwalk public library, burned to the ground in an electrical fire. Little by little you see, the legacy is slipping away.

Nor are fires and wrecking balls the only culprits to blame. At some places it is mere neglect. My own childhood home on West Main, erected around 1860, has recently fallen into severe disrepair, and alas, I cannot see it as being much longer for this world. Other such homes can be found on West Elm Street, North Pleasant Street, and Minard Place.*

One final thing which I find irksome about Norwalk is the stories that appear in its newspaper on an almost weekly basis concerning drug trafficking. It seems that a number of Maple City residents are now at trade on the black market. And what is the drug in question? It appalls me to type the word: heroin. Indeed, I was even motivated (out of disbelief) to phone friends and family back home for confirmation on the stories. My brother sniffed and said that the problem was nowhere near as bad as the press illustrated it to be. All else told me things were every bit that bad and more.

Can you even begin to imagine a small town of 17,000 people having a problem with heroin? Lord!

Most theories for the drug’s existence can be traced back to a perfectly legal painkiller, prescribed by doctors in Huron County for years, called Oxycontin. Oxycontin is a synthetic form of heroin. Abuse of the drug rose to a point where doctors decided to cut back their prescriptions, forcing patients to turn elsewhere to obtain a proper fix.

It should be noted before I abandon this subject that heroin in any form is highly addictive, especially if smoked or injected. Once a user becomes addicted, he or she will go to colossal lengths to make certain their supply does not ebb. Once active within the brain, the drug provides its user with a rush of pleasure, followed by flushed skin and a dry mouth. Withdrawal symptoms are severe, and include pain, vomiting, and muscle spasms. The most common treatments for heroin addiction are through medication and behavioral therapy.

***

(*For the record, I do hope that I am mistaken about this. And out of fairness to the town and its residents I would like to add that a great many of the old homes were also restored during the 1990s. These restorations I was able to witness for myself. They took place on State Street, Norwood Avenue, and in every other neighborhood, more or less, with early beginnings.)

***

Now Monroeville is a very different town indeed, though one may not deduce as much simply by walking its streets. More of the same architectural styles may be used to describe its dwellings. More of the same elm, oak, and chestnut trees shade its quiet neighborhoods. There is a church, a library, a post office. Yet something which Norwalk lacks can be found here as well, and the best word I can think of for it is dedication.

Dedication to what, old man? I can already hear you asking.

But that’s an easy answer: to peace, tranquility, and order.

The streets, as I mentioned, are quiet, as well as perfectly safe to stroll at any hour of the day. In fact should local authorities catch you outside after 11PM (and they will if you chance such a thing, for law enforcement in Monroeville carries out its duties with strict regard towards the prevention of disturbances before they occur), you will be questioned as to your intentions. There is no such thing, therefore, as a late stroll in Monroeville. Goodness no. What are you up to, being out this late? Where are you going? How long will it take? These and other such questions you should be prepared to answer if you find yourself on the wrong end of a Monroeville cop’s flashlight. Nor is this dedication limited to law enforcement. Most residents adhere to it as well, and are happy with their way of life.

The first building was put up in 1812 by one William Frink, and later sold to a gentleman from Monroe, Michigan by the name of Seth Brown. In 1817 this same gentleman platted the town of Monroe, Ohio, which was later changed to Monroeville, as Ohio had already boasted a town by the former name.

The town grew to a size it was comfortable with…and then stopped. As a pleasant community of fishing, farming, and high school football, it stopped. The explanation is simple: Once Monroeville had what it wanted, it wanted no more. Would that we could all learn something from this.

Having said these things, it may be safe to point out that Crystal, in her youth, was utterly miserable in growing up there. As of this writing I have known her for fifteen years. She has faults. Oh! Countless faults! But I love her anyway. Perhaps Monroeville was a punishment for the kind of girl she was. If so, she wore her chains with a grim sneer, and a gaze that never wavered. Bravo.


























22

 

Upon returning home from Norwalk, Crystal went directly back to the pad and pencil in her room. The theme she’d written there—how to cope with a broken heart—was still waiting. Beneath it, she scratched out a simple sentence describing what the novel would be about: A boy meets and falls in love with a girl, only to lose her to a devastating illness.

She stared at the page for a few minutes, chewing on her pencil. It was no good. Too depressing. With a scowl, Crystal ripped the page out, balled it up, and threw it across the room. She didn’t want her first novel to be a crier; hell, she didn’t want any of her novels to be criers. And in Jarett’s story about Vicky, tears were really all there were. They’d met in high school and had fallen madly in love. Jarett wrote dozens of letters to her, which he apparently never sent. They’d held hands in the hallways, exchanged kisses in cozy corners, gone out on dates at whatever malt shop had been swingin’ at the time. And then…cancer. For Vicky. A rare form of lymphoma that took just six months to kill her, along with the dream she and Jarett had shared.

“No way am I writing about that,” Crystal said to the empty room. “No way.”

He had related the story to her between kisses on the afternoon Lucretia gave them their little scare. Too hot and bothered at the time to consider its weight, Crystal had catalogued it instead, shelved its contents for later employment. Then, of course, had come the trip to Norwalk, which really had been nothing more than an attempt to stir up some ghosts to flame her inspiration. A near miss, that. She and Lucy had been able to locate the closed arcade where the couple had spent so much happy time together, and even infiltrate it. Yet there’d been nothing on the inside to indicate that once, not so long ago, Prince Charming and Cinderella held court here. There’d been no graffiti in the bathrooms (the stalls and toilets were ripped out), no heart-shaped carvings on any of the broken consoles, no initials etched into the wall where the payphone had been. Lucy, with her typical impoverished coordination, had tripped over a number of broken chairs and tables, encouraging Crystal to further petulance. Disgusted by all the dust on her clothes (and more than a little uneasy there in the dark with but a single flashlight), she’d given up the adventure after a mere twenty minutes.

Now she needed a new theme, a new topic, a new everything. Wonderful.

In the following Monday’s lesson she shared as much of this with Jarett as she felt able, without revealing that his own past lay hidden in the weave of the project. To her complete surprise, his reaction turned out to be one of sympathy, and with an eagerness that she found almost self-supportive, went on to describe a number of ideas of his own that had taken hold, grown a few small buds, and then died as suddenly as they’d been born.

“Don’t worry about it,” he kept saying from his accustomed teaching chair. “Don’t worry about it at all, Crystal. It’s happened to every single writer who’s ever lived. In fact part of being a writer is having the balls to let go of an idea that isn’t working.”

“I’m not worried,” she said, “just…kind of pissed off that I wasted so much time on it.”

“Don’t even be that. Don’t bring negativity into your work. Gets you nowhere. And,” he went on, just as she opened her mouth to respond, “I want to point out that you didn’t waste time on anything. This idea is part of the road that you’re on. You stopped, you considered it, you passed it by. Simple as that.”

Crystal smiled. She was more than happy to take his advice, but left that day with no promises as to when any fresh material for the assignment would come about. She also left that day in a bit of a temper. Twice during the lesson she’d attempted a sexual coup on his body; twice she’d been rejected, with several not nows interspersed with panicked glances out the window. Clearly Jarett was still in a dither about what had happened the week before.

“Don’t worry about scrapping ideas,” he reassured, for maybe the twenty-seventh time, shooing her out the door towards Lucretia’s car.

“Jesus, Jarett, why don’t you just pick me up and throw me off the porch?”

He apologized, waving nervously at Lucretia as he did so. “I don’t want her suspecting anything.”

“I told you, she doesn’t. It was just a joke.”

“All right.”

But he was still talking out the corner of his mouth, still waving at Lucretia.

Crystal left him to it. Her shoes kicked up gravel as she stormed across the drive, got into the car, and slammed the door.

“Good lesson?” Lucretia asked, bemused.

“Yeah,” Crystal sneered, “loads of fun.”

Her frustration continued into the evening. Intending to follow Jarett’s don’t worry about it instructions to the letter, she went upstairs after dinner and filled a bubble-bath for a long, relaxing soak. With the door locked, she took everything off, then went to the mirror. The girl looking back had grown breasts over the previous year—small ones, true, but breasts all the same. It was about time.

She took a deep breath, liking the way they rose on her ribcage, held it in…

And just like that, another idea for a novel hit her.

No, she thought, shaking her head, no more work. Go away.

Yet the idea was persistent. It floated in her mind like the mist that now fogged the room. Still refusing to breathe, Crystal shut her eyes tight. It was a mistake. In the darkness behind her lids, the idea gained color, clarity.

A female escape artist who sees herself as invincible tries the ultimate underwater escape…and pays the ultimate price.

Theme: the danger of pride.

“Damn,” she blew out, needing air. “Crystal, give me a break, what do you know about the danger of pride?”

Her lip twisted as she reached out and wrote the word fuck on the steamed-over mirror. Nevertheless, the idea had possibilities. Annoying ones that made her stomach ache. Letting go of the love story based in Jarett’s childhood had not only been logical, but liberating as well. She’d entertained no thoughts of starting up with something else, and if Jarett didn’t like that, then so be it. Now along comes this woman, whoever she was. This so-called escape artist.

“Not tonight,” Crystal told her out loud. “Not tonight, and maybe not even this week, so you can just shut up right now.”

Satisfied by this decree, she stepped into the tub and didn’t get back out for an hour.

 

Another reason Crystal wasn’t keen on doing work had to do with the calendar. It was spring break week, which meant that students of all ages and colors were doing their level best not to think about school in any guise it chose to haunt in. Hannah, now eleven, had recently gotten her own cell phone, and spent a great deal of time these days in her room using it. Crystal saw her only twice a day—at breakfast and dinner. This was okay with Lucretia because it gave them less opportunity to squabble over what she referred to (always with rolling eyes) as kid nonsense.

About the squabbling Crystal couldn’t help but agree. She and Hannah had indeed been fighting a lot lately. Not that it mattered. They were sisters, yes, but more and more, it seemed like that relationship existed in name only. They were two different girls—or so Crystal had always thought. The things she knew about Hannah consisted mainly of the dolls she played with, the clothes she wore, and the sticks and stones she threw.

This week the battlefront was quiet, which surprised Lucretia, as both girls spent much of it cooped up in the house together. They ate their meals whilst barely exchanging a word. Every so often during these rituals Crystal would glance up at her mom to find her wearing the expression of a woman stumped on a crossword. But their temporary truce, as Crystal could have told her if asked, was by no means complicated: The weather had turned balmy for the first time since last September, signifying the official death of winter. That, Crystal knew, tended to cheer everyone living north of the Mason-Dixon Line up for at least a week.

Indeed, she slept with her window open on most nights during that spring break, curled up next to a book, or the TV remote if there was nothing she felt like plunging into. Several times she’d attempted to call Lucy on her cell, but the other end never picked up. It made Crystal wonder if she was being ignored on purpose. If so, she thought, well…che sara sara. After all, she’d been conditioning Lucy for years to realize her confidence, to come out of her shell and walk with her eyes somewhere other than her shoelaces. And if the mooring had finally broken, Crystal felt she could do little else but consider it a job well done.

By the end of the week she gave up on the calls. Instead, she decided to concentrate on what should have been a priority since day one: getting her body ready for summer. On Thursday Jarett called and cancelled that day’s lesson without saying why. This dampened her spirits (and poisoned her temper) considerably, but by Friday afternoon she was able put on a red bikini and climb out to the roof with a beach towel and a bottle of lotion. There was a flat space above Hannah’s window that Lucretia sometimes used for sunbathing. Crystal used it now, lying on her belly before removing the top of the bikini. It was uncomfortable at first; the shingles were coarse, the towel thin. But relaxation soon prevailed. She drew a deep breath, letting the sun do its work on her back. The song Promiscuous played on her cell phone.

And then the song stopped.

Crystal blinked from behind her Wayfarers as the phone began to ring. The name flashing on the screen surprised her a little. She pressed the answer button.

“Jarett?”

“Crystal!”

His voice all but exploded from the speaker.

“It’s me,” she said, after almost dropping the phone. “Are you all right?”

“Oh I’m perfect. Feeling great.”

“You sound excited.”

“As a matter of fact I am. Do you think your mom would let you come to Norwalk for a Saturday lesson?”

Squinting up at the sun, Crystal nodded, though in truth the idea of going back to Norwalk after last Saturday’s flame-out interested her little.

“Crystal?” Jarett asked.

“Yes,” she said. “Yes, that’s fine. But why, Jarett?”

In the park below her, two young boys were playing on the monkey bars. One of them jumped down and ran over to the slide. Both were giggling in the sun, thrilled with every part of this perfect day.

“Because I have a friend who lives on Fair Road, and he’s going to be out of town that day. He loaned me his house, which is sumptuous. You’ll love it.”

“Jar—“

“And best of all,” he went on, “it has an indoor swimming pool.”

That made Crystal grin. She started to sit up before realizing, in the nick of time, that her top was still off.

“I see,” she told him. “And how big is this pool?”

“Ten feet straight to the bottom.”

Her tongue licked over her lips before answering. “Goodness, Jarett, that’s going to give my little cheerleading lungs quite a workout.”

These words were pure torture to him and she knew it. Nothing came from the other end of the phone for a long time. Her mind conjured him gasping on the floor, hand clenched over his chest. It was glorious.

“Are you okay, boss?” she almost laughed.

“Getting better every moment,” a squeaky voice answered.

“Uh-huh. Think you can control yourself for a few more hours?”

“Only with very concentrated effort.”

“All right. Do you want me to practice holding my breath until then, or would you rather just…watch my desperate bubbles come out at the usual time?”

A desiderative puff of air blew into the receiver. “Stop it, Crystal, please.”

“I’ll surprise you then.”

“Thanks, baby. I’m really looking forward to this.”

After the call was over she lay back on the blanket, feeling too happy to relax now. Her previous concern about Jarett’s hesitancy, his skittishness, no longer seemed substantial. He was excited again. He wanted her again—really wanted her.

That breath-holding weakness is a doozy for him, all right, she thought.

But then wasn’t that the way of all follies? According to the bible, a fool returned to his, over and over. If that was true then Crystal supposed they were both fools. As for her own folly…

“Jarett,” she said into the blanket.

***

“Jarett!” she said, looking down into the water the next day. “You weren’t kidding. It’s huge!”

“Oh I don’t lie about the free dives, baby.”

Crystal smiled at him. “That’s the second time I’ve heard you call me that. Is it going to stick?”

“What? Baby?”

“Yeah. You may want to be careful it doesn’t slip out in front of my mom.”

She expected to knock him off balance a little—he’d been calm and suave ever since picking her up at the house. Yet the memory of what had happened a week ago seemed very far from Jarett’s mind. Staring into her eyes, he reached into the pocket of his jeans and pulled out a quarter.

“We’re always careful, Crystal. Until today.”

“What do you mean?”

He tossed the quarter into the pool. There was a ploink! and a brief shimmer under the surface. Then nothing.

“Can you dive down and get that for me?” Jarett asked, eyes gleaming.

Crystal began to unbutton her blouse. “Piece of cake,” she said. “What’s the reward?”

His answer came quick, as if he’d rehearsed the question already. “Dinner at the Radisson in Sandusky.”

“Oh you’re on.”

The red bikini was on underneath her clothes. She made a few adjustments to the ties, then looked back into the water. Several layers of blue paint had been spread across the bottom, giving the pool an abysmal quality that, like it or no, disturbed her the tiniest bit. A girl could dive into that and get disoriented in a hurry.

“Ten feet?” she asked. “Is that all it really is?”

“That’s all,” Jarett promised.

The house was a split level, built on the side of a hill so that the lower half was actually underground. Crystal had never seen so much space and luxury under one roof. There were huge leaning mirrors with gilded frames in every room. Tiffany lamps glowing atop oaken end tables. A skylight on one ceiling, a Baccarat chandelier on another. She drew in a few deep breaths, getting her lungs ready for the dive. Jarett asked if she was nervous. She told him no—no way in hell. Then, with the absolute deepest gasp of air that her small chest would hold, she dove primly into the blue.

And the waiting game began.

Crystal kicked down further and further, keeping her lips pursed. Her mind leaped from one thought to the next. Eating pizza with Lucy at Marko’s Pizzeria; reading her favorite book by candlelight; smoking a cigarette outside after dinner. The tactic got her to the bottom, but by then her chest had begun to feel tight. Letting out a few bubbles helped a little. Crystal looked right, then left, then straight ahead. There was no sign of the quarter anywhere.

The tightness intensified, became steady. A second, larger plume of bubbles burst from her lips. Crystal sprang off the bottom with a frustrated grimace. She knew that to stay any longer might not leave enough breath to make it back to the surface. As it stood, there was just enough. With three feet left to go her lungs began to scream blue murder. Exactly two seconds later, water splashed onto Jarett’s feet as Crystal, with a desperate gasp, broke free in the nick of time.

AH!” she cried. “Too far!”

He asked if she was okay. She told him yes, but swam to his outstretched hand like a girl going after a lifeline. He pulled her out of the water and let her drip all over his clothes while she got her wind back. This involved carrying her to one of the reclining pool chairs on the patio, where Crystal could lie back to let failure gnash her teeth.

“I should have practiced,” she growled.

Jarett took a seat next to her. “Nah. I like this delicate side of you. It’s an interesting find.”

Her eyes shifted towards him.

“But I’m supposed to be the great and all-powerful Crystal Genesio. What will my friends at school think?”

“If your friends at school ever find out about us their disappointment with the JV cheer captain will be the least of my worries.”

Her hands went behind her head. High above, a row of fans spun from an arched wooden ceiling.

“I owe you a quarter.”

“The hell you do. I owe you dinner at the Radisson.”

“Because I can’t hold my breath for very long?”

“Because you look so good when you try.”

Crystal was silent a moment, then laughed out loud.

“Jarett,” she said, “you really are the coolest crazy person I know.”

***

Later that evening he dropped her off on Eagle View Drive without incident. Crystal walked into the living room with her gym bag over her shoulder, said hello to Lucretia and Hannah (they were both in front of the television), then went straight to her room to unpack.

