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The Snow Garden
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Not slowly wrought, nor treasured
for their form
--Howard Nemerov, "Snowflakes"
The neon yellow sign atop the Yankee Savings & Trust Building flickered to life at just past three in the afternoon, its light-sensitive timer tripped by the advancing tide of gray clouds that rolled in off the Atlantic, casting downtown into a gloomy winter shade. Since the building's completion in 1984, the old joke for the "townies" who lived at the base of the hill was that the tallest and newest building in Atherton's meager skyline liked to send everyone home early during winter by announcing nightfall several hours prematurely. By five thirty, the last of the insurance adjusters and bank tellers made the short walk to the train station where they would board commuter rails that would carry them as far as Boston and Connecticut, leaving behind a downtown that would become an empty stage set of art deco entrances and sidewalks blown clean of litter by increasingly ferocious winds off the bay.
As the city below drained of life, the crown of Atherton Hill glowed with a corona of light. A verdant green swell in summer months, winter stripped the hill to a scabbard of skeletal branches spider-webbing between Gothic spires and Victorian rooftops. Streets snaked up the hillside toward the university campus, begging for a blanket of white they might not be granted. The waters of the bay usually warmed potential flakes into dreary sheets of rain.
By seven o'clock, on the evening of November fourteenth, fat flakes filled the halos of the streetlamps lining the paved banks of the Atherton River, a black vein curving its way around downtown. The snow fell with rare and determined force, clinging to the pavement with a refusal to melt. Shouts erupted across the crown of the hill. Dorm room windows were raised, and students burst from the library headed for the nearest cafeteria and its piles of trays that could be used as sleds. Almost an hour later, the Hill had quieted, the continuing snow blanketing the campus with an eerie hush. At the base of the hill, squealing brakes and an abrupt shatter of glass broke the silence.
Headlights danced across his three rearview mirrors in succession. The brake pedal groaned and stuttered under his foot and the Tercel almost went into a skid. He threw out his arm, hooking one of his wife's shoulders and driving her back against the passenger seat. There was an abrupt silence and he felt as if the world had suddenly been put on pause.
Then he saw it: the Volvo that had come out of nowhere, arcing silently through the air fifteen feet from the angled nose of their car, a torn section of guardrail hooked to one of the Volvo's shattered headlights. It vanished as quickly as it had appeared.
"Oh, shit . . . Phil! Shit!"
Silence again except for their own gasping breath.
Where the hell did it go? he thought. It just disappeared.
But he knew better.
When he kicked open the passenger door, his wife bucked against her seat belt, one arm reaching for his. But he slammed the driver's side door shut behind him, extinguishing the dome light. His wife became a dark shadow behind the windshield, still pulling frantically at her seat belt. He jogged breathlessly to the torn opening in the guardrail, went to brace himself against it and then withdrew his hands suddenly like a man about to get his fingerprints on a murder weapon.
Black water embraced the Volvo's upended taillights. Escaping air out the shattered rear window bobbed a flotilla of rent mental and ice. And after the shrill shriek of the brakes and the shattering glass, now the only sound was the disgusting, rhythmic thump of the air pushing itself out of the Volvo and to the river's surface in cartoonishly large eruptions. Without thinking, he turned.
Colonial Avenue was a dark swath cutting down the hill to where his Tercel sat angled in the intersection. To his right, downtown was a warren of shadows. No headlights in either direction. He was startled by the sound of the door alarm and turned to see his wife running toward him across the thirty-foot-long bridge, one arm raised over her bent head, trying to shield herself from the driving snow.
He met her halfway, grabbing both of her shoulders, practically lifting her off her feet for an instant as her shocked eyes met his.
"Get in the car!"
Could she smell it? He certainly could. And Jesus Christ, hadn't she been the one who made the crack at dinner? One more glass and we'll be toasted.
"We have to call someone!"
"Just get in the car --"
"Phil, this is insane!"
But he had already taken hold of her shoulders, was driving her back toward the Tercel. She tried one last time, whipping her body around against his bracing arm, grabbing at his forearm with both hands, as if trying to get a peek over his shoulder at the Volvo which was now. . . . He didn't dare turn around.
He threw her against the door and her chest hit the roof of the car with a sickly thud, her breath coming out of her with a groan. And this time when she turned, her eyes landed on him, not what might be going on beyond the rail, and he saw equal parts disgust and fear. Was he really going to make them do this?
"We'll pull over. We'll use a pay phone."
The apology in his voice sounded pathetic and he pondered exhaling right into her face so she could smell the one and a half bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon. But she was already climbing back into the car, and by the time he joined her, she had rolled her head to one side, gazing out the passenger window and the hole punched through the guardrail, crying silently.
"I'll pull over."
He turned the key in the ignition and the entire car screamed before he realized he hadn't bothered to kill the engine.
Kathryn Parker couldn't move her feet. She looked down and saw they were wedged under the wooden crossbar of the railroad tracks. She heard the low, mournful moan of a locomotive's horn somewhere in the distance, and then the tracks stretching out on either side of her erupted in a concert of metal against wood. She was blinded by the headlight of an approaching train, roaring toward her out of darkness that had been immaterial only seconds before. Her arms went up to stop the inevitable.
She awoke to the theme from Shaft.
Strange shapes drifted across the far wall of her dorm room and she sat up, groping for the knob on the halogen lamp next to her bed. The torchère sent a halo of light across the ceiling, its panels still scarred by the design of beer bottle caps that had been embedded in them on the day she moved in. Flakes fell past the window, casting their shadows on the cinderblock wall on April's side of the room. Now that the roar of her nightmare had retreated, she could make out the persistent and grating music of Stockton Hall, a pulsing four-story beehive of disconnected adolescents announcing their new identities with stereos turned too loud, shouted punch lines followed by forced laughter. Next door, the sounds of Shaft gave way to televised conversation and she remembered that the engineering freaks were holding their weekly Babylon 5 party. April had been the first one to point out that white Jewish boys from outer Boston seemed to have a propensity for all things Superfly. She didn't know how she could sleep through it all.
It was Randall's story that had caused her nightmare, and she reached for it where it lay on her desk.
The town of Drywater, Texas exists because a woman named Elena Sanchez was killed by a train.
Randall Stone was her best friend at Atherton -- maybe her only friend -- and now he had managed to infiltrate her dreams thanks to a short story she could only describe as bizarre.
Elena's only son Ricky didn't find this out until he was thirteen.
She dropped the story to her desk and swung her legs to the floor, padding barefoot across the threadbare rug April had bought only a week earlier, and across the chilly linoleum to the poor excuse for a vanity set into the wall between the room's two closets.
Since arriving at Atherton University, her dreams had become increasingly bizarre and she had developed the odd habit of checking herself in the mirror after every one to see if nightmares left any visible traces on her face. She raked one hand back through her sandy blonde hair, revealing her wide eyes, still brown and no, not that bloodshot. Her fingers instinctively traced a path down to where her hair hit just above her shoulder, searching for split ends. She caught herself, forcing her hand down to her side, staring dead on at a pretty enough girl who had stopped being called mousy once she entered high school, whose breasts had exploded at fifteen before refusing to expand another cup size. After several seconds of the masochistic exercise, she found herself unable to turn away from her own image. The hand she had forced down earlier traveled back to her throat. Even as she told herself to stop, her fingers were prodding the soft flesh at the top of her neck, trying to find the lump of her lymph nodes. Bigger than yesterday? Bigger than the day before that?
She clasped her hands in front of her face, breathing into them.
Was it the nightmare that had left her this shaken, or was it the reality that this compulsion had not left her as quickly as she thought it would? How many more test results would have to come back before a mild sore throat could be just that, a fucking sore throat?
The door flew open and she backed away from the vanity as if she had been caught fondling herself. She expected Randall -- he had stopped knocking long ago -- but it was April who shoved her way through the door. She was bundled in her favorite leather jacket with the faux fur collar, black braids flecked with white flakes. "It's snowing!" she announced flatly, before letting her book bag slide off one shoulder to the floor with a thud.