She had her notebook on the windowsill and was just about to slide the bag under her bed when Lucretia appeared in the doorway. The stern look on her face caused a worm of panic to twist in Crystal’s belly. She nudged the gym bag with her foot in an attempt to get it out of sight. Except that Lucretia had seen it already, of course, downstairs in the living room. Crystal had made no effort to hide it, a fact for which she now felt incredibly stupid.

“I just wanted to remind you that Hannah has Girl Scouts orientation tomorrow,” her mom said, “so please don’t plan anything. Also, your dinner’s in the refrigerator. Lasagna. You can nuke it if it’s cold.”

“All right,” Crystal nodded. “Sure.”

Lucretia turned to go; it seemed everything was going to be fine. But then she peered back over her shoulder and asked Crystal why she’d felt the need to bring a gym bag to her writing lesson. Was Jarett teaching her gymnastics as well? Or had they taken up jogging together as a way to stimulate some creativity?

The tone in her voice was not at all conducive to a peaceful advancement in their exchange. Already Crystal felt half accused. She tried to make light of the situation with a laugh, which did nothing but deepen the frown on Lucretia’s face. Her next tactic—the truth—came close to letting all hell break loose, and Crystal vowed from that day forth to make up happy lies about everything she could, whenever she could.

“Well,” she began, “the house that Jarett borrowed has a swimming pool in it. So I figured why not—“

“You went swimming?

“Yes.”

“In what?”

This was such a stupid question Crystal was afraid to answer it. In what?

“In the water, Mom,” she chanced. “Where else—“

She was cut off for a second time as Lucretia stormed across the room. Fearing an attack, Crystal jumped away from the bed. Her mom then snatched the gym bag off the floor and turned it upside-down over the mattress. Only one thing fell out: the red bikini, still wet from playtime.

Lucretia’s eyes seemed to sink into their sockets and grow dark around the edges. She glared at Crystal. In that look resided everything Jarett feared: accusation, hatred, disgust. An instant later Crystal decided that those lies she’d vowed to tell needed telling. Right now. Otherwise it was the end of the world.

“Mom, the house has an indoor pool. Of course I wanted to try it out.”

“In a bikini you wanted to try it out? Did Jarett see you?”

“Well…yes. Mom, you bought that outfit for me. People are going to see when I wear it.”

“I didn’t buy it so you could wear it alone in a house with an older man. And who the hell gave you permission to play when you were supposed to be working?”

“Mom—“

“Jarett did. Of course he did. Well his days of coercing my daughter out of her clothes are done, because I’m calling the police.”

“No!” Crystal shouted, horrified. “You can’t do that!”

“Watch me.”

Snatching the bikini off the bed, she turned to go. In a flash Crystal cut past her to the door and slammed it shut. Lucretia stopped. And suddenly it struck Crystal: Her mom knew everything. Somehow, someway, she had found out about her and Jarett. Maybe she really had seen something through the window last week. Maybe it had been a simple matter of decrypting the way she and Jarett looked at each other. It didn’t matter. What mattered was that Lucretia knew.

Stick with the plan, Crystal told herself, keep lying.

“There is absolutely nothing,” she began, back pressed against the door, “going on between me and Jarett. Nothing like what you’re thinking anyway.”

Lucretia didn’t even twitch. “Get out of the way, Crystal. Don’t make me move you.”

“If you call the police I’m going to tell them the truth. Jarett is my writing instructor.”

“I said move.”

Crystal stepped aside. “You’re wasting your time,” she said. “You can’t prove a thing.”

Without a word Lucretia yanked the door open. Hannah stood on the other side, her expression that of a girl passing by a car accident on the freeway.

“What do you want?” Lucretia said.

Hannah replied vacantly that there was a telephone call for her downstairs. Lucretia left. Crystal sat down on her bed and began to agonize over what to tell Jarett. He’d been afraid of their relationship from the very start—had tried over and over to push her away. But no. She’d been relentless, steadfast. And look now, everybody, Jarett had been right all along.

“What happened?” Hannah wanted to know.

“Mom’s gone crazy,” Crystal replied, hoping that would be enough. “Who’s on the phone?”

“Don’t know. Didn’t recognize the voice.”

Hannah went to her room. From this point there was nothing for Crystal to do but lie back and look at the ceiling, which she did for a number of minutes. Lucretia’s voice drifted up the stairs. Crystal thought she sounded strange, as if she were trying to talk and lift something heavy at the same time. When it finally stopped, she called from the bottom of the stairs for Crystal to come down.

So she intended to contact the police right away—drive to the station with Jarett’s victim in the passenger seat to offer testimony. Fine. Crystal would play the game just as she’d already promised. No matter how many questions got asked tonight, nobody was getting a thing.

She came down the steps like a cat. Cool, calm, collected. This until she looked up at her mother, and saw there were tears in her eyes.

“You need to come into the living room,” Lucretia said.

“Mom, what’s wrong?”

They went to the living room, where Crystal was asked to sit on the couch. Fear gripped her all over again. Never in her life had she seen her mother cry. She asked once more what was wrong. Lucretia sat down next to her, put an arm around her shoulders.

“Mom?”

“I don’t know how to tell you,” she said. Her chest hitched in between the words.

“Is it still about Jarett?”

Lucretia shook her head. “No, no.”

“Just tell me then. Please,” she added, eager to get this over with, whatever it was.

“Crystal,” her mom began, “honey…your friend Lucy is dead. She killed herself today.”









































PART FIVE: Shark Attack























23

 

The drive down 61 South was pleasant. Open farmland on either side of the road tumbled gently towards distant lines of trees that were just beginning to turn under the mid-September sun. Crystal drove with the window down, letting a myriad of scents assail her: hay, grass, leaves. Asphalt and cow shit. Her hair whipped to and fro. On her face was a smile that floated like a ghost in a storm.

How wonderful it was to be away from Manila! To drive on a wide open road with her foot down on the gas pedal, never worrying about jeepneys or buses blocking the lane, or about motor scooters with four passengers splitting mere inches across her bumper. She took a deep breath through her nose to let it all in…

And was reminded of Jarett.

“So tell me, Luke,” she said, peering at the baby’s car seat through the rear-view mirror, “do you like Ohio so far?”

It was hard to tell from the expression on his face. With one brow up and the other down, his eyes were on the window like a baby transfixed. Following his gaze led Crystal over an enormous field of wheat that tapered off along what appeared to be a railroad track.

“It’s okay,” she told him. “It’s called elbow room. By the way, we’re getting close to your aunt’s house. Ready to see her?”

Hannah lived about twenty minutes outside of Monroeville, in a town lost to the ages. Driving into North Fairfield was, quite literally, like driving into a dead dream. Once, in the year 1818, it had aspired to become county seat. But Huron had chosen Norwalk instead, leaving North Fairfield to sink or swim on its own out in the sticks between hell and nowhere. Indeed, the very fact of its isolation (it was a town surrounded by crops for miles around) kept it from being a serious contender with the officials of the day. No one wanted to work in a place so cut off from the rest of the Firelands that to reach it by horse and buggy was to risk death by any number of variables. No one wanted to live in a place overrun with coyotes and rattlesnakes. Thus, the town had festered, even while its many grand houses continued to stand stately along its oak and chestnut lanes.

Crystal drove another three miles, then turned left onto a road that eventually became Main Street. But it was only that in name. What should have been downtown North Fairfield (what would have been downtown North Fairfield had its fortunes been different) consisted of a tired-looking market with peeling paint, two small churches, and a post office. Stopping at an intersection, Crystal looked left, then right. Despite the fact that it was one o’clock in the afternoon, there was not a soul to be seen.

She drove on. Hannah’s house, large and old like all the others, stood at the end of East Main. Also like all the others, its porch was empty, its windows vacant.

“Here we are,” she said to Luke. “Are you as nervous as I am?”

She got him out of the car seat, and the first thing that came from his mouth when he looked up at the house, with its tall gables and decorated eaves, was: “Ahhhh!”

“Oh come on. Your condo in Manila is big.”

“’ig!”

“Yeah, ‘ig. Let’s go ring the bell.”

Seconds later they were waiting on the porch. Luke heard the chimes from inside the house and wanted to press the button again. Crystal leaned forward to get him closer.

“That’s it,” she said, guiding his hand, “press. Press.”

Luke laughed out loud as the chime went off again.

“There you go! Good boy!”

Running footsteps now from behind the door. Children’s voices. An older voice telling them to hush. Crystal braced herself. It had been five years since she’d laid eyes on her sister. Five years and three kids. What changes would she find in Hannah that had not been apparent over the internet? Would they be the same as Lucretia’s? Would Hannah open the door dressed in funny clothes and holding a pineapple pizza?

The door opened. A woman with sandy blonde hair, slightly taller than she, stood at the threshold. For almost ten seconds not a word passed between them. The women merely stared, with Crystal trying on a smile that, to her surprise, was not returned. Hannah raised her arms to deliver a brief hug instead before ushering everyone—Crystal and the children—into the house with backward steps across a living room flaked and tired as the market. A chipped coffee table stood in front of a stained beige couch. Badly painted lamp-stands idled in dusty corners.

“Come into the kitchen,” Hannah said, smiling a little at last. “It’s really good to have you home again. Joey! Eva! This is your aunt Crystal and cousin Luke.”

Light introductions were made all around while Hannah prepared coffee. Crystal remembered that Joey was four and Eva two. Sitting at the kitchen table with Luke in her lap, she made pleasant chatter with them, but being so young they stayed close to their mother, causing her to stumble on occasion over a clean yet scruffy linoleum floor.

“Will you two relax?” Hannah said, when this happened for the third time. An apologetic look surfaced on her face for Crystal. “They’re always shy with company.”

Crystal gave the kids a grin. “Well maybe some pasalubong would help.”

“What’s pasalubong?” Hannah asked.

By then Crystal was pulling a bag of Chips Ahoy cookies out of her bag. She set it on the table and tore it open. Yet neither Eva nor Joey budged from the safety of Hannah’s legs.

“Oh come on you two,” Crystal began, “Luke loves these—“

“No!” Hannah had turned around, coffee decanter in hand, to see her sister pulling the cookie tray out of its bag. “Put that back, please. I’m trying to control their sugar intake.”

Shrugging, Crystal put the cookies away. “All right. But this is an occasion, Hannah.” Her brow twitched. “Isn’t it?”

“Sugar makes them hyper.”

“Everything makes kids hyper. Except maybe when their dad forces them to watch golf on TV,” Crystal added, thinking of how Luke would doze off next to Miko during the PGA tournaments on Fox Sports.

Hannah put a pair of mugs down a little too hard on the table, poured a little too aggressively from the decanter. “It also gives them tooth decay.”

“Only if they don’t brush properly.”

“No cookies, Crystal. Sorry.”

Crystal sipped her coffee; it was bitter, and she had to force herself not to wince.

“It’s all right,” she said, “I didn’t come here to pass out sweets. I just wanted to see my little sister again.”

“Of course,” Hannah nodded. “I don’t mean to be brusque. But my children…you know, they’re going to be sizing me up when they’re older. Checking for mistakes.”

This observation went down bitter as the coffee. Against her better wishes, Crystal looked at Luke, who appeared on the verge of torture because he’d not been given a cookie. How long before he would start to judge, to catalogue cherry-picked memories from stressful days?

“I want to be a perfect mother,” Hannah then said.

“That’s impossible,” Crystal replied, as much to herself as to the other.

“Our mom did it.”

“No. Mom was damned good but she wasn’t perfect.”

“What did she do wrong?”

Crystal took another sip of coffee before answering. The verbal terrain since her arrival had been slippery at best—now it was downright treacherous. Joey and Eva, meanwhile, continued to keep their distance. They’d retreated to the kitchen doorway, one with a toy and the other with a bottle. To judge by the blank wonder on their faces, Crystal didn’t think they would ever make friends with Luke.

“Bad romantic advice,” she came out with, hoping to make light of the affair. “Always bad romantic advice. And don’t forget the night she spanked the shit out of me with that book.”

Hannah winced. “Okay. Point taken.”

“Thanks.”

“I was afraid of her. Locked myself in my room. She was like a different person.”

“All three of us were different people on that night.”

“As for the romantic advice,” Hannah shrugged, “bad romance is almost always the fault of the man.”

“Who told you that?”

“Mom.”

Crystal laughed.

“You don’t agree then?”

“Of course not.”

“You should, considering what you’ve been through.”

“The mistakes I’ve made in life all belong to me,” Crystal said. “Not that the men have been perfect. But I owe a lot for what I’ve done, Hannah. Especially to Jarett.”

Her eyes dropped after the words were out. She hadn’t meant to bring up Jarett. Now, undoubtedly, Hannah would pounce. Become angry and start to hack Crystal’s memories of the dead author to pieces, the way Lucretia had a month ago.

“Jarett was—“

Don’t,” Crystal cut in, raising her hand. “Don’t say anything bad about him, please. I’m in no mood to hear it.”

“I wasn’t going to say anything bad,” Hannah promised. “I was going to say that Jarett was…unhappy. That was what struck me about him when we first met. I looked into his eyes and thought: This man is unhappy.

“Me too,” Crystal said.

She spoke the truth. Jarett’s doleful eyes had, in fact, been part of his appeal, and thinking of him now made her chest begin to hurt, they way it always did when terrible things that couldn’t be changed appeared along the plateau of her life: hungry children in the streets of Manila, terminal illness, burned out dreams. She thought of Jarett, and then, instantly, of Chubby. Sweet, smiling Chubby. And before she could stop them, tears began to well up in Crystal’s eyes.

“But why?” Hannah asked. “Did he ever tell you things about his past or share any secrets?”

“Both,” Crystal nodded, “he did both. Do you have a Kleenex?”

In a flood of apologies her younger sister jumped from the table. Crystal waved them off, telling her not to worry, that she hadn’t cried over Jarett in a long time so it was fine. Hannah fetched a box of tissue and placed it on the table. Thanking her, Crystal began to wipe her eyes, but was interrupted by Luke, who seemed insistent upon helping. His pudgy hands snatched at the tissue until it became clear that his arms were too short to manage the task. Undaunted, he leaned closer to wipe at the tears with his fingers instead.

“It’s okay honey,” Crystal laughed. “Mommy’s fine.”

Hannah was smiling at the scene as well. But like Luke, she would not be deterred long. Within seconds she asked again what it was about Jarett that made him brood so. Instead of answering the question, Crystal responded with another: What made Hannah think he was sad all the time? She’d barely known him, after all.

“I suppose you have a point,” the younger woman admitted. “But we lived with him while Mom was in the hospital, remember? And I’m telling you, Crystal, that guy was out there. Somewhere near Pluto if you ask me.”

“It only seemed that way. I got…very close to him.”

“That must’ve taken some work.”

“You know I never back down.”

“So tell me,” Hannah said for the third time, “why was he hurting so much?” And did you help with that pain? her eyes seemed add. Or did you make it even worse?

“He lost someone special in high school,” Crystal said. “A girl. They were young. Very much in love.”

“What happened to her?”

“She died. Shot herself at an arcade. With a revolver.”

Hannah said nothing for several moments. A bird twittered outside the window; a car went by in the street. Then she asked Crystal if she wanted more coffee. Crystal accepted, and while she was stirring in the cream Hannah wondered aloud whether Jarett had seen Crystal as a kind of replacement or second chance.

“Maybe,” Crystal told her.

In fact Hannah’s theory had occurred to her more than once over the years, and while it wasn’t pleasant to entertain, it made perfect sense. A girl he loved who’d been young and beautiful had gone. Years later, another young and beautiful girl had come along—young, beautiful, and aggressive for his affections. Was it really so farfetched to assume he’d made a connection between the two? To think that one could possibly heal the pain caused by the other?

Rather than pursue the subject any further, Crystal decided to change it. She asked after Hannah’s husband. Were they happy? Did they enjoy work and parenthood?

“I don’t work,” Hannah said.

“Like hell you don’t. Being a housewife is a pain in the ass.”

“Please don’t swear in front of the kids.”

Crystal smiled. “You sound just like Mom.”

“What can I say? She’s perfect.”

***

The next hour found Crystal back on route 61. She traveled under skies considerably darker than what they’d been before lunch, and a breeze had gotten up in the fields, so that the wheat on one side of the car swept towards her in waves. Hoping to make it back to Monroeville before the rains came, Crystal pressed harder on the gas. She passed fresh-painted two story homes with electric candles glowing in the windows. She passed the church where once, in what seemed like another age, she and Hannah had attended a farmers winter meeting with Jarett. Her foot came back a little. That icy-cold winter night had been fun—good, crazy fun. Something had gone wrong, she remembered, something about there being too much coffee and too little food…

Hannah’s coffee had been strong. As for Hannah herself, she’d seemed distant. Tired. Nothing at all like the little sister from Eagle View Drive. And in her case, the aggressive style of communication that Crystal used (with humor, dry wit, and seat-of-the-pants flight in equal measure) had failed to turn anything about.

“That’s weird,” Lucretia said later that evening at dinner. “When Hannah and I go shopping I can barely shut her up.”

“Maybe that’s what we need to do,” Crystal said.

“What, go shopping?”

“Yeah. All three of us. With the kids, of course.” A new thought struck her then. “Hey Mom, did Hannah ever talk about me while I was in Manila?”

Lucretia’s fork of macaroni pasta stopped halfway to her lips. “Not too much, I guess. She might have asked after you a couple times during the first year, but after that it tapered off. I figured you two were talking so much online she was already up to speed.”

Crystal nodded. She and Hannah had never talked very much online. Twice a year, maybe, for an hour.

Later that night, after Luke had gone to sleep, she soaked in a hot bath, trying hard to think of nothing at all. Trouble was, there were a lot of memories to beat back, and all she had right now for weaponry consisted of steam, water, and soap. These were not poor substitutes by any means (most of the time they worked just fine), but tonight, for whatever reason, they were not enough.

How did Shit-Shit the janitor die? a morbid voice asked from the back of her mind. Easy, another answered, Crystal killed him.

And what about Lucy? How did she die?

Easy, the other voice repeated, Crystal killed her. And Jarett too, of course. Jarett also died because of Crystal. My goodness, you know what? Crystal’s a mass-murderer. A serial killer. It’s no wonder she creeps Hannah the fuck right out.