"How was the meeting?" Kathryn asked, standing awkwardly as April got down on all fours and dove headfirst into her closet, two feet deep with a tattered curtain instead of a door.
"I need a beer."
She tossed a pair of Gucci boots out behind her, which landed at Kathryn's feet.
April rose, shoving the curtain aside on its rod. "Did you know there was a Black national anthem?" She tore several hangers from the rack before depositing the pile of shirts onto her extra-long twin. "No, I didn't," Kathryn answered, realizing that April's worst fears about attending a meeting of the Afro-American Student Alliance had been confirmed.
"It was like the first day of high school. I walk into the center and the only person that would even talk to me is Marcel. And you want to know what he told me after the meeting? It doesn't matter that his mother's Irish and his father's black. But with me, see, that's a problem, because all the women there think I'm going to steal all the good men. Good black men who really want white women. How's that for unity?"
April froze, her back to Kathryn. "Did you tell them you were a dyke?" she asked with as much humor as she could muster.
April's laugh was strained. But at least she had responded. It was a reliable joke. In the first week of living together, Kathryn had gone from calling April a lipstick lesbian to a Neiman Marcus lesbian. "Screw them, April. Give the GLA a try. Trust me. I went with Randall once. They're hurting for patent leather and side-zip jeans."
"Great," April responded. "And in a month I'll be out on the green trying to turn dykes into Girl Scouts. Or Girl Scouts into dykes. No thanks. Politics isn't my calling anyway."
April dug into her jacket pocket and removed a crumpled pink flyer which she handed to Kathryn. Kathryn unfolded it as she crossed to her side of the room. Andy Warhol's face stared up at her, superimposed on top of a spiral design that looked like it had been designed by a third-grader.
"Burton House?" Kathryn asked incredulously. "The literary frat?"
"They don't card. And we're going. So get dressed."
"These are the losers that march a pledge naked on the green and make him do tequila shots while they dance around in llama costumes, right?"
"Kathryn, who are you to talk? You've been napping since we got here."
Kathryn tossed the flyer aside and fell back onto her mattress with a groan. "I've got work."
"Waiting for Randall is not work!" April shot back. "Besides, I think he's going."
"No, he isn't," Kathryn responded, sitting up suddenly.
April shot her a look. "Why? Because he didn't clear it with you first?"
Kathryn rolled her eyes. April's suspicions of Kathryn's deep affection for Randall had become old hat. But truth be told, Kathryn didn't know where Randall was going that evening. She had dropped by his room earlier, daring to knock even though it might result in a face-to-face with Randall's roommate, Jesse, and maybe whatever completely naïve freshman he was bagging that evening. But both Randall and his walking penis of a roommate had been out and she was greeted only by the site of those inane construction paper signs announcing the room's occupants in bright letters cut of neon colored construction paper. The RA had taped them to the doors of every room on the first day of orientation, but most students had removed or disfigured theirs. Randall's and Jesse's signs remained intact, as if highlighting the odd pairing that lived together on the other side of the door.
With a jolt she realized April had been talking to her for the last minute.
". . . guy looked like Paul Bunyan on crack but we both took a flyer and Randall said he might be going." April turned suddenly. Kathryn hoped she didn't look caught, but April saw something in her eyes because she crossed to Kathryn's bed and sank down on it. "If you don't snap out of this I'm going to buy those special light bulbs I read about. The ones that simulate sunlight for little West Coast girls like you who turn suicidal during winter."
"I'm from San Francisco. But nice try."
April smiled, pleased that Kathryn was sparring with her again. "April, don't you remember my rule about frat parties?"
"Oh please. It's a literary frat, Kathryn!"
April rose, shaking her head before her gaze landed on Kathryn's desk. She rose and crossed to it, picking up Randall's story. "What's this?" she asked. Feeling a strange stab of panic, Kathryn rose from the bed, too. "I didn't know Randall wrote stories," April said distantly. No sooner had she flipped the first page than Kathryn had tugged the story out of her hands gently. April looked to her with a surprised, slightly offended smirk.