“That’s enough,” Crystal said aloud to the tiles.

Hannah doesn’t like you, Crystal. Why should she? You were a total loon back in the day. All you cared about was yourself. A-number one. The snowflake. The it girl.

“I said shut up!”

But the voice wouldn’t shut up—not completely. It was like an echo that refused to die, even after she tucked herself under the bedcovers with a book and a reading light. Her stomach felt tight, tense. If it kept on, she knew, she would break into a light sweat, and her heart would begin to race. In other words, if it kept on, it would eventually become a panic attack.

She had to prepare herself for that. Give herself a pep speech. Not to prevent the attack from happening (this was almost impossible), but to make it more bearable. Okay girl, she thought, you’re going to fall asleep for maybe an hour, and when you wake up…wham-o! Ten thousand volts of fear. Just remember that it’s all harmless. It doesn’t mean anything.

She began to read. In five minutes her skin felt hot. In ten she was gnawing at the collar of her nightdress. Very soon now, a full-blown, stage four panic attack would arrive. Arrive? More like kick down the door and rape her.

And all the while, the echo continued. Crystal heard it over her racing heart. She heard it over the rustling leaves outside the window. She heard it over the gentle, steady music of Luke’s breathing. Murderess…you’re a murderess. Hannah’s afraid of you.

The book slapped closed. It wasn’t doing any good tonight anyway. Crystal sat up in bed, took a few deep breaths. It made no sense to let fear do this to her over and over again. It had no right to pick her up and swing her around by the tail. For Luke’s sake, she had to put a stop to it.

But how?

Miko seemed to think he knew. Back in Manila, he would keep telling her to relax, to just relax. Such advice was ridiculous—tantamount to telling a passenger on a jet with no pilot to fly the plane, to just fly the plane. One night during a particularly intense attack she’d become angry and demanded instructions. Miko’s blank, stupid stare had been answer enough. He didn’t know how to relax either. He just did it.

Crystal picked up the book, put it down, picked it up again. Her heart continued to race. And now, right on cue, came the tingling in the arms. It was all so very stupid. There was nothing to be afraid of in this room except fear itself.

“Easy, girl,” she said softly. “Easy.”

Next to her in the bed, totally at peace, Luke slept on. It relaxed Crystal a little to know that at least one person in the house tonight wasn’t engaged in a tug of war with insanity. She smiled…and at last, her heart began to slow down, the echo fade.

“Thanks,” she whispered.

Putting thoughts of janitors and writers and childhood friends out of her mind, Crystal picked up her book. Before long, the words were swimming on the page. Five minutes later Crystal closed her eyes, and without even realizing it, she fell asleep.










24

 

Your friend Lucy is dead…she killed herself today.

Monroeville’s newspaper, The Village Voice, did not quote the rather untactful method Lucretia had used to inform her daughter of this tragedy, but there was indeed an article, along with a front page headline decrying that Monroeville had now suffered two suicides in less than a year’s time. A week later, a second article appeared, this one more opinionated. The reporter expressed concern over a possible epidemic. Could it be, she wondered over three meandering paragraphs, that the inhabitants of our fair town have fallen under a spell of despair, wrought by bad economics, bad weather, and just plain boredom? She went on to urge readers that if they or anyone they knew had ever been inclined to do themselves harm, to seek help immediately. We need not suffer alone, this reporter insisted at the end of her piece. The first step towards ending our pain lies with communication. Speak, and people will hear. Hear, help…and finally, heal.

Crystal Genesio read the article when it appeared in April of 2006, but she didn’t take its advice. There were good reasons not to. In the first place, she wasn’t feeling suicidal, though for the rest of that year she cried into her pillow nearly every night before falling asleep. It the second place, it just seemed wiser to keep her mouth shut, considering her involvement with both the events in question. This latter point rang especially true with the janitor (whose name she had never learned and still did not care to know). The April edition of The Voice had perhaps chosen not to remind its readers of the humiliation he’d suffered last year out of simple courtesy, but everyone knew about it all the same. And after the suicide of Lucy Sommer, it became the talk of every lunch counter in the Firelands all over again. People seemed intent on finding a connection between the two tragedies—an idea Crystal would have found ridiculous had she not known that there actually was. Had the janitor and the girl been in a relationship of some kind? There was talk at Vanson’s of an inappropriate love affair gone sour. They’d been sneaking around town together for at least a year, some of these noontime speculators surmised, until finally the girl could stand it no more, and broke the romance off spitefully by posting naked pictures of her paramour on every Monroeville telephone pole she could find. This plunged the school janitor into such depths of despondency it seemed the only way out was with a rope and a chair. Four months later, drowning in regret, the girl had arrived at a similar conclusion, choosing to employ sleeping pills instead.

Whenever this story or another one like it happened to find its way back to Crystal, she went right on being quiet until she could concoct an excuse to leave the conversation in which it had turned up. Once free of the tabloid talk, she would then light a cigarette, happy to give her brain over to increased amounts of dopamine until the next convenient distraction could present itself.

Summer went by in a haze. Never once did Crystal go to the Jackson Farm to see Jarett, nor did he call to inquire as to why she had so suddenly left off their lessons. Chances were he already knew. Still, Crystal found it odd—and a little offensive—that he didn’t at the very least ring to offer his condolences. She wondered if he was still frightened of Lucretia. Either way it didn’t matter. During that summer Crystal felt little desire to do so much as leave her room. Instead she sat in front of the television eating plain meals she could barely taste. At night, she lay under the covers with one favorite old book after the next, never minding the world beyond, never minding anything but the words on the page, and the steady buzz of her electric fan.

She went back to school in September like a girl in a trance. Few of the other students looked at her; even fewer bothered to speak to her. Classes came and went. Trigonometry again; French; College-bound English. October also came, and with it, cheerleader tryouts for JV basketball. Crystal did not report. On the afternoon of registration, she went straight out the school doors without giving the gymnasium so much as a passing glance. She didn’t event think about it. She didn’t care.

The cheerleading coach cared, and wasn’t about to let her most talented girl fade into the shadows without knowing why. On the following morning Crystal closed her locker door to find herself vis-à-vis with Mrs. Trekansky, a plump woman with a butt nearly as wide as the classroom doors that were beginning to click shut up and down the hall. She wasted barely two seconds on the pleasantry of saying hello before doling out a myriad of questions concerning Crystal’s no-show. Why? What was wrong? Had she injured herself recently? If so, why not let the school nurse have a look? Crystal assured the woman that she was not injured—that she was, in fact, feeling quite fit—but that her interest in the sport had weakened, and she no longer felt she could make a proper addition to the squad. Mrs. Trekansky went away flustered, but not without a final plea to Crystal for reconsideration before the weekend. Crystal promised her she would think about it. But it was an empty promise, and they both knew it.

Also empty throughout most of that autumn was the chair beside her during lunch hours. With less reason than ever to eat with the cheering squad now, Crystal had returned to the cafeteria corner where she’d spent so much time the previous school year. Day after day, the smell of bread and Twinkies wafted from her lunch bag, as if trying to cheer her up. And sometimes it worked, only never for very long. On most days, Crystal chewed without tasting a thing, her eyes in constant travel between posters on the walls that changed as the holidays did. In December came the ones for Christmas. A winter dance was scheduled for the night of the sixteenth; a canned food drive would take place on the twenty-second. These along with two or three other activities were advertised in frosty letters above snowy hills and Christmas tree campfires.

In the week before the dance, Crystal sat in her corner thinking: I’m exactly where I was a year ago, only this year it’s worse. This year it’s a friend of mine who’s gone.

“It doesn’t tally,” someone behind her said.

At first Crystal didn’t respond—hoped, in fact, that the speaker would just go away and leave her alone. After all, she didn’t sit in this corner for company. But whoever it was intruding upon her privacy meant to have it regardless.

“She was always so upbeat,” this boy’s voice continued, “cheering me on. Trying to help me forget.”

“Is that Miko?” Crystal asked, without turning around.

“Yeah.”

She looked over her shoulder to find a dark-complexioned boy—a Filipino—dressed in a gray dress shirt and blue jeans. “And I presume,” she told him, “that you’re referring to my friend Lucy?”

He nodded. “Indeed I am. May I sit down?”

“I’d prefer that you didn’t.”

“Okay.”

And then he sat down next to her. “I need a smoke,” he said.

“They frown on tobacco use here,” Crystal replied, showing him her teeth. “Why don’t you try the bike racks?”

“You mean the ones right outside the art room? Yeah, Mrs. Magi will be real cool with that.” He gave her a tap on the shoulder, which irritated her even further until his eyes dropped and she followed them to a pack of Marlboro reds peeking out from inside the pocket of his jeans. “How about the basement instead?”

“The basement? You’re out of your head; we’ll get busted for sure.”

“I know a spot.”

Crystal rolled her eyes. “What’s going on, Miko? Why are you here? Lucy said you hated me. That’s fine. So get lost.”

Miko responded by giving her a long, empty look. “I am lost, Crystal. Believe it.”

“Sorry to hear that.”

“My mom wants to send me to a shrink.”

“Consider yourself lucky. Mine wants to have me euthanized.”

He sat up pertly at this. “Does she know about what we did last year?”

“No, but she’s not totally in the dark about what a horrible person I am,” she said, thinking of the night Lucretia had found her bikini, still wet from a pool party with Jarett. The night that had almost been too much for her, and far, far too much for Lucy.

Miko relaxed a little. “Good. You know if I had all that to do over again, the pictures and the printing, there’d be no way I would.”

Crystal wanted to slap him. “What a stupid thing to say! Of course you wouldn’t do it again. I wouldn’t either!”

“I mean even without…you know…foreknowledge of the suicide thrown in. I wouldn’t have done it.”

“You still haven’t told me why you’re here, Miko,” Crystal grumbled. “Spit it out. The suspense is killing me.”

The Filipino gave his pocket a tap. “First we smoke.”

“What the hell is this, a pow-wow? Forget it.”

But the temptation proved too much to resist. She’d been out of cigarettes for a week and pocket money had been scarce of late. Miko led her to the back of the cafeteria, where a small flight of steps led down to a door Crystal never bothered to wonder about until this very moment.

“It’s the bomb shelter,” she said, taking a stab in the dark.

“Not quite,” Miko replied. His hand reached for the knob. “Anyone looking?”

Crystal glanced over her shoulder. The cafeteria was abuzz with conversation, but no one looked clued-in on what was happening at the back wall.

“Nope,” she told him. “All clear.”

“Then away we go.”

***

They walked down a long, dimly lit hallway made of gigantic stones Crystal suspected were every bit as old as the ones used beneath Jarett’s farm. Ahead was another door, this one wooden, which was so decrepit it almost fell off its hinges when Miko pulled it open to reveal a storage room piled high with junk from another era. Like the door behind them, most of it was made of wood. Broken school desks notched with bygone graffiti. A black chalkboard diseased with moisture ripples. And on the floor, a plethora of cigarette butts.

"Are all of these yours?” Crystal asked, gaping down at the mess once Miko had screwed in a low-watt bulb on the ceiling.

He passed over a cigarette and lit it for her. Crystal dragged in deep, as always appreciating the sensation it provided. All the same, she was suddenly aware that the two of them were alone in a dark place few other people knew about or cared to visit. Perhaps, she told herself while casting a worried glance at Miko, coming here was even dumber than it had at first seemed.

But Miko kept his distance. He made no effort to look threatening as he smoked. He finished one cigarette and immediately lit another. Halfway through that one, his eyes at last moved to where Crystal was standing. Defiant, she stared back, though she was still a little afraid.

“I don’t want to go see a shrink,” Miko said, “but my mom says I’ll have to if things stay the same.”

“What things?” Crystal came back with.

“Never talking to anybody. Spending time alone in my room. Letting my grades tank.”

Crystal dropped her cigarette, crushed it under her boot. “Whoa,” she said. “If you’re coming to me for a lifeline, I’m sorry, but I don’t have one. I’ve got my own problems treading water right now.”

“So why don’t we help each other?”

“I prefer to help myself.”

“Crystal, you’re not doing any better than I am. Don’t bullshit me,” he went on, cutting off her rebuke. “I’ve seen you this year. You sit by yourself during lunch hour. You hardly ever talk in the halls. You quit cheerleading.”

“I lost interest in cheering,” she told him. “So what?”

“But you loved doing it.”

“How the hell would you know what I love, Miko?”

He looked at her for a moment before answering. “Lucy told me.”

“I have to go now,” Crystal said.

She started towards the door—and almost screamed when Miko grabbed her wrist.

Hey!”

“I’m sorry,” he said, letting her go almost instantly. “But think about it? Please?”

“Think about what, Miko?”

“Helping me. Letting me help you.”

“I told you don’t need help.”

He looked tragic, which made her wait just a moment longer amidst the broken furniture. The fear and anger she’d felt began to recede.

“I wouldn’t know how to help you, Miko. If I tried I’d probably make things worse.”

The tragic expression grew deeper. “You don’t sound like the Crystal that Lucy always used to tell me about.”

“I guess she didn’t know me as well as she thought.”

On that remark, Crystal left the room, half expecting her distressed smoking companion to chase her down in the hallway. Yet again her anxiety proved groundless. Miko let her go without a word. As she reached the door that let back on the cafeteria, Crystal turned around to see him still standing beneath the naked bulb, looking naked himself. Abandoned and lost. Totally alone.

***

They did not speak again for the rest of that year, though sometimes his face materialized by the lockers between classes, like the ghost he had all but become since losing Lucy. On each of these occasions the Filipino would inevitably spot Crystal as well, but rather than look at her for long, his eyes always darted away, as if unable to alight for lack of a warm perch.

Also silent throughout the holidays was Jarett. At first Crystal paid it no mind—after all, she had made no effort to contact him going all the way back to April. Not until the Christmas holiday crept closer was her irritation with him kindled afresh. The fact that she missed his company (at last, she missed his company) went ignored, mostly because to admit such a thing to herself would be just the same as admitting weakness. It would also make her a liar, as she had already told Miko that she preferred to soldier on through these dreary times alone. Yet the happy memories she had of Jarett were strong, and their vividness became all the more bittersweet with the decorating of the house for Christmas, and the need to bake cookies, and Hannah’s incessant cheerfulness over the growing number of presents appearing under the tree.

On Christmas Eve night Crystal could stand it no more. After dinner she went upstairs to her room and read a book until nearly midnight, then sat down by the window and dialed the number to Jarett’s landline. There was a click, and the phone rang twice before what sounded like a wind storm erupted on the line. Wincing, Crystal held her cellphone away from her ear, until all at once the storm stopped cold, and a man whose voice she didn’t recognize spoke through the ear piece.

“Who’s this now?” he asked.

Crystal’s eyebrows came together in bemusement. The dry drawl of the man’s voice sounded southern.

“I’m sorry,” she said, “I’m hoping to speak to Jarett Powell?”

The voice laughed rudely. “That Sunday soldier? I reckon he’s hiding in the potato cellar. He’s played out, don’t you know? A lost case.”

“I’d…like to speak to him, please,” Crystal said again, more confused than ever.

“You’ve been doing more than speaking to him most times, little missy. Isn’t that right?”

“Who is this?”

“I’ve got forty dead men in one hand,” the voice told her, “and an Arkansas toothpick in the other. Every lowlife Jonah who comes back here is gonna either get one or both. You hear that, missy?”

The storm came back as he spoke, so that Crystal wasn’t quite sure whether she heard or not.

“Acknowledge the corn, missy,” she was admonished through ever worsening noise. “Hard times are coming.”

The line went dead. For seconds afterward Crystal could do nothing but stare at her phone in disbelief. Summoning all of her courage, she dialed the number again. This time the phone rang on the other end over and over in the normal way, but nobody answered. She cancelled the call, considered dialing Jarett’s cell, then cancelled that too.

“Okay,” Crystal said out loud to no one in particular. “Merry Christmas.”

She got into bed but did not sleep, so that it was with red eyes and a weaving gait that she went downstairs at dawn to celebrate the birth of the creator’s son.












































25

 

In the middle of January, Jarett called and all but begged Crystal to come back to the farm. It irked her to hear it. His voice had never sounded so agitated, so destitute of self control. Where had she been? he demanded angrily, like a father who’d been sitting up all Saturday night for his daughter to come home. Was she aware that they hadn’t seen each other—hadn’t engaged in a single lesson—in almost a year? How could she commit to writing a book if she couldn’t even spare two hours a week to learn a few ins and outs?

From a shoe store at the Sandusky Mall where she’d been eyeing a new pair of boots, Crystal reminded him that 2006 had been a far from pleasant year, and that she needed some extra time alone in her room to make peace with a number of bad memories. Jarett was indignant. He missed her company—what about that? Didn’t she miss him too? And if not, why? Here the writer all but lost it completely, his entreaties escalating to a point that forced Crystal into a less crowded aisle of the store to avoid undue stares from the other shoppers.

“How could you be so happy with me one day and then shut me out the next?” he demanded.

“As a matter of fact, I tried to call you last month,” Crystal said. “Somebody else answered.”

“What do you mean somebody else answered?”

“Well gee whiz, Jarett, how many meanings can that statement possibly have? Somebody else answered your damned phone.

“Who?”

“How the hell should I know who? The guy sounded southern. Like he was from Georgia or Alabama.”

Jarett blew an exasperated puff of air into the phone that made her want to hang up on the spot. “Oh for fuck’s sake, Crystal, I live alone here. You know that.”

“Also, you can stop acting like I’m the only guilty party,” Crystal forged on. “You never called me, either. And I never heard a single stone against my bedroom window.”

“I didn’t think it’d be wise,” Jarett replied, with a trace of remorse in his tone. “Your mom really had her eye on us last year. It wasn’t wise to do it today either, I know.”

“Jarett,” Crystal said, “I’m pretty sure my mother knows everything about us.”

What?”

His outburst made her eardrum squeal in discomfort. “You shout at me one more time and I’m hanging up,” she warned. “I mean it, mister. Are we clear?”

“What happened with your mom?”

Are we clear, Jarett?”

“Yes. Fine. We’re clear. Now what happened?”

She decided to leave the store before answering. What little satisfaction a new pair boots might have provided had gone sour by this time anyway. After telling Jarett to wait, Crystal made her way outside to a fountain full of five cent wishes and sat down under one of its myriad plastic trees.

“Still there, darling?” her mouth writhed.

“I’m here.”

“Marvelous. Anyway, like I said, my mom knows about us. She found my bathing suit in my bag on the day that…on the day that Lucy died. She got really mad. She almost called the police.”

“Oh no.”

“Oh yes. She’s cooled down a lot since then. Lucy…”

Here Crystal trailed off a second time, and almost didn’t make it back. A girl wearing glasses had just pitched another coin into the fountain.

“Crystal?” Jarett said.

“Yeah.”

“Are you all right?”

Forcing herself to look away from the water, Crystal said, “Well no, not really, Jarett, thank you for asking. I was about to say that Lucy’s death hit my mom at least as hard as it hit me. They liked each other.”

“So she forgot about us.”

“Yeah. Wasn’t that convenient? But if we start seeing each other again, who knows?”

It was a long time before the writer said anything back. Crystal waited. She was used to holding her breath for him, after all. And at last he told her, in a voice almost too weak to hear, that he wanted to see her again anyway. He’d spent Christmas alone. New Year’s, too. Couldn’t he at least have a few hours with her, if only for the conversation?

“Don’t kid yourself,” Crystal said.

“Have you been writing anything lately?” Jarett asked.

“No.”

“So come back to the house. Let me start teaching you again.”

“Okay. But I’ll have to think of a way around my mother. I’ll let you know when I do.”

“Don’t take too long.”

The pathetically winsome plea caused another flash of anger in Crystal’s chest. “It’ll take as long as it needs to take, Jarett,” she said. “You made it through all summer and autumn without me, so what’s a little while more?”

“I need you,” was all he could manage by way of defense.

“Then sit tight. I’ll think of something.”

***

An idea came on that very day, but she decided to wait until the end of the month to employ it. By the evening of the 28th it was polished and ready to go. Crystal woke up the next morning and told Lucretia that she wasn’t feeling well, and could she please stay home from school. There came some questions regarding what hurt and how much. Crystal’s dance steps through these were every bit as elegant as the ones she used to carry off in her cheerleading skirt, so that it wasn’t long before Lucretia felt satisfied enough to leave her alone for the day with a box of tissue and a bowl of chicken noodle soup. This part of the ruse accomplished, Crystal’s next step was to call Jarett and inform him that she’d be on his doorstep in under two hours. Sounding like a Latin lover from a cut rate telenovela, Jarett told her he would count the seconds until her arrival. From here all that was left to do involved preparation for the journey. A shower, some clothes, some makeup. Crystal took care of these tasks in her usual, meticulous way, more out of habit than of any true desire to look glamorous. Wearing a black skirt, blouse, and heels, she went downstairs for a cup of hot chocolate. As she slurped the last of its contents from her mug someone knocked on the front door. She rose and went to the living room window, ready to tell whoever it was that she didn’t want any Avon products, thank you very much. It wasn’t a saleswoman who stood on the porch, however; it was Michael Ilagen.

“What the hell?” Crystal said out loud.

And the boy turned his head to look straight at her. “Crystal?”

“Go away!” she told him through the glass.

“I need to see you,” he said.

“Oh come on!”

But one look was all she needed to know that Miko’s plea was sincere. The lost, naked expression on his face had not gone away. Rather, it had deepened, become even more tragic. He wore a denim jacket that looked scruffy, which in itself seemed odd, for Crystal knew that he came from a wealthy family, and his hair was disheveled. Also, he stood with a noticeable list in posture, like a ship at sea in danger of being claimed by the depths.

“I can’t!” she shouted, in a last, desperate attempt to send him away. “I have an appointment!”

“Just for a few minutes, Crystal,” Miko called back. “Please.”

She stepped away from the curtain with her eyes rolling. Why couldn’t the men in her life fend for themselves as well as she?

“Get in here,” she ordered him, holding the door open on a frosty breeze.

He thanked her and put on an awkward show of removing his boots in the vestibule. She then led him into the kitchen, where he took a seat at the table. He was still shivering from the outside air. His ears were red; his nose dripped. Crystal made him a cup of hot chocolate, though her defiance at this unannounced visit remained; thus, rather than sit at the table with him, she stood against the wall with her arms crossed, her lips tight, and her eyes beady.

“Thank you,” he said again, sipping.

“You look terrible,” she told him. “What did you do, sleep outside last night?”

“As a matter of fact…yes.”

What?”

Miko gave her a sheepish look, the way Chubby sometimes did when he left one his chew toys on the floor. “I got into a huge fight with my parents,” he said. “Told them I wasn’t going to see any doctors. That I was going to remember Lucy the way I felt was best, and if it hurt my grades at school or alienated me from my friends, then so be it.” His eyes dropped. “That didn’t go over so well. My dad said he was going to make an appointment today. So I ran out the door and didn’t go back.”

Crystal stared at him for several moments, unable to get her mind around what she had just heard. “So where did you sleep?” she repeated, for want of anything better to say.

“I didn’t sleep.”

“Answer me, Miko.”

“I stayed in the park across the street.”

Her shoulders dropped. “Wow. And now you’re here to do what? Beg me to mop up the mess?”

“No,” the other said, his eyes still down.

“Then what?”

“I want to know how you’re coping, Crystal. Can you tell me please?”

“Coping with what happened to Lucy?” A deep sigh plumed from her chest. There were no easy answers to that question. “I don’t know, Miko. Why are you asking me?”

His fist came down hard on the table, rattling plates. “Because I can’t, that’s why! And I’m tired of thinking about it all the time!”

“So stop.”

“Stop?” He laughed as if the very notion were ridiculous. “Jesus, Crystal, what’s the matter with you? She was your best friend. Didn’t you love her?”

Very slowly, Crystal pulled out a chair and sat down across from him. It was an imperative that this be done, for her knees had begun to shake. Time was of the essence.

“I…met her in the fifth grade,” she said.

“I know. She told me.”

“She was this dorky-looking dweeb. Dirty brown hair. Buggy eyes.” Crystal barely heard the tiny laugh that came from Miko. She was looking at her hands, which had not been good enough to hold onto the friend who had slipped between them, and which now, for the first time, she felt willing to reprove. “Big, plastic glasses. Junk jewelry.”

“She didn’t look that way when I met her.”

“No. That’s because I fixed her up some. I needed help with pre-algebra, so I went to her locker one morning and just…sort of cut into her life. You know what I mean?” she added, looking up at the boy opposite.

But Miko only shook his head. “I can’t say that I do, Crystal. You made her happy, though. She used to tell me about the good times you had together.”

“Oh, she needed a friend like you would not believe. The other girls were picking on her at recess, calling her names. Of course I wasn’t really her friend. Not then. I had my own agenda. God, she was such a wizard with numbers.”

“I—“

“She got me through pre-algebra, then algebra, then trig. I got her through phys-ed and a couple of school dances. Shitty trade-off, I know.”

Miko smiled for a moment. “Were you the one who taught her the Lean Back?”

“No!” Crystal said, too quickly and with too much fervor to conceal the lie. “All right,” she laughed. “Guilty.”

“Don’t sweat it. I’m not going to send a court summons.”

“I taught her some other things. How to fix her hair, twirl a baton—“

“Inhale from a cigarette,” Miko put in with another smile.

“That too, though she never took up the habit.”

“Do you want one now?”

“What? A cigarette? I don’t know, Miko, we don’t have any dungeons around here that I’m aware of.”

“I was thinking more along the lines of your front porch.”

Crystal glanced into the next room. The window she’d been looking through minutes ago wore a frosty ring around its frame, and there were icicles along the portico.

“I guess not,” she said. “It’s a little too nippy out. But thanks for the offer.”

“All right.” Like an old man, Miko stood up from the table.

“Are you leaving?” Crystal asked.

“Yes. I called my parents and told them I stayed the night at a friend’s house. I should meet up with him at school so he’ll know to go along with the story.”

“Wait.” She jumped up, almost tipping the chair over. “You came over here to talk and now you’re just going to leave?”

“I feel better, Crystal. Just talking about Lucy made me feel better. Don’t you?”

“No, as a matter of fact.”

It was the truth. All throughout summer and autumn, she’d kept her distance from anything that even vaguely echoed of Lucy. Indeed, the subject matter was considered off limits for the entire Genesio household. Now Miko had broken open the box, and the memories inside were painful enough to push Crystal to the brink of tears. She didn’t want to be alone, not after seeing Lucy’s awkward smile again, if only from her mind’s eye.

“Crystal—“

“You asked me how I was coping,” she said. “Well I’ll tell you, Miko—I wasn’t. I was just keeping things at bay. Blocking it all out. And maybe that’s how it should have stayed, but…”

“But what?”

“I don’t know,” she answered, wiping her eyes. “But you can’t just leave. There. That’s it. You dragged me out of hiding, and…and…”

“I only wanted us to help each other.”

“Damn you!” Crystal shouted, pointing at the tears on her cheeks. “Look at this! Look what you did!”

His shocked face was like a torn Halloween mask, eyes and mouth gaping. It seemed he could do nothing but stare as Crystal wept—and weep she did, in full flood, until at last Miko worked up the courage to do what he’d been asking for all along. Stepping forward, he closed the distance between them; raising his arms, he pulled her close. This time Crystal did not resist. Though her hands were closed as if ready for a fight, she fell into his embrace, letting him bear her up until all the shaking stopped, and the last tear was spent.

“I don’t think I can make that appointment after all,” she said into his ear.

“So stay home,” he whispered back.

“Will you stay with me?”

“Of course I will.”

And he did, even after she was at last able to fall asleep, for when she awoke to the sound of the factory lunch whistle across town, he was still sitting next to her bed, his nose in a book. Crystal smiled and told him that if he wanted to be bored she would happily lend him her copy of Moby Dick. He refused and asked if she was feeling better.

“Worlds,” she replied. “Worlds.”

***

She tried to call Jarett later that afternoon, but nobody answered the phone. This in itself wasn’t disquieting at first. It took several failed attempts over the following days to make her fret over his well-being. She’d never been happy with the fact that he lived alone, even during this past, listless year, and on more than one night she’d lain awake wondering what it would be like to live with him as a wife. His recent instability over the phone soured such dreams. What if he’d suffered an accident? Fallen off a ladder or down the basement steps? Or worse…what if he’d decided to do harm to himself?

After yet another unanswered call Crystal decided to set out on foot to investigate things. The endeavor was risky. It being a Saturday, both Lucretia and Hannah were at home, obliging Crystal to concoct a story to get out the front door.

“Hey Mom,” she said, “I called about a babysitting job in the newspaper, and now the couple wants an interview. Is it okay if I go?”

“Who with?” Lucretia immediately asked, reaching for the TV remote.

Crystal didn’t even flinch; she’d choreographed this part of the act meticulously. “The Mortensons, over on Chapel Street.”

“Oh I know them!”

But not that part.

“Cool,” Crystal said, forcing her smile to stay put.

“I’ll drive you.”

Oh fuck, she thought.

“I’d rather you didn’t, Mom. I don’t want them to think that I can’t handle stuff on my own.”

“Do you know anything about taking care of babies?”

“I’ve done some reading,” she lied.

But the lie had been enough, and now here she was, walking up Wye Street—the drive that led to Jarett’s house—with her hands in her coat pockets and her mind wishing that she’d not chosen to wear a skirt on this brisk, brittle morning. Through the trees to her left lay a frost-covered field, barren as an arctic tundra; on her right, a wooded slope led down to a frozen creek. And in front of her, of course, was the Jackson Farm.

It’d been nine months since she’d last seen it. That wasn’t a long time in terms of how old the house was, yet with every step Crystal felt more like a trespasser than she’d ever been. She walked past Jarett’s truck, boots scudding on the asphalt. The porch steps had not been salted down; they were covered with ice. Next to the door, also iced over, was Chubby’s water dish. Crystal nudged it aside with her foot and tried the bell crank, but as was often the case at this time of year, it wouldn’t budge. So she knocked instead. Once, twice, three times. No answer. Either her fist was too small for the cedar wood door, or…something else.

Deciding not to bother with shouting his name at the upper windows, she took a personal house key from her coat. The ice had frozen over the keyhole too, but after a bit of jiggling—along with several puffs of hot breath—it relented its grip. Crystal stepped inside to a dusty, disheveled living room. The fireplace, which Jarett always kept burning in the winter months, looked cold and barren as the field. Two throw pillows lay under the coffee table. Two others were under the couch.

“Jarett?”

She went to the kitchen.

Things were far worse here. Dirty dishes occupied every available place, some of them flyblown despite the time of year, while others looked lapped, as if Chubby had partaken in whatever the dried, brown lumps upon them once were.

“Jarett?” she called again.

Her voice, strong though it was from years of cheerleading, found silence once more. Crystal looked back into the living room. Dark, cold. Shadows in every corner. And at that moment an unpleasant memory came back—the memory of her phone call to this very house last month, and of the stranger who’d answered.

Acknowledge the corn, missy.

“Where the hell have you been?”

The scream Crystal let out was high enough to hurt her own ears. She whirled around on wobbly knees to find Jarett slouching in the hall door. He was as ragged as the house, his face unshaven, his clothes crumpled and dirty. Two eyes gaped at her from sockets deep enough to drown in, while the corner of his mouth hung slightly askew, as if he’d suffered a stroke, or…

“Did you fall down?” Crystal asked, still clutching her chest.

“What?”

“Your lip is fat and…and one of your teeth looks broken.”

Jarett blinked for a moment, then shrugged. “Yeah, I fell. On the steps outside.”

Suddenly the entire kitchen began to tilt sideways. Crystal gasped and plopped herself down at the table, avoiding a fainting episode by mere seconds.

“What’s wrong?” Jarett said.

She waited until the world was back to normal before answering. “You scared the shit out of me, that’s what’s wrong.”

“My apologies.”

He shambled over the linoleum floor to take a seat opposite her. Further evidence of his spoilage became apparent upon doing so; a smell of dirty underarms wafted over the table, making Crystal wince.

“Jesus, Jarett,” she said, “you are…really looking terrible. Why?”

“First you tell me why,” he rejoined.

She knew what he meant, and supposed that an explanation was due. “I got waylaid last week. Something came up. A family matter.”

“Family matter.” Jarett’s eyes were blank—he didn’t believe it.

“I tried calling you over and over all week but you didn’t answer.”

“Did you try my landline?”

Crystal shook her head. “I’m not using that one ever again.”

“Okay,” he shrugged. “But yeah, I lost my cell phone. The battery’s sure to be dead by now.”

“Do you believe what I just told you, Jarett?”

“I don’t know.” He tried to smile at her, but with the injury to his mouth it came out more like an evil leer. Crystal had to resist an urge to recoil. “You don’t come around much anymore, girl. My faith is swimming.”

“We talked about that already,” Crystal said. “A close friend of mine died last year.”

“And you felt like you needed to heal in a corner all by yourself.”

Her eyes narrowed. “I don’t appreciate your tone, mister.”

“It’s true, isn’t it?”

“Yes, it’s true. When I’m hurt I like to be alone. So what?”

Jarett’s next words almost made her laugh.

“I could have helped you.”

“Yeah,” she huffed out, gesturing at the dirty plates. “Things really look fine here.”

“Lately I’ve let things slide.”

“That’s gotta be the understatement of the century.”

For the rest of that morning, along with a good slice of the afternoon, she helped him clean up. In fact most of the work was done by her. Jarett kept an idle distance, awaiting instructions, which, once given, he sprung upon like a dog after a tennis ball. By two p.m. there was a second load of laundry going in the basement, the dishes were washed, and all the carpets were vacuumed. Crystal then set about preparing him a late lunch, thoroughly appalled by the dozens of ramen noodle wrappers she’d thrown away thus far.

“You’ve been living on plastic,” she reproached. Her hand twisted a knob on the stove; a gassy flame burst into life. “Jesus, Jarett, another month without me would have killed you.”

He smiled at that. “Then I’m glad you didn’t stay away.” And before she could object, he moved behind her; his hands found the hem of her blouse and teased it up high enough to expose bare skin.

“You still smell bad,” she said, without a look back.

“You want me to wash?”

“It might help your chances later on.”

He made no reply, but lifted the blouse over her ribs. This time Crystal pushed his hands away.

“Down, boy. Hot stove here.” Her head turned as a thought struck her. “By the way, where’s Chubby?”

The face peering back at her went cloudy. “Who?”

Chubby, Jarett. Your dog? Woof woof?”

“Woof woof, right. He’s staying with…you know, that friend of mine in Norwalk. The one with the pool.”

“Because?”

“Because he’s a pain in the butt, that’s why,” Jarett laughed.

“No he’s not!

He kissed her on the cheek then, flummoxing her beyond all further response. “Bath time,” he said. “I’ll be back.”

“Don’t rush on my account.”

At first it was like he didn’t hear, given the speed with which he dashed off. Crystal adjusted the flame and then went about setting the table. She thought she could eat well now that the house was clean. A quick search through the cupboards turned up a box of candles and some matches. She lit two, one for each end of the table, then went upstairs and knocked on the bathroom door.

“Jarett?”

“It’s open,” his sleepy voice called back.

She found him sprawled in a tub full of soapy water. Grinning through a curtain of steam, he invited her to step closer. Crystal didn’t refuse. How could she? He was naked beneath the bubbles, and it had been such a long time since she’d seen him thus.

A clean, white rag hung on the towel rack. It was as good a reason as any to touch him. She took a seat on the toilet and began to wash his shoulders and neck. Jarett closed his eyes. His body sunk deeper into the water. Whether or not this was an invitation to proceed with the rag scarcely mattered to Crystal. Her hand plunged beneath the surface to stroke over the broad chest that breathed there, back and forth, while her eyes—playful again for the first time in a year—wandered lower. To her chagrin, nothing poked out at the surface from between his legs.

Ah, but there were such remedies for that. The temptation to have a go at one burned, to the point where Crystal’s other hand actually leaped forward in a zealous haste to awaken what reposed beneath the suds. She stopped herself without really knowing why (hadn’t she been fine with washing him just moments ago?), and pretended to be distracted by a cobweb on the ceiling. It didn’t work. Whatever else Jarett had lost over the summer, his powers of observation were still keen.

“What’s wrong?” he asked with bemused eyes.

The lie she told came out fast. “I was thinking of my mother.”

“Oh.” His head sank back to the porcelain. “Can we not let her come between us right now? Just for a little while.”

“I don’t know, Jarett.”

Suddenly he smiled. “I’m up over two minutes now.”

“Oh yeah? Doing what?”

“Holding my breath, of course.”

She drew a circle on his chest with the rag and smiled back. “Hercules.”

“What about you? Been practicing?”

“Not much. I think I’m still hovering around forty seconds.”

Jarett closed his eyes again, then opened them. “You want to know something, Crystal? I love you. You’re not afraid to show me anything, and I can’t write words good enough to describe how that makes me feel. The mixture of strength and weakness in you is like a storm. You talk brave. You are brave. Never once have you hesitated to tell me what’s on your mind. You’ve shouted it, you’ve laughed it, you’ve whispered it in my ear. You even told me things while doing cartwheels on the railing of my porch.”

“Jarett—“

“But it wasn’t enough. Somehow you knew that. Somehow you knew that to get closer to me would involve pain. Your pain. So you took a deep breath and you held it. And held it. I kept thinking those little cheerleading lungs of yours were going to burst, you looked so desperate.”

“Jarett, why are you saying these things to me?”

“Because I just want you to know: I love you. There aren’t many girls who lay it all on the line the way you do.”

“Was that the way Vicky was?”

“No,” he answered, after a number of seconds. “What you have in common with Vicky is your femininity. She never did anything the way a man would. Neither do you. I noticed that straight away. But you’re a lot more spice than you are sugar, Crystal. While Vicky…”

“Sugar,” Crystal said, picking up the trail.

“Yeah,” came Jarett’s reply. His eyes had gone dreamy, and were fixed on the cobweb, which had begun to tremor on a rogue draft from outside. “I had both,” he added, as if the long departed spider could hear. “I lived my life, and I had both. Sugar and spice.”

“Your life isn’t over yet.”

To that there came not a single word. Jarett simply went on dreaming, until finally Crystal stood up and told him that lunch was getting cold, and that if he still wanted to eat, he should get dressed.

“Don’t be afraid,” he said. “You don’t have to love me back.”

“Are you sure?” Crystal said from the door.

But rather than rise to the remark, Jarett only smiled.

“So much spice,” he told her. “So much spice.”














































26

 

Jarett had it all wrong. There was plenty to fear, and Crystal knew it. Over the following week she kept a low profile around the house, weary of her mother’s ongoing suspicion, which for months now had been like a trespasser in the shadows, ill at ease, on the verge of attack. Lately things were even worse. Ever since she’d come home from Jarett’s house on that Saturday, Lucretia had been eyeing her from the side, with the occasional clipped, cool imperative that she be home from school on time, and get right to work on whatever assignments her teachers had given. Too scared to feign innocence by asking her what was the matter, Crystal did as she was told.

The Mortensons weren’t looking for a babysitter. And now that stupid, lazy lie she told on Saturday morning lay stagnant between her and Lucretia, a dead animal, growing more rotten by the hour. One phone call, one chance encounter at the grocery store, would blow the whole thing out of the water.

At dinner a week before Crystal’s fourteenth birthday—February 7th—Lucretia turned to her and asked: “Has John or Amy been back in touch with you about the job?”

Crystal’s can of Diet Coke trembled as she put it down. “Who?”

John or Amy, dear.”

“Oh!” Crystal said, shuffling through names in the back of her head. Who were John and Amy? “No…no, they never did call back.”

“Strange. They’re such a nice couple.”

“Yeah.”

The Mortensons weren’t looking for a babysitter—and even if they were, Crystal told herself in the bathtub later that night, she would probably be the last girl they’d call, right behind more stable individuals like Amanda Bynes and Harley Quinn.

Shampoo bubbles popped in her hair, creating a miniature applause. Way to go, Crystal, you’ve painted yourself into a fine little corner here. Sensible options as to how to escape were few; in fact, maybe there were none at all. If indeed Lucretia decided to call the police and have Jarett arrested, would there be a way to stop her? Crystal didn’t think so, unless she could persuade another one of her friends to commit suicide. Megan Holt, maybe.

Sighing, Crystal lay back in the water. Her breasts, though still small, managed to poke through from under the surface, a feat they had not been able to accomplish until just recently. She took a deep breath, bringing them up even higher, and was instantly reminded of Jarett’s fetish. No doubt that, were he present at this moment, he would request that she take another dive in the name of respiratory torture.

And why not? she told herself.

She had removed her watch before getting into the tub, but it was waterproof, and would easily outlast the lungs of any damsel willing to wear it on a plunge. Crystal clipped it back onto her wrist. She brought up the stopwatch function. A neat row of zeroes appeared on the display, innocent, unknowing. Until she pressed the START button anyway. From that moment on, they were the enemy.

Sixty seconds, girl, she could almost hear Jarett saying. Think you can handle it?

Telling herself that she could, Crystal rolled onto her belly. Water sloshed, ready to take her down. This tub wasn’t as deep as the one at the Jackson Farm, but still plenty deep enough. She took a breath and let it out slow. Despite not being used for cheerleading this year, her lungs felt strong. Eager for a challenge. And really, what was one minute? You couldn’t even cook a bowl of noodles in one minute.

With her thumb on the START button, Crystal gasped in again: Haaauuuhhh!

An instant later her nose was next to the drain. Keeping her lips pursed tight, Crystal waited. Her mind wandered. It wouldn’t do to think about holding her breath; the trick lay in the act of diversion. Favorite foods floated by in the water. Favorite books. Ten seconds…fifteen…twenty.

Pain now. Not much, but enough for her to know that this wasn’t going to be easy. Her lungs were strong. But they were also small. Small, and rather addicted to cigarettes.

At thirty seconds she winced and let out an enormous plume of silver bubbles. Wasted air. Her chest began to throb. Her hands made tiny fists on the bottom of the tub. Thirty-five seconds. Forty seconds.

Crystal’s throat began to emit tiny, tortured little squeaks—the squeaks of a mouse being eaten by a cat—as her hand pounded on the porcelain. Forty-five seconds. Forty-six. Forty-seven.

GAUUUHH!” she gasped, breaking the surface just in the nick of time.

Chest heaving, her eyes went to the watch. The word shit gusted out of her lips.

“Sorry, Jarett,” she said. “My bad.”

She lay awake that night worrying like a woman much older than fourteen. What, oh what, could be done to cover up that lie and keep her mother away from Jarett? The clock was ticking; she needed to think of something soon.

Out of the water but still holding your breath, girl, she thought.

Still, she nearly escaped the whole mess without anyone else dying. This was due in large part to Miko, who that week had begun walking her home from school. He carried Crystal’s backpack, which was a godsend, especially on Mondays, when the weight of a week’s worth of assignments threatened to break her shoulders. On the days when homework was light he carried Hannah’s books. Chivalrous, Crystal thought, and maybe even medicinal. Miko looked better than he had in months. The dull, vacant look in his eyes had cleared; the slouch in his gait had vanished. Nor was any of this in her imagination. At lunchtime (he and Crystal were sitting together now) he often talked of how things were getting better at home every day. His parents had stopped fretting about doctors and were instead enthusiastic about a test he’d brought home from French class, on which he’d received an A. He also told Crystal that his father, a hotelier, had recently purchased a new building in Manila, and had plans for the family to spend the summer there.

“You’re going to Manila?” she asked.

“It looks that way. Dad wants to teach me the ropes. How to keep books, boss people around.”

It was two days before her birthday—Monday—and they were walking home on what would undoubtedly be the last day of school for that week. A massive blizzard had been forecast for the entire northeast region of the United States. It was to arrive that night and not let up until after Valentine’s Day.

“You’ve sure had a lot happen to you in just a couple weeks, Miko,” Crystal said.

“How do you mean?”

“Well, just the other Sunday you were sleeping on park benches, dressed in rags—“

He laughed. “Drinking hot chocolate at my classmate’s kitchen table.”

“That too.” She gave her backpack, which was slung over Miko’s shoulder, a pat. “And now look at you. Carrying my books. Carrying Hannah’s books, when she doesn’t have a ride home with one of her friends. Globe-trotting.”

“I’m from Manila, remember. It’s more like going back home.”

“Miko, you haven’t been to Manila since you were three.”

“True.” He looked up at the sky. It had gotten very dark since noon, and an icy wind was stirring through the trees. “They’re going to use the tornado siren,” Crystal heard him say.

“Why?” she asked.

“Because it’s going to be a hell of a storm, that’s why. And this is Monroeville. It rolls up its sidewalks anytime it hears the word boo.” He looked at her. “As for Manila…well, I’m hoping to remember something.

“I know,” Crystal said, embarrassed. “I’m sure you will. I didn’t mean to make you feel like it was lost forever.”

“You didn’t. The same thought crossed my mind a few times. Gee Miko, you haven’t seen it since you were a baby, what do you expect to find?

The anxiety in his tone made her smile. “You’re excited about it, I can tell.”

“It’s halfway around the world. This summer’s going to be an adventure whether I like it or not.”

They got to her porch just as the first of that week’s giant squalls began to tumble from the sky. Taking the steps two at a time, Crystal sprang to the front door. The mailbox was stuffed with junk that Hannah, who had beaten her home, had disregarded in her mad dash to reach the Chips Ahoy! cookies in the kitchen.

“You may have already won,” Miko said.

Crystal squashed a brown sweepstakes envelop in her fist. “I’ll never know. Listen, come on inside and wait for my mom to get home. Then you won’t have to walk in the snow.”

“Love to,” he said, unstrapping her backpack.

“Great.”

“But I can’t.”

“What, you’ve got other girls who want their books carried?” Grinning, she gave his head a playful slap with the rest of the junk mail.

“No no, I just need to get some wood cut for my mom before the real nasty stuff starts falling.”

“Wow, a pack animal and a lumberjack all in one.”

“Well…”

She stood on tip-toe and gave him a kiss. Miko blinked, stunned. His feet shuffled on the porch. “Go on,” Crystal told him, “get home before the sidewalks are buried. And thanks for carrying my books.”

“Sure,” he managed, still drunk. “I mean, you know, any time.”

“Any time,” she laughed. “I’ll remember that. And hey, come to my birthday party this Wednesday if you can. Three o’clock.”

“Oh my God, that’s right! How old are you going to be?”

“Only fourteen, relax. You don’t have to buy me a personalized throw pillow.”

“I’ll get you something. I promise.”

She smiled. “Just bring yourself. Oh and maybe a paper shredder for all this worthless mail.”

“Seeya, Crystal.” He turned to go.

“Don’t fall down the steps!”

The remark earned her a grin from over the shoulder. “Hey, your kisses aren’t that good.”

“Yes they are, Miko. Believe it.”

Miko paused, looked at her…then walked down the steps carefully as an acrobat on a tightrope over Niagara Falls.

***

Happy birthday, happy birthday…happy birthday to youuuuuu!”

She ran out of breath with two of the fourteen candles still lit, which didn’t matter, because she’d forgotten to make a wish anyway. Lucretia, Hannah, and Miko applauded.

“Atta girl, Crystal!” her mom cheered.

Crystal gave her a wink before cutting into the chocolate frosting. On that final day before all hell broke loose, Lucretia was especially buoyant. She thanked Miko over and over again for braving the blizzard, and for the present he gave Crystal: a musical jewelry box with a twirling ballerina inside.

“Gorgeous!” she said, as Crystal lifted the pink box for all to behold. “Absolutely gorgeous!”

To Crystal she sounded like an archeologist who had just dug up the holy grail. Blushing, she thanked Miko and gave him a kiss on the cheek. This seemed to please Lucretia even more. It had been months, maybe even years, since Crystal had seen her smile with such abandon.

But the ruse of having a boy her own age at the party, accidental though it was, collapsed soon enough. Hannah spooned out scoops of strawberry ice cream while Crystal served the cake. She, Crystal, used the knife cautiously. Vision was poor by candlelight, but it couldn’t be helped. The power had been out since Tuesday afternoon.

“Well I love this,” Lucretia said. “I don’t care about the storm. I think candlelight is prettier anyway, don’t you, Miko?”

Miko shifted in his seat. “Yes, ma’am. I like it very much.”

“But you’re staying here tonight. We’ve got thirteen inches outside and it’s still snowing.”

“Ma’am?”

“You heard me. We’ll set you up with a bed, don’t worry.”

“Ma’am, my mom and dad will be worried sick.”

“Sugar rush!” Crystal yelled, breaking the tension. “Here, Miko, have a slice!” And she handed him a plate with a huge piece of yellow cake.

“Oh you shouldn’t have,” Miko said. “But I’m sure glad you did.”

Lucretia laughed too heartily. From here a period of light, trivial banter broke out over the table. A new skirt lay folded in a box from Kaufmann’s. Socks and underwear. On the night before, near midnight, Hannah had knocked softly on Crystal’s door to present her own gift: a cigarette lighter that masqueraded as a tube of lipstick.

“I think the birthday girl deserves a toast,” Lucretia said presently. She stood up with a glass of Diet Coke in her hand. Miko and Hannah followed suit. “To Crystal! Who to me is…the equivalent of a red sports car racing in the fast lane, top down”—Hannah gave a giggle—“passing all the other cars, because…” She paused and gave Crystal a kind of smile she would never give her eldest daughter again. Affectionate, supportive. Proud. “Because nobody else I know is so certain of what they can do.”

YAY!” the other two cheered.

Glasses clinked over the cake. Crystal stammered out a thank you. Absurdly, she found herself on the verge of having to wipe away tears. The old Crystal had never cried very much. It was all Miko’s fault. Ever since that morning he’d dropped by after a night of playing hobo her once mighty floodgates had been inadequate. At night when she closed her eyes and thought of Jarett, of their dying romance, she cried. During the day it was Lucy who brought it on. Hell, sometimes all it took was a lazy rom-com rerun on the television.

But these birthday tears would be sweet and she knew it. Smiling, she let her eyes bud. Then she blinked, and her cheeks got wet.

Lucretia looked at Miko. “Did you know,” she said, “that Crystal told the craziest lie ever on Saturday just to get out of the house to see you?”

“Oh, is that right?” Miko replied. “How do you mean?”

And that was the end of the sweetness.

***

There came a knock on Crystal’s door later that night. Her mother stood glowering in the hallway. The suspicious look on her face, which had returned after Miko—who had gone home after all—told her that he’d not seen Crystal on Saturday, was finally spilling over. It was attack time.

“Okay,” she said. “I’m going to bite. Where were you on Saturday?”

“I—“

“And don’t give me any bullshit about being at the Mortensons or so help me I’m going to slap you right down to the floor.”

“So they told you?” Crystal said. She was a little stunned at being threatened with physical violence, but then the tension had been building for months.

“Answer me, Crystal.”

She couldn’t answer. Her mind had gone blank. No, not blank. The truth was still there. Where she’d been, what she’d been doing. The truth. Farmwork. Love and lessons with Jarett Powell. Rainy summer afternoons; birthday blizzards. And had he come through with what he felt was his end of the bargain? Was she a better writer now for it all? That was hard to say. She hadn’t written anything for a year.

“I was with Jarett,” she told Lucretia.

Her mom slapped her down to the floor.

Time stopped. Crystal lay next to her bed in a red haze of pain. Tears stung her eyes. She couldn’t see. She blinked once, twice…and when the world came back into focus, her mom was standing in the hall, dialing a number on her cell phone.

Oh no you don’t, bitch!

Crystal jumped to her feet and charged, knocking Lucretia back against the wall. A painting of a galleon at sea fell; the frame shattered. Crystal’s hand reached out, seized the cell phone, and threw it down the steps before Lucretia could get over the shock of being attacked.

Crystal!” she shrieked.

Hard as she could, Crystal slapped her across the face. Dazed, Lucretia shook her head. And then her eyes filled with clarity. Clarity and fury.

She shoved Crystal back into her room, where she staggered and nearly hit her head on the television.

“You wanna hit me?” her voice thundered. Her feet stomped over the floor. Blue fire raged in her eyes.

That’s me in twenty-five years, Crystal had time to think.

Lucretia picked her up and threw her onto the bed. Crystal winged one of her heart-shaped pillows at her, missed, then reached for an empty flower vase on the headboard and winged that. Another miss. Glass shattered all over the reading nook.

“You call the police and I’ll kill you!” Crystal yelled.

“Oh I’m calling them all right!”

“Like hell you are!”

“Give me your cell phone!”

Piss off!”

Snarling, Lucretia grabbed Crystal’s ankles and yanked her to the edge of the bed. Crystal sat up to retaliate with another slap. She was quick. Years of cheerleading had honed her timing and reflexes to an edge that was beautiful to behold on game nights. She could perform handsprings and cartwheels, pikes and splits. She had several times executed a flawless needle while three other girls held her aloft. Of course no routine could be considered whole without the needle. And before Crystal had come along, the squad had lacked a flyer with confidence enough to try anything in the air harder than a pretty smile.

Lucretia blocked the slap, then gave one of her own that sent Crystal reeling into the headboard.

OW!”

“Get over here!”

My face!”

She felt her ankles grabbed again. This time she didn’t resist. The side of her face felt scalded. She reached to touch it, to assess the damage. Lucretia spun her over while letting her own body fall into a sitting position on the bed. Now lying over her mother’s knee, Crystal felt a firm hand press into her back and hold. Sharp nails dug through her pajama top. She tried to move and was instantly shoved back down.

“Mom, what are you doing?

“I’ve got one more birthday present for you, sweetheart,” she heard Lucretia say. “One I should have given to you a long time ago.”

***

From her bedroom down the hall, twelve year-old Hannah Genesio could guess easily enough what was going on next door. Her older sister was getting the beating of her life. It probably served her right. Girls Crystal’s age weren’t supposed to have boyfriends like Jarett. He was old enough to be her dad, after all. Mom’s husband. Whatever.

She got out of bed and tip-toed over to the wall, thankful to have a barrier between herself and the battle zone. A shout came from Crystal. Glass shattered. So this was what the news anchor people meant by domestic violence. Except in the stories they reported it was always a male who doled out the bruises. That male was usually drunk, hardly ever the household’s real father, and came into his marriage prepackaged with a criminal record.

“Mom,” Hannah whispered with a giggle, “you’re bucking the trend. Again.”

“Mom, what are you doing?” Crystal’s muffled voice came through the wall.

Soon after, the house went totally quiet. Hannah waited. Something hard and heavy came down with a slap! that sounded like a carpet being beaten. Crystal screamed. Seconds later the sound came again. So did Crystal’s scream.

Hannah went into the hallway. Here the slaps and the screams were much louder. Crystal was hurting bad. She edged closer to the door, which was open a crack.

Slap! “Ahhhhhh!”

Slap! “Aieeeeee!”

Closer. Closer.

Mom, PLEASE!”

Hannah pushed on the door…

And met Crystal’s tear-streaked eyes, as she lay over Lucretia’s knee. She was being spanked with a heavy, hard-covered book—the biggest their mother could find, by the looks of it.

Stop her, those eyes seemed to say. Do something. Anything.

But Hannah, stunned, only watched as more slaps came down. Crystal’s tiny butt, which was bare (Lucretia had yanked everything down before setting to work), looked red enough to boil water on.

MOM!” Crystal screamed again, with all the force her cheering lungs could muster. “MOM, I’M SORRY!”

“Sorry ain’t got it, girl!”

The book rose into the air for the nth time, hesitated, dropped.

OWWWW!”

Hannah couldn’t watch anymore. Her bare feet began to move backward. Slowly, ever so slowly. She went into her bedroom and closed the door. Her thumb clicked the lock. Then she lay down and covered her head with the biggest pillow she could find.

It didn’t work. The slaps, the screams, they all made it through. Her only choice was to wait for Lucretia to stop.

“Please, Mom,” she whispered, crying into the pillow-case. “Please, that’s enough.”

But five more minutes went by before Lucretia thought it was enough. By then the pillow was too wet to sleep on. Hannah tossed it aside for another. She heard Crystal’s door close. Footsteps—Lucretia’s—passed down the hall.

I HATE YOU! I HATE YOU, I HATE YOU!”

Crystal pouring her heart out, giving Mom every last drop. Hannah tore some tissue out of a box on the headboard and wiped her tears. Sleep wasn’t going to come for a long time tonight. Best to find something to do, then. Her hand went back to the headboard, found a book….and pushed it aside for the PSP sitting next to it.

A video game; that was just the ticket.





























PART SIX: Dead Calm























27


Since her return to Monroeville, Crystal had put off visiting the Jackson farm; the argument she’d had with her mother over pizza made the whole idea almost loathsome to approach. Still, Lucretia had been right about one thing: You’re lying, she’d said, after Crystal promised to keep clear of the farm. You’re lying, and you’re as terrible at it as you’ve ever been.

Indeed. Crystal was putting it off, but she knew that eventually a good enough reason to go would come around, and on the first Friday of October, it finally did. That morning, Lucretia asked Crystal if she could take Luke to a bingo party with her old office friends. She wanted to show off her grandson, and this, she reasoned, would be the perfect time—a festive atmosphere with everyone who knew her present. Crystal told her it would be fine. That it would be better than fine, actually. It would give her a chance to call Miko and lay some all important truths on the table between them.

“Good idea,” Lucretia said. “How much does he know, anyway?”

Crystal finished tying one of Luke’s shoes, knowing that within the hour it would be untied again. “Almost nothing. I didn’t even tell him I quit my job.”

“You’re in for one hell of a long phone call.”

“I’ll pay for it.”

“That’s not what I meant.”

Momeeee!” Luke whispered, in his best Halloween voice. “Mommy, wook!”

Crystal followed his pointing finger to a cardboard skeleton hanging over the porch. “Ooooh!” she told him. “Scary!”

“I meant that when you tell him the marriage is over, he’s not just going to say oh, all right, and hang up. There’s going to be fireworks.”

“Miko,” Crystal said, throwing a scarf around Luke’s neck, “hasn’t shown me any fireworks in years.”

Lucretia offered up nothing further on the subject after that. Either she was content with her warning given, or the idea of taking Luke to the party had her too buoyant to linger over the bête grise that was Crystal’s marriage. It scarcely mattered, as Crystal had no intention of calling Miko anyway. It was just another lie to add to the pile.

***

She didn’t call—but he did.

The landline phone rang mere minutes after her mother had gone. Feeling a bit buoyant herself now (the Jackson farm beckoned), Crystal picked it up, ready to fob off any solicitor who dared interrupt while she prepared for another trip down memory lane. She had a number of witticisms at her disposal, remembered from the days before her departure to Manila, when it seemed like every hour someone called with a sales pitch about switching electricity providers or a joining a gym.

“Hello,” she fumed into the receiver.

“Crystal?”

“This is she. How can I help you?”

“Crystal,” the voice, a man’s, repeated flatly.

Recognition dawned on her. “Miko. Jesus, I’m sorry. I just wasn’t expecting a phone call—“

“That’s one hell of a vacation you went on. It’s been over a month.”

“Well flying back and forth to Manila’s a pain in the ass, dear. You know that.”

“I do,” he replied, his tone still flat. “I also know that you quit your job.”

“That’s true,” Crystal said after a few guilty moments. Then, curious: “Who told you?”

“Not my wife.”

“No,” Crystal said, looking down at her ring finger, which was bare since she got off the plane in Cleveland. “Not your wife.”

“Why did you quit?” he asked.

Her hand closed into a fist. “Why should I tell you? You never tell me anything. You never talk to me at all anymore.”

“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

She laughed. “Well, since you never tell me, I guess I’ll have to tell you. Miko,” she said, then drew a deep breath and held it. Was this really going to be so simple? Could she prove her mother wrong and end five years of marriage with a few sharp words spilled over a telephone line?

“I’m listening,” came the other’s voice.

Do it, girl. Be brave.

“I’m not coming back to Manila,” she let out. “Ever. I want us to get a divorce.”

Silence on the line. This time Crystal knew enough not to hold her breath. The wreckage of their marriage lay a long way down under the falsely placid waters they’d once sailed, and right now, she sensed that Miko was down there with it, exploring it, contemplating it. Seeing it, perhaps, for the very first time.

“No,” he said. Croaked, as if he couldn’t believe his ears. “No.”

Crystal closed her eyes. “Yes, Miko. It’s over.”

“But why? I don’t understand. Where’s Luke?” This last was almost seized upon. The sound of it made Crystal’s throat swell. She’d been expecting anger from him, not fear, not pain.

“Luke’s at a bingo party with my mom,” she got out. “They won’t be back until this afternoon.”

“Put him on the phone. Please.”

“Miko, I just told you he’s not here.”

“But I need to talk to him.”

“I…I know you do.” Oh God, she was doing it again. Hurting someone she cared for—hurting him really bad. This wasn’t how things were supposed to play out. Of course she’d known that Miko would resist. But not like this. Cold and aloof, that was her husband’s style. “And you can. Just as soon as he comes home.”

“Why are you doing this, Crystal? I don’t understand.”

“You don’t. I barely understand it myself. But Miko…we are just not in love anymore. That’s the simplest explanation I can give.”

Not happy with her answer, Miko began to create ones of his own. “Is it because of Manila?” he chanced. “Would you rather we live in the States? Because that’s fine—“

“It’s not about Manila.”

“The condo. The neighborhood. It sucks.”

“No it doesn’t. You love Salcedo Village.”

“Yeah, but what about you?”

“Miko, please.

“I’m just trying to get to the bottom—“

This is the bottom!” she shouted. “We don’t talk anymore! We don’t do anything together anymore! We get up, we go to work, we come home. Blah blah blah! I play with Luke and cook dinner. You hide behind a newspaper or some stupid book. Watch golf. And all the time I feel like you’re not really there. That it’s just me and the baby.”

“I can change. I will change.”

“It’s too late for that.”

“Why is it too late?”

Crystal clenched her teeth. “Dammit, Miko, I do not owe you any reasons! Not after five years of watching you hover in and out of that condo like a ghost! Do you understand me?”

“Crystal—“

Do you understand me? Yes or no?”

“I understand you.”

“Good!”

“Crystal?”

She hesitated. There were tears in Miko’s voice; he was weeping. Sweet Mary, mother of God, he was weeping. Not since the time of Lucy’s suicide had she heard him do that, or even come close. Then, she’d been able to commiserate, and perhaps today as well. Except that time was short. She had places to go and things to see. It wasn’t her fault that by some stupid coincidence Miko had called. Fuck coincidence. If he wanted to call her up at the wrong time then he deserved everything he got. And fuck Miko too, she thought with sudden hate. He’d made her unhappy for five years. Five motherfucking years.

She opened her mouth to tell him as much, when he said: “Don’t take him away from me. Please. I need him.”

“You need him,” Crystal said, knowing well enough who him was. “Well you’ve got a funny way of showing it, Mister. I change his diapers, make his milk, buy his clothes, cook his meals. I sit up with him at night when he cries. What do you do? Tell me that, Miko. Where’s your contribution?”

Crystal, wake up!” he screamed. “Please!”

She could hear his tears now, practically feel them through the receiver. They weren’t cutting the ice. Things between them had been frozen over for far too long.

“You want to be alone, Miko?” she asked. “You like drifting along all by yourself? That’s fine. I’m letting you go. Goodbye.”

But what about Luke?”

“We can talk about Luke,” she said, after her ear stopped ringing. “But not today.”

“Why not?”

“Because you’re crying worse than he does right now.”

“Crystal!”

“Goodbye, Miko. I’ll be in touch.”

And before he could scream anything else to impair her hearing, Crystal hung up the phone.

“Maraming salamat,” she said to the empty room. “Ingat.”

***

She smoked two cigarettes on her walk to the Jackson farm. Helping her with the deed was a cool breeze that swept down from a sky of white, tumbling clouds where faces formed and twisted and disappeared. Crystal recognized none of them. What use had she on this day for a familiar visage, real or imagined, that wasn’t Jarett’s? Or Chubby’s? Sweet, shaggy Chubby, who’d disappeared not long before the final crash, and whose whereabouts she’d never learned.

As if on cue, a dog barked at her from one of the back yards along the street. Crystal paid it no mind. She turned left onto the one-laned drive that was Jackson. A NO OUTLET sign warned her not to venture much further. Like the dog, it didn’t matter. She walked to the railroad tracks, where no train was passing by to block her from the trees, through which Wye Street, as always, wound like a kiddie coaster at Cedar Point.

It was here that she finally hesitated. As Lucretia had promised, a NO TRESPASSING sign stood at the entrance to the farm. Beyond it, dead leaves tumbled and dodged in a cold wind off the fields. Of course none of these things—sign, leaves, wind—surprised her. They’d been here during Jarett’s time and had failed to prevent her marching straight up to his front door. Clinging to that thought, Crystal somehow got her legs moving again. Her boots clicked on fresh tar. The trees closed in. She was beyond the sign now. She could legally be arrested for what she was doing. But oh joy of joys, this had to be done. As a way to say goodbye to Jarett, perhaps. Perhaps that was why she had come home in the first place—to say goodbye to Jarett in a right and proper way. It made sense. He hadn’t deserved to die for what had happened here, on the front lawn of his own farmhouse. The time had come to mop his bloodstains from her memories.

HEY!”

Screaming, Crystal whirled around to find an old man dressed in a checkered shirt and blue jeans. He was snarling through a countenance of baggy, leathery skin.

“What are you doing back here!” the snarl demanded. “Can’t you read signs? Eh? Eh?”

“I’m sorry!”

I said what are you doing back here?”

Girl, a voice suddenly said at the back of Crystal’s mind, you have gotten yourself into a world of trouble! Pullin’ the fire alarm for no reason! Creatin’ a ruckus!

The woods began to turn, to tilt sideways. Between the trees Crystal could see black flowers coming to full bloom. And why not? This was the season of the dead and dying. Everywhere underfoot were the corpses of things once green.

“Shitty!” she yelled.

The old man stopped. “What?”

“The cigarettes. I’m sorry. It wasn’t you. It was Megan.”

She turned to run. It was an irony. She’d come here to embrace her memories, to learn from them, only to wind up fleeing from them in terror. The wooden bridge, all but lost beneath the Jackson farm’s new and terrible garden of black roses, was still there. Her boots found it, stumbled. If she could get to the other side perhaps the terror would end. Perhaps, in her absence, the farm had become a kind of Sleepy Hollow. Salvation awaited on the back porch. There were apples in the trees, grapes on the vines. If only she could get across.

Crystal stumbled again and fell flat on her face. She heard the ghost approaching. Heavy footsteps clunked on the timber. And then the roses closed in, and her eyes rolled back, and darkness took over the whole world.












































28

 

I HATE YOU! I HATE YOU! I HATE YOU!”

Crystal threw herself onto the bed. Her throat felt ripped open and raw, slit with a rusty dagger. Her bare bottom was engulfed in a furious blaze of agonizing pain. She was afraid to look at it, or worse, touch it. She punched the headboard instead, cracking her knuckles.

FUCK!”

But it wouldn’t do to lie here panting and screaming. Oh no no. Lucretia had gone downstairs to call the police. Bad trouble for Jarett. Black trouble. The kind that bled into your soul and spoiled the will to live. She couldn’t let that happen another friend.

And Shitty…you mustn’t forget what happened to him…

“Fuck Shitty,” she said, shoving herself back from the sheets.

The closet door hung open. She didn’t remember leaving it that way, but there it was. She stumbled over to it as fast as she could and tossed a hodge-podge of winter clothing onto the bed. Then she snatched her heavy coat off the hook and flung that over the pile as well.

She got dressed in under ten minutes. Bending down to get into her underwear and pants hurt like hell but time was short and the trek ahead long. Over a mile of blizzard-swept terrain stood between her and the Jackson farm. She was by no means certain she could manage journey—but then, if she collapsed and died in the snow, at least her troubles would be over.

“Amen to that,” she told one of her teddy bears through drying tears.

Her dressing mirror showed a girl ready to drive the Iditarod. Her eyes and parts of her cheeks showed. Everything else was covered beneath blue and pink layers of varying thickness. Good enough.

Almost good enough. Beyond her reading nook window, the night beckoned. But there was one last thing she needed to do.

She went back to the headboard and grabbed Hannah’s lipstick lighter. Her thumb clicked the button; a flame popped up. Then she found the book she’d been spanked with and set it ablaze. Once she was certain the pages weren’t going to fizzle out, she crossed the hallway to Lucretia’s room. The door was unlocked. Bad mistake. Crystal opened it and threw the book—a wretched, burning bird by this point—against a picture shelf, where it knocked over several frames with a satisfying smash of breaking glass.

“And fuck you, Mommy-Dearest,” she said. “May all of your shit burn in hell.”

Then she went back to the reading nook, opened the window, and flew into the storm.

***

Jarett!” her voice pealed into the slanting snow, which had turned Monroeville into a blank nowhere that threatened to swallow anyone foolish enough to venture outdoors whole. Not bothering with the bell crank, she kicked the door over and over, hard as she could. The frame shook. A piece of something, ice or wood, fell from the transom. “Jarett, open up! It’s Crystal!”

All the world was windy white. She could barely see, could barely breathe. Waist-deep snow had made every inch of her journey to the farm into a poker game with hypothermic death. Twice she’d nearly missed the bridge at the mouth of Wye Street and fallen into the creek. On the other side, a gigantic fallen tree blocked her route, forcing her to skirt along the edge of a field of pines that gasped endlessly in the midnight gales.

Jarett!”

Something howled behind her, deep and cavernous. Crystal whirled around. The woods had becoming a living beast. Its bones rattled as it rocked to and fro. Its throat shrieked. Crystal turned back to the door, raised her boot to kick it again—

And that was when it flew open to reveal Jarett blinking sleepily in his PJs, an oil lamp in his hand. Ignoring him, Crystal all but dove into the anteroom, shouting out a command her frozen ears could barely hear that the door be shut and locked post-haste.

“Was that you kicking?” he asked, still bemused.

Crystal yanked her hood back. “No, Jarett, it was Frosty the fucking Snowman! Of course it was me!

“Jesus Christ, you look terrible.”

“You try walking a mile and a half through a blizzard at twelve midnight!”

“What the hell did you do that for?”

“Because we’re in trouble that’s why!” She threw her mittens on the floor and kicked off her boots. Jarett continued to blink, to look lost. That would never do. He needed to wake up—like right now. “Jarett,” she said, “my mom called the police. About us. They know everything. We are totally fucked.”

As she spoke his eyes came alight. At first he looked stunned, then scared. And then, finally (and a little off-putting for Crystal), angry.

“No,” he snarled, “you mean I am totally fucked. Just like I told you I would be from the very start of this whole pink princess romance.”

“Oh, is that what it was, Jarett?” she shot back, unzipping her coat. “I don’t remember telling you about pumpkin carriages and pixie dust when I first came here.”

“I guess you didn’t. But then you never were one for dreaming up good stories.”

The remark stung, and for a moment she stared up at him, appalled by his cruelty. Now was not the time for weakness, though. They needed a plan.

“Listen,” she said, “as long as this storm keeps up the police aren’t going to bother with coming back here. That gives us time to think. So let’s do that.”

She walked through to the dining room—which had begun to look untidy again in her absence—without another word. They sat down at the table and listened to the storm for a few minutes. A clock in the hallway struck midnight. Crystal looked at Jarett. His eyes were on the oil lamp, his mouth chewing a thumbnail. It didn’t take much to read what it meant. Terror had him in a vice.

“Jarett, what would you say about the two of us running away together?”

It was a simple idea, one that had leaped to mind not long after she’d set fire to Lucretia’s spank book. They could disappear into the night. Vanish. Get lost. Start writing new names over all the black lines that mattered most. It would take time, of course. Years probably. But then Jarett was a novelist. Didn’t they know all about crafting long term projects?

“Well?” she asked, when he didn’t answer.

Then he grinned. “’Flee into some forgotten night and be Of all dark long my moon-bright company’.

“Huh?”

“It’s poetry, Crystal. Walter de la Mare. Don’t you—“

Her fist slammed on the table. “Goddammit, Jarett, I asked you a simple question!”

“’Think! in Time’s smallest clock’s minutest beat Might there not rest be found for wandering feet?’

She blinked at him, mouth gaping. Jarett seemed to have lost his mind. His face glowed in the lamplight like a Halloween pumpkin’s. Shadows flickered on the walls, the ceiling. This house was never easy on the nerves. Even on the prettiest of days Crystal had always doubted the space behind her shoulders. Tonight, with the electricity out and everything black, she could scarcely keep the goose-bumps at bay.

What Jarett said next did nothing to help.

“I have a gun,” the jack-o’-lantern uttered.

For the barest of moments, Crystal’s heart froze. Then she jumped in her seat, almost knocking over the lantern.

“Uh…no thank you,” her mouth gibbered.

“Why not?”

She swallowed hard. “Well…because guns are only used for one thing. To kill.”

“Yeah,” he said, as if relishing the thought. “But sometimes that one thing is the only thing.”

“We’re not even close to being that far gone yet.”

Jarett shook his head. “You’re wrong. And Crystal,” he went on, cutting off her objection, “you’ve been wrong a lot these past few years. Isn’t that true?”

“No,” she blurted.

“Yes it is. You came to my back porch one night with a carton of eggs. That was wrong. Then you came to my front porch wearing a cheerleading outfit. Wrong again.”

“Stop it.”

“You smoke. You play tricks. You plot against people who annoy you.”

“I don’t want to hear this, Jarett. I came here to help.”

“You came here with another plot. Let’s run away together, Jarett. Let’s disappear.”

She glared at him. “You can disappear with me, Jarett, or you can do it with the FBI. Take your pick.”

“Is that a threat?”

“It’s a fact. In another six hours it’s going to be daylight. Not long after that the Monroeville Police Department should be knocking on your front door. If you’re still here when that happens they’re going to arrest you.”

“I have a gun.”

Crystal had to take a deep breath and hold it. Five seconds went by. Ten. The jack-o’-lantern grinned away. Far from the terror he’d initially shown upon sitting down, Jarett now resembled a man who’d stumbled upon an absurdly simple solution to a problem that had vexed him for years. And the hell of it was…maybe he had.

“I really wish we could stop talking about the gun,” she let out.

“Oh, we don’t have to talk about it, baby,” this man with a rusty key to an even rustier lock replied. “The gun has plenty of things to say all on its own.”

“Sit down, Jarett.”

He’d risen from his chair and now turned away from Crystal without listening. A lighter flicked on in his hand. Knowing she had no choice but to follow, Crystal picked up the lantern. Jarett glided back to the hallway and then started up the stairs.

Not there, she thought, not now.

She chased him to the top on quivering knees, spilling protests along the way. Violence wasn’t the answer; killing was wrong. Hadn’t he ascertained the damage inflicted by death already? What had his life been like since Vicky? And what indeed had become of hers since Lucy?

Jarett would have none of it. He paused to light a candle at the top of the stairs, and then another in his bedroom. The blizzard screeched at the window, rattling its sash. He opened the closet door and reached up. Seconds later a copper colored steel box was in his hand.

“Okay,” he nodded at her, “let’s do this.”

The certainty in his tone was the most terrifying thing she’d ever heard. Whatever it was he meant to do, there’d be no stopping it. Nevertheless, someone had to try.

After Jarett placed the box on the bed Crystal reached out with her free hand to block the keyhole.

“Jarett, please! Please! You’re not thinking straight!”

“Oh but I am,” he said, brushing her hand aside. From somewhere he’d gotten a small silver key. It shined like an icicle as he placed it in the hole, turned it.

The box clicked open.

“Crystal,” Jarett said, an air of theatricality in his tone as he drew the lid back, “meet Luke.”

“Luke?”

“Why, my gun, of course.”

A gleaming arc of blue steel rose into the air on a hand steady with purpose. Crystal shrank back from it. Never in her life had she beheld a shape so ominous. A curved line silhouetted against the window, just the right size for a finger to squeeze. A black cylinder. An even blacker promise of things to come.

“Jarett, what are you going to do?” she asked, shaking so hard she could barely keep hold on the lantern.

“Nothing complicated, Crystal. Don’t worry.” She heard a heavy click in the shadows. He’d cocked the gun. “It’s just…time to stop making mistakes, that’s all. Time to stop making mistakes.”

And before she could scream for him to stop, Jarett pointed the gun and squeezed the trigger.














29

 

Lucretia drove to Norwalk as fast as her nerves would allow. That was usually plenty fast enough. Usually…but not today. As she cruised west on route 20, she tried to get her hands to stop shaking, to get her heart to slow down. Wasted endeavors, both. Although her daughter had been in and out of the hospital for years with the condition that ailed her, there was just no getting used to those emergency phone calls from Fisher-Titus Memorial, nor these countryside drives to answer them.

Thus she was forced to drive with extra caution so as not to wind up in a bed right beside Crystal. It took just over half an hour to reach the hospital, where she parked the car crookedly next to an SUV with a JESUS SAVES bumper sticker on the back and ran into the emergency room. A plump woman looked up at her from behind the desk. Lucretia gave her name and was sent into room twelve. Here she discovered a short, oriental doctor and two nurses watching a young woman writhe and scream on the floor.

“Crystal!” she yelled, pushing the doctor back. “Crystal, I’m here! It’s your mom!”

From the cold, hard tiles, Crystal’s eyes looked up. Every muscle in her body had gone tight as a rail. Her teeth were clenched. A trickle of blood ran from her nose.

Help me! Help me PLEASE!”

“Madame?” the doctor said.

Lucretia glared at him. “What are you doing? Help her!”

“We need to glean the characteristics and effects of the seizure in order to provide proper treatment—“

You already know that stuff! She’s been in and out of here since she was fourteen!”

“Is your daughter on medication?” the doctor asked, unruffled.

“Of course she’s on medication! Where is Doctor Burdette? Why isn’t he here?”

As she spoke Crystal at last began to relax. Her body stopped shaking. Her breaths came in deep and slow. Lucretia knelt down next to her but was quickly asked by the nurses to let them assist the patient back to her bed.

“Where am I?” Crystal asked, once her head was on the pillows.

Lucretia stroked her hair. “You’re in the hospital, sweetheart.”

“Again?”

“Yes. Did you take your dilantin?”

“I must have forgot.”

“Honey.”

The oriental doctor, who introduced himself as Doctor Fernando, had questions for Lucretia once Crystal’s condition was stabilized. A clipboard rested in his hand, which he paused to scribble on after every answer she gave.

“Does she have epilepsy?” he wanted to know first.

“Brain damage,” Lucretia said. “From a gunshot.”

“My goodness.” His pen scribbled on the board. “And this happened when she was fourteen?”

“Yes.”

“Are the seizures always grand mal?”

“Most of the time.”

“And how often do they occur?”

“Anywhere from once a month to once every three months. Or when she misses her medication.”

“Have there been any surgical attempts to correct the problem over the years?”

Lucretia shook her head. “They can’t. There are…bullet fragments at the base of her skull. She’s inoperable. I have to keep an eye on her, but today she snuck off while I was in the basement doing laundry.”

“Snuck away to the farm?”

“I suppose so.”

She had to pause here for a long breath. A lump the size of a grapefruit threatened to crush her throat. Why, oh why, were these terrible questions being repeated after so many years? Couldn’t once just be enough?

“Is Doctor Burdette in the hospital?” she asked again.

***

And of course he wasn’t in the hospital. He was in Michigan, giving a lecture on the effects of marijuana on the brain. Doctor Fernando decided to keep Crystal overnight. Lucretia stayed at her bedside. They watched cartoons. They ate hospital food. Crystal drank chocolate milk with almost every meal. That was just another thing that had changed. She barely knew what Diet Coke was anymore.

At noon of the following day she was discharged. Lucretia helped her up the stairs to her bedroom. This twenty-five year-old woman, who not so long ago had sprang these steps two at a time in a cheerleading skirt, could no longer maintain sufficient balance to reach the top on her own.

Once in bed she asked to have the television turned on. Disney Junior was her favorite channel. Lucretia obliged. Sophia The First flickered onto the screen, riding the back of a winged dragon.

“Thanks, Mom,” Crystal said.

Suddenly her eyes began to blink rapidly, and for a moment Lucretia braced herself. But then Crystal relaxed. She took a coloring book from the headboard, opened it, and went back to watching TV.

“Your crayons are right behind you, dear,” Lucretia said.

“Okay. Can I have soup later?”

“You can have soup right now, sweetheart. What kind?”

Crystal smiled. And at that moment, that one instant which lasted less than a second, she was the girl who lived in Lucretia’s memory. Bright-eyed. Focused. Intent on what she wanted. Yes, always intent, that was the Crystal of old. She could never seem to take no for an answer. Now she was back. The smiling girl. The girl who shined.

And then, like a ghost seen through a half closed door, she was gone.

“Later,” she said.

“Okay.”

Lucretia hesitated. Desperate to somehow have that moment back, she told Crystal: “Hannah’s on her way down from Cleveland. She’ll be here this afternoon.”

“Why’s she in Cleve…Clevelan?”

“She lives there, honey.”

“She lives in North Fairfield.” The name of this town came out perfectly for some reason, every time she said it. But when it came to how Hannah’s life had turned out, Lucretia was yet to convince Crystal of a different truth.

“Miko lives in North Fairfield,” Lucretia tried again.

Crystal’s eyes looked up from the TV. “Did I tell you we’re getting a divorce?”

“Are you sure you were ever married?”

“Yes,” Crystal said, nodding. “We were happy for awhile. We had Luke.”

“Your baby.”

The smile returned, but it wasn’t quite the same as before. It wasn’t quite right. Crystal had pictures going through her mind that were like the ones in the coloring book. Clearly outlined yet badly filled in. And of course, none of them could be taken off the page.

“Yes,” she said, her tone dreamy. “Is he here, Mom? I want to hold him.”

“He’s here, sweetheart. Let me get him for you.”

Lucretia left the room. She could not let Crystal keep Luke with her all the time, because there were times when he made her lash out, lose control. They didn’t come often, but when they did, Crystal would actually throw him against the wall and start breaking things. Doctor Burdette’s theory on this behavior involved frustration. Luke represented something she wanted but could never have, and rather than accept that, she became angry. Downright furious.

“So she knows that Luke is just a doll?” Lucretia had asked at one time.

“Every so often the reality…manifests itself,” Burdette replied.

But it didn’t manifest itself today. Crystal accepted the doll—a brown-haired Baby Alive—with as much tenderness as a mother holding her newborn for the first time. She cuddled and cooed. She showed it her coloring book. As always, Lucretia stayed for awhile and played the grandmother game. They talked about going shopping for baby clothes and baby blankets. Formula and toys. Sometimes she had fun with it; sometimes it made her bored. Mostly, though, it made her so sad she wanted to run to her bedroom and cry until the world no longer lived.

That was what she was doing three hours later when a knock came at the door. Lucretia looked up from the black, charred book in her hands. Another, final tear fell. And then everything froze.

“Mom?” a voice said from the hallway. “It’s me, Hannah.”

“Oh God,” Lucretia breathed.

Her feet took her to the door fast as she could get them to move. She yanked it open. A crisp, beautiful, blonde-haired lady stood on the other side, dressed in a business suit.

“Hannah!”

“Hey, Mom,” she said, smiling. “How are things?”

“They’ve been better, dear. In fact I could really use a hug.”

Hannah raised her arms. And in that moment Lucretia was so grateful, she burst into tears all over again.






30

 

The prison psychiatrist’s name was Doctor Mark Cookie. The prisoners all called him Cookie, which was fine, he didn’t mind. To his face he was addressed as Doctor by the staff, but of course, behind his back, they all called him Cookie, too. This didn’t bother him either. People had been calling him by his last name ever since grade school. Even the teachers. He’d been a boy with a sense of humor, and he kind of liked the way it sounded. Plus, all the girls thought it was cute, and who could complain about that?

Today he still found laughter to be good medicine. Not the best, maybe, but pretty good. Over the twenty years he’d been practicing psychology, he’d found that earning a patient’s laughter was almost the same as earning his trust. Thus, he often liked to break the ice with new patients by telling a joke. A good joke, not one of his own. He saved all of his own jokes for his wife, who never laughed. That was his revenge for eighteen years of loveless matrimony.

The patient in front of him now did not look ready to laugh at anything. He was fifty-four years old—the same age as Cookie. He lay on an infirmary bed with one eye closed (it had been punched black by someone very strong), one arm in a cast, and one tooth protruding from an otherwise empty row of bloody gums. His good eye hovered on the doorway behind him, as if at any moment an explanation for all the hell he’d endured would walk through. Cookie looked back, saw nothing, then returned his gaze to the patient.

“Hello,” he said. “My name is Doctor Cookie. I’m the prison psychiatrist.”

The patient kept quiet. In the dim glow of the infirmary lights, he looked like a corpse. Skin pale, lips drawn back. Instinctively, Cookie looked down at his toe for a tag. He couldn’t see the other’s foot, though, and thank goodness. It was under the sheet.

“I’m writing a book,” he went on, “about different kinds of criminals and their motivations. I hope to produce the definitive work. May I ask you some questions about…” Cookie paused. The ground got treacherous from here. A criminal’s past was never anything but. “About what happened to you eleven years ago, in Monroeville?”

The patient’s head turned ever so slightly. “Fuck off,” his tongue slithered.

Cookie smiled. Anger was often the first emotion he received from his patients. Coming from this one, especially in his current state, he’d expected no less. There were ways around it, however. Tricks of the trade.

“Who did this to you?” he asked, feigning disgust. “Maybe we can get the bastard locked up in solitary.”

“This prison doesn’t have solitary,” the patient, whose name was Jarett Powell, got out through his broken mouth. “It’s not politically correct, Doctor.”

“Neither is getting the shit beat out of you in the shower.”

“And fucked. Don’t forget fucked.”

“You were raped?”

“Either that or someone gave me a colonoscopy with a baseball bat.”

“I see,” Cookie said with an inward wince. “Well I’m sorry to visit you at such an inappropriate time, Mr. Powell. But I feel that your story would easily be the most fascinating in my book, should you wish to discuss it.”

This last part was a lie. At least three other inmates here at Mansfield Correctional had done things the doctor knew would never be topped. One of them had caused a plane crash at the Huron County air show last year by shining a pen laser through the pilot’s window during a difficult stunt. The plane had spun directly into a crowd of senior citizens who’d been driven to the show in a nursing home shuttle bus. All of the senior citizens, plus the pilot, had been killed instantly.

“I don’t wish to be fascinating,” Powell said.

Blood and spit dribbled down his chin. Cookie ripped a piece of tissue off a roll on the side table and wiped it.

“Maybe not,” he said softly, in total drama mode now. It was a method he had coined himself as controlled tenderness. Given in proper doses at the correct times, a little compassion—whether real or fake—could go a long way towards getting a patient to talk. “But you are anyway.”

“Go to hell.”

Cookie sighed. So much for controlled tenderness. He threw the balled, bloody tissue over his shoulder, where it struck a nurse who just happened to be passing by. A young, pretty nurse. Of course. One more fling that would never happen.

“Was that really necessary?” she scowled.

“I’m sorry,” Cookie said. “My fault.”

Her eyes narrowed. “You’re Doctor Cookie, right?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Well, Doctor Cookie, it’s after hours here. Finish whatever the hell it is you’re doing with this patient and get out.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“And pick up that fucking tissue while you’re at it.”

Now Cookie’s mouth gaped. And not for the first time, he wondered what the hell was becoming of women these days. They all talked like truck drivers trying to back a rig into a tight dock. Jesus, where were June Cleaver and Margaret Anderson these days?

“Yes, ma’am,” he said for the third time.

He picked up the tissue, and when he turned back around, Jarett Powell was grinning from ear to ear. Mr. Sardonicus with no teeth.

“Nurse Fries. Holly Fries. Don’t let that pretty face fool you, Doctor.”

“I won’t. At least not anymore.”

Jarett laughed. “Cookies and Fries.”

“Not likely. In this lifetime, anyway.”

“So what do you want to know about Monroeville?”

Cookie’s eyes widened for a moment. “Just what happened in the early morning hours of February fifteenth, two thousand seven,” he said, pleased by this sudden turn of fortune.

“You look giddy, Doctor.”

“I’d like to hear what you have to say.”

“For a book?”

“That’s right.”

“It’s a shitty business to be in, Doctor,” Powell said, sighing. All traces of humor had left his features. “Writing books. Why not stick to treating head cases?”

“This book will help me to understand my patients better. Why they do what they do.”

“So you’re writing it for yourself?”

“Mostly.”

“No plans of getting it published?”

Cookie folded his hands together. “I’m not sure yet,” he admitted, truthfully enough. “It depends on the quality.”

The remark earned a snort from the pillows. “No one in literature cares about quality, Doctor. They don’t even know what quality is.”

“What do they care about?”

“The same fucking things that everyone cares about,” Jarett grunted. “Cheap thrills. Free rides. Effortless stimulation.” His gaze turned beady. “You want to sell your book?”

“I don’t know.”

“Dumb it down. Make it as stupid as you possibly can. The goddamned thing will fly right off the shelves.”

“I think you’re letting your recent experiences…upset your opinion.”

“Put a naked girl on the cover. Tits and ass.”

“Mr. Powell…”

“All right, all right. February fifteenth.”

“Thank you.”

“Don’t thank me, thank nurse Fries. She always cheers me up.”

***

“Jarett!” Crystal screamed. “You asshole!”

“What?” he said, laughing. “It isn’t loaded. Jesus, you really think I’d point a loaded gun at my own head and pull the trigger?”

He watched her storm across the room, her face a crimson circle of fury. Her hand flew through the air before he could react and slapped him hard enough make the gun drop from his grasp. It hit the floor. Clunk!

Jarett rubbed his cheek, but he was still laughing. “You look so cool when you’re mad. I love it, Crystal.”

The girl blinked and shook her head, as if she couldn’t believe the stupidity on display. “What on earth is wrong with you? Don’t you realize the trouble we’re in?”

“I realize it. But I had to get you once, Crystal. Just once. Your mother was right. It’s fun.”

She went to the closet and started throwing his clothes onto the bed. Jarett watched her hands shake, listened to her breath coming in and out. His smile faded. Oh God, what was he doing to her? Why was he acting this way? Less than a month ago he’d been professing his love for her, laying it on the bathroom tiles like a lamb to be sacrificed. Now, she was his stooge. A girl sitting in his dunk tank.

Jarett put his hand on her shoulder. “Hey, I’m sorry. That was stupid.” She looked at him over her shoulder. “It’s just that this is a lot to take in, dear. A hell of a lot. My whole life is dumped upside-down.”

“And you’re blaming me for that?”

He decided to take a chance with the truth. “Of course,” he said. “But I also blame myself. Either way, there’s no excuse to be acting silly now.”

The girl turned all the way around and looked at him without saying a word. Jarett waited. He owed back the time.

“All right,” she said at last. “We can get out of this, Jarett, but you have to do what I say from now on.” Her brow arched. “Are you going to do what I say from now on?”

“Yes,” he nodded.

“Good. Help me pack these clothes. We need to leave town.”

In a blizzard? Jarett almost asked.

The question was too stupid. Of course they had to leave town tonight.

We’ll get stopped by the cops. No one’s allowed on the roads.

“No choice,” he muttered. “No choice.”

“What?” Crystal asked, sounding ready to flame up again.

“Nothing,” Jarett replied. “Nothing at all.”

***

At this point the patient stopped talking. His eyes wandered down to the end of the bed. Cookie thought that what he saw there wasn’t the sheet, or the flaked metal frame that squeaked whenever its occupant shifted his weight. No doubt it was the girl he saw. Crystal, sitting primly on the mattress. Or standing next to it, with her hands on her hips and her eyes all but stabbing him to death with vitriol.

“I don’t think we would have made it,” he said, “had we gotten the chance to try. I mean sure, I had a truck, but…that was one hell of a storm. I’m sure she felt the same way. Hell, last I heard, she thinks I was killed in a police stand-off outside the house.”

Cookie grunted. The Saint Valentine’s Day Blizzard of 2007 had lasted for two days. By the end of it, Mansfield was buried under seventeen inches of snow. He’d not been able to drive to work. That part of it was fine. But being cooped up with his wife for three days…

“A grunt,” Jarett said, suddenly back from his reverie. “What’s a grunt? Are you even listening to me?”

“Yes, of course,” Cookie insisted. “Absolutely.”

“Well don’t grunt. You want to grunt, go home and fuck your wife.”

“I’m sorry.”

“All right then.”

***

Jarett put the gun on the side table before they started packing. The job took an hour, during which time they discussed where to go and how to get there. Suddenly the pragmatist after years of wanton behavior, Crystal wanted to know how much money Jarett could get his hands on in an immediate manner, and whether or not his truck ran well enough to undertake a long journey. Jarett assured her that the truck would be fine. And as for the money, he had his ATM card.

“Great,” Crystal said with a curt nod. “You’ll need to buy me some clothes. I’m not going back to my house for anything.”

“All right.”

“But first let’s get the hell out of this crummy town.”

It was the very last order she ever gave, the very last time she spoke like a girl with her fist on the table. Jarett went down the hall to shower and get dressed, leaving her to brood over the suitcases. He closed the door. Minutes later, while toweling off, the walls began to shake with the heaviest footsteps he had ever heard in his life. A picture of a duckling swayed and then fell into the bathtub. Panicked, Jarett threw his clothes on quickly.

“Crystal?” he called as his fingers moved to get things buttoned and zipped.

The footsteps stopped about halfway down the hall. Moments later, they began to descend the stairs.

***

“My blood just about froze, Doctor,” he whispered. “Because I knew it wasn’t Crystal, you see. I just knew it. She’d left her boots downstairs by the door. And even if she hadn’t…” He laughed. “You know, she’s a very small girl. Pert. Graceful. She could never walk like whoever was in the house with us.”

Cookie opened his mouth to remind Jarett that this was the part of his story where he and the local police, the FBI, and every doctor he’d spoken to, broke ways. He wanted to ask Jarett for the truth. The truth, goddammit. What the hell had actually happened at the Jackson farm that night? But no—he couldn’t do that. It would only rile the patient up again. Get him talking about sex with his wife. God, please, anything but that. Even bullshit would suffice.

***

Slowly, Jarett opened the bathroom door and called Crystal’s name again. She didn’t answer, though her legs were in plain view. She was sitting on the end of the bed.

Jarett crossed the hall. His eyes leaped over the railing, not knowing what he might see on the steps below. To his relief there was nothing but shadows, all of which were utterly still.

“Hey,” he said to Crystal as he went into the bedroom. “Was there someone in here just now? I heard footsteps.”

Her face was pale when she looked up from the gun in her hand, her eyes vacant.

“What are you doing with that?”

She looked back at the gun for a moment before answering. “There was a man in here. I heard him come in and thought it was you at first. But when I turned around it was someone else.”

“Who?”

“The one I told you about. The one I saw in the window when I was twelve. The one who answered the phone when I called you. I got scared and grabbed the gun. But he didn’t look like he wanted to hurt me.” Smiling, Crystal pointed Jarett’s gun at the closet door and squeezed the trigger. The hammer clicked. “Not that this thing would have done me any good regardless.”

“Crystal, I’m not following you.”

“That’s okay. You don’t have to anymore.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means I’m going to go home and do the right thing. Or at least as much of the right thing as I can.”

Jarett stared at her. “Does that involve sending me to prison?”

“You won’t go to prison. I’m taking responsibility, Jarett. For the first time in my life, I’m taking responsibility.”

“Is that what this mystery man told you?”

“His name is Levi Cutler. And yes, he did.”

***

“Doctor Cookie?” the patient said. “Are you listening to me?”

“Yes, of course,” Cookie answered.

“Well you look distracted. Do you want to hear this story or not?”

“As a matter of fact,” Cookie said, pulling a notebook from the pocket of his jacket, “I don’t.”

What?”

Cookie flipped the notebook open. The story that Jarett had told the police—the bullshit story—was here laid out in bullet form. He knew it by heart. But it didn’t belong in the kind of book he wanted to write. Lies were of no use when it came to understanding the motives of a criminal mind. He needed facts, cold and hard. You couldn’t treat a patient if you didn’t know what was making him sick.

“Miss Genesio told you that she saw a ghost,” Cookie said. “Is that correct?”

“Maybe,” Jarett told him.

His stand-offish tone no longer bothered Cookie. He was either going to get the truth from this man, or not. If not, he would simply scratch his name out of the book. What did he care if the damned thing wound up having ten fewer pages than originally planned?

“She was frightened at first, but then the ghost started to speak to her,” Cookie went on. “Common sense. Words of wisdom.”

Jarett looked away, his mouth tight.

“Mr. Powell?”

“What?” he growled.

“Is that correct?”

“I don’t want to talk anymore.”

***

“You don’t have to talk anymore,” Crystal said. “You don’t have to say anything or do anything. I’ll take care of this. For real this time.”

“I want you to wait here while I look around the house for this man,” Jarett said. “Okay?”

“Sure.”

He looked in the other bedrooms first before going downstairs to check every hiding place he could think of. The endeavor took time, but he was determined to find out what, if anything, Crystal had seen. The bulb of his flashlight shined to and fro, turning up nothing except empty corners and snow-covered windows. Played out, Jarett then went to the basement door. He opened it and went down. Two hundred year-old foundation closed in around the beam. The shape of an old furnace brooded in one corner. Along the far wall was the washer and dryer. The water heater. A crack in the concrete floor led to an empty butcher shower.

And that was it. There was nobody else in the house, real or imagined. Jarett went back upstairs to tell Crystal. She was still sitting on the bed, the gun in her hand.

“Nothing,” he said. “No one’s here.”

Her face showed no surprise. She picked one of Jarett’s shoes up from the floor and pitched it into the closet.

“What did he say to you?” he asked.

“He told me to grow up and go home.”

“And that changed your mind?”

After a moment’s thought, Crystal nodded. “I guess it did. He called me selfish. Irresponsible. Told me I was hurting the people who loved me.” Her eyes flicked upward. “And that includes you, dear. Especially you.”

“I don’t know if—“

“And then he said something he’d already told me once. He said to be mindful of the corn.”

“Mindful of the corn?”

“Yeah. So”—she shrugged her shoulders—“that’s what I’m going to do from now on. Be mindful of the corn.”

“Crystal, I don’t get this. I really don’t.”

“I know,” she told him, rising from the mattress. “But Jarett…what happened just now, it made me realize that it’s time to grow up.”

“Crystal—“

“Maybe I didn’t see a ghost. Maybe there’s no one here, like you said. Either way, I’ve come to my senses. And just barely in the nick of time.” A laugh burst from her throat, like a bubble of air from a girl who’d been underwater for too long. “So this will be my final act as crazy little Crystal Genesio.”

“Don’t do that!”

She had the gun pressed to her temple. “It isn’t loaded, dummy.”

“I know, but—“

What he might have said would never be known. A muffled pop from the gun cut him off. A splatter of blood. The sound of a body hitting the floor. And his own screams, one after the next, that rose into the night to be lost forever with the snowy wind.
























31

 

The dogwoods were in bloom. Whispering on the balmy spring wind, they sent their pink petals over the field, and along the old cart-path, and down the orchard lane. Sometimes these petals would gather on the sills of the farmhouse where Crystal lived, so that their scent drifted into her kitchen to accompany what bubbled on the stove with sweetness. And they may have been doing something of that sort today, except that she wasn’t in the kitchen to know for certain. She was outside beneath one of the larger elms, swinging on a stick at the end of a rope, and singing a song.

She leaned back between lines to take a breath. Her bare feet gave a kick at the puffy clouds. The collar of her blouse rippled; the flowers of her skirt billowed. Oh, beautiful morning. Warm and alive. On the house was a fresh coat of white paint. The window frames were green. Oh perfect world. Oh lovely life.

The sound of a dog barking turned her head. Just off the back porch, a black and white border collie chased a butterfly down the hill.

“Chubby!” Crystal called, just for the pleasure of sending her voice to the wind.

The dog glanced back with the biggest, happiest smile he had ever worn, but didn’t stop running. And when the butterfly got away, he simply found another one to chase.

That reminded her of Luke. The boy could be so fickle about what he wanted. On some days it was lemonade stands. On others, he talked of writing poetry. Others still had him dreaming of baseball, or of piloting airplanes. Or even (and these had become more common of late) just staying at home and tending his crops, the way his step-father did. The way she did.

None of it distressed her much. Luke was only twelve, after all; he had plenty of time yet to decide which butterfly to bark after. Making a mental note to tell him this later when he got home from school, Crystal jumped off the swing. It was almost lunchtime. Jarett would be in from the field soon. She went round the house to the front door with leaves swirling at her feet.

Verdancy frolics in the wind, she thought, where does it go, and where has it been? Verdancy frolics in the wind, as does our love, every now and then.

Once in the kitchen, she made two turkey sandwiches and set two cans of Diet Coke on the table next to them. Then she dialed Jarett’s number on her cell phone.

“Hey, you. Lunch is ready.”

“Whoops,” came her man’s voice through the receiver. “My bad, honey, I lost track of time. Be right in.”

In less than ten minutes his boots were clumping on the anteroom floor. And when he appeared in the kitchen, tall and rugged in denim clothes, she went to him for a kiss. Her fingers indulged in the stubble of his face, the coarseness of his hair. Two powerful arms engulfed her waist and lifted. Up went her feet from the floor. Higher and higher.

“Everything been okay around here?” he asked.

“Perfect,” she breathed back. “I finished painting the bathroom door. Changed a couple of light-bulbs. After lunch I’ll hang the laundry. Clothes’ll be dry in no time in this weather. What?” Jarett had begun to rub her back as she spoke, and his smile had deepened. Crystal tilted her head. “What’s the matter, sweetheart?”

“Nothing’s the matter,” was his soft reply. “You make me very happy.”

“Well someone had to come help you out with this place before it fell down around your ears.”

“I love you, Crystal,” Jarett said. “You make every day worth living.”

Crystal closed her eyes. A gust of warm wind rattled the kitchen window. From somewhere down the hill Chubby began to bark afresh. The trees swayed. The dogwood petals fell.

It was a long time before she opened her eyes again. She wanted to wait, to hold on, to make it last forever.

A knock came at the front door. Crystal turned to look down the hall. The knocking sped up, became almost frantic. Someone outside the door began calling her name.

“Crystal? Crystal? Let me in, please!”

Jarett’s hand touched her chin and gently turned her back to his eyes. “You don’t need to wake up,” he said. “Not if you don’t want to.”

“I love you, Jarett.”

He smiled. “Then let’s just stay here.”

She kissed him again, while the voice behind the door kept calling. Calling and calling. Eventually, whoever it belonged to gave up and went away.

Feeling safer than she ever had in her whole life, Crystal sat down with Jarett to eat.

 

July, 2014-September, 2015



























Afterword

 

Squeezing this section of Crystal Grader in, almost a year after its publication date, makes me nervous. I’m afraid I might mess up how the text displays for you later on, or corrupt the font somehow, or even—God forbid—delete an entire fucking chapter without knowing it. Imagine that. Not a lot of people read the book you just finished, but I sure want it intact for anyone else who decides to give it a whirl. As things are, no one trusts indy authors, so we need to make damned sure we get things as perfect as possible. One wrong move and it’s curtains.

But I want to write this afterword anyway. I did it for Regions of Passion on its first anniversary, so here we are. I would also like to tell you why, just in case you’re curious, I even wrote Crystal Grader in the first place.

It started with its leading lady. Like my heroine from the first novel, I’ve known Crystal since the nineties. We started out doing some photo-shoots together. She had this really cool black outfit she liked to wear and I had a camera. She was also willing to work underwater while holding her breath—another thing she had in common with Ingrid from Regions. From these photo-shoots we moved on to doing short fiction. In one story Crystal played a spy hired to infiltrate a secret facility. It wasn’t publishable, but I liked it so much I asked if she’d be interested in doing a novel. Guess what her answer was?

By this time, Regions of Passion had already come out on Smashwords. It wasn’t doing especially well; in fact, no one was reading it at all. So when I took the idea for Crystal Grader to the little production company that exists inside my head, well… Let’s just say they looked at me for a long, long time before answering. But they green-lit it, and that’s the important thing. Except for one caveat: Tag, they said, you’ve already written one flop. If this new novel flops, please don’t expect us to green-light any more.

Talk about pressure. You might remember from my first afterword that writing Regions of Passion felt a lot like pitching in a baseball game. Not so with Crystal. With Crystal, it was two strikes and you’re out.

And I may as well tell you right now: No one at the studio had high hopes for Crystal Grader. They did not pay attention to us at all (me and the cast and crew) as we worked on it. On the day shooting wrapped, we held a very quiet, subdued party. After that, I sat alone on a sound stage, drinking Coke Light. The novel was done.

And it flopped. Christ, did it ever.

I was prepared to hang it up for good. I even posted as much on my Smashwords page—something to the effect of I believe I am done with writing. Then I got this crazy idea in my head of Crystal killing vampires, and the whole mess started all over again.

About that—Crystal killing vampires—I went to the studio, pitched the idea…and they accepted it without a wink. Who knows why. Maybe they were sympathetic to my plight. Maybe they knew that without literature I have nothing. Or maybe they just feel the same way I do about Crystal: They love her, and they want to work with her for as long as possible.

Just a couple of other things about her book (this one) before I leave. It won’t take long.

The Jackson farm where Jarett Powell lives is very real. I lived there from 1977 to 1978. It gave me great pleasure to revisit, if only in book form. Chubby is also real, or was at least. We played together every day as only a boy and his dog can. On the day my family moved away, I cried my eyes out. I knew I would never see Chubby or that wonderful house in the woods again. But here, in Crystal Grader, I got to walk its halls once more, and even give Chubby a scratch behind the ear.

All right. I guess that’s it. Thank you for taking the time to read this book. Do feel free to leave a review. It would please me, and it would probably make those studio guys cream their shorts to know that somebody—somebody—actually made it through this thing. Goodbye. Peace and love and good will. All of that stuff.

 

--Tag

 

November, 2016



































Acknowledgments

 


Adult Education—copyright 1983 by Daryl Hall, John Oates, Sara Allen; RCA Records, Inc.

 

Vincent—copyright 1971 by Don McLean; United Artists Music

 

Attempts to contact the owners of these songs were not met with a reply. Should they wish for a cease and desist, please contact the author of this work so the appropriate changes can be made.

 

Crystal Grader, by Tag Cavello (1971-)

 

Crystal Grader is a work of fiction. Any similarities to persons or events is purely coincidental.






























Other Books By Tag Cavello



Double Dutch and Other Stories

 

Regions Of Passion

 

__________

 

 

Wattpad Page: https://www.wattpad.com/user/Dammyl1971

 

Booksie: http://www.booksie.com/tag_cavello

 

Twitter: https://twitter.com/notc1971

 

Smashwords: https://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/dammyl1971

 

Free-ebooks: http://www.free-ebooks.net/search/Tag+Cavello

 

Blog: https://coffeewithzombies.wordpress.com

 

Goodreads: http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/8293490.Tag_Cavello?from_search=true&search_version=service

 

Thoughts and opinions, political and personal, by my good friend Mike Doria can be found at these addresses. Read his articles and you may just see things in a whole new light:

https://www.facebook.com/mykdoria

https://twitter.com/Mike_Doria

 
















Tag Cavello was born in Norwalk, Ohio, in 1971. As a boy he lived on the Jackson farm in Monroeville, Ohio. Today he lives in Manila, the Philippines with his wife and two young daughters.

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Tag der Veröffentlichung: 19.02.2016

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