"Sorry. I just don't know how many people he wants reading it."
"Can you tell me what it's about?" April sounded slightly offended, and when Kathryn looked up from the story on her lap, she realized that despite her wisecracks that implied Kathryn felt something deeper than friendship for her best friend, April was also intimidated by the strength of their bond.
Kathryn managed a slight laugh. The story was so bizarre it defied instant description. "It's about this kid who grows up in this small town in Texas --"
"Randall's from New York."
"That's why it's a story. Do you want to know what it's about or not?"
April rolled her eyes and returned to her bed.
"When he's a little kid, his mom gets killed in this car accident. Her car stalls out at this railroad crossing and she gets hit and like dies instantly. Then the county finally decides that it should put up gates and warning lights because she's like the ninth person to get killed in that spot. So then . . ." April was holding up a collared shit that looked like it was made out of aluminum to her chest and examining herself in the full-length mirror. "April, are you listening?"
Kathryn knew she was pre-med and had little patience for fiction beyond Michael Crichton.
"All right, so when the boy turns fifteen he finds out that this entire town he grew up in only exists because the county put up the gates and people finally thought it was safe to live near the tracks. Basically, his mother had to get killed before anyone would build his hometown. So the kid just . . . snaps. And one night, he derails the train."
Startled, April turned.
"How?" she asked, her sense of logic obviously offended.
"He saws through some of the crossbars."
April's eyebrows arched.
"I don't think he really means to do it. I think you're supposed to believe it's an accident."
But even she wasn't sure. The descriptions of propane tanks lying in the smoldering cavities of Airstream trailers had been too emphatic, demonstrating a love of fire even as it consumed humans, and more than that, a kind of rage she had never seen Randall Stone exhibit in day-to-day life. Now, the five page story had a dizzying effect and she slid open her desk drawer and deposited it inside. When she turned, April was studying her, seeming to have sensed the strange spell the story had cast on her.
"What's a Warhol party, anyway?"
"I don't know." April brightened at Kathryn's first sign of surrender. "Drugs?"
"Here we go!"
"If Jesse Lowry shows up, then I'm out of there."
April lifted both hands in a gesture of defeat. "Fine."
Eric Eberman wasn't sure what had awakened him: the mournful wail of the siren carried by the wind that was buffeting the walls of the house, or the feel of the boy's finger tracing a slow path down the center of his chest before circling one nipple. The bedroom window was rattling in its frame and outside tree branches jerked in the wan halo of light from the street, their shadows dancing over Randall's face, hiding and then revealing his pale blue eyes and his slight smile.
"I have to go," Randall whispered.
He bent down as if to give Eric a formal kiss on the cheek, and in response Eric curved an arm around his shoulders and brought the young man's body on top of his. Randall let out a gentle, almost placatory laugh before his head came to rest on Eric's chest. Most of the sounds that came out of Randall Stone seemed strangely adult given his soft, boyish features: full lips and baby fat padded cheeks that could transform from a pout to a smile in a second, a jawline that added years to his face when tensed in anger.
Eric allowed his hands to wander down Randall's naked back. Wondering how long he could let his fingers traverse the smooth flesh before the first stab of guilt would come, that sudden weight that yanked him down from the delirious high that came from freely touching what had previously been taboo.
Randall let out a labored breath and brought one fist to rest against his head as if he were about to return to sleep. But when Eric's fingers touched the first scabbed scar on the back of his thigh, Eric could feel the young man tense a bit, and then think twice, before forcing himself to go lax.
"Do they hurt?"
"Never," Randall answered.
"I'm sure they did at the time."
Randall grunted slightly as if to say he couldn't remember.
"How did you . . ."
"My mom was preparing for this big dinner party. I was three and she put me up on the counter so I could watch. I barely remember . . ." Randall paused as if trying to summon the recollection. "I just remember this entire pan going up in flames. It was like this big curtain of fire."
The first time Eric had asked about the burns covering Randall's legs his description had been more vivid. The pan had tipped. His mother had screamed when she knocked it over. Three-year-old Randall had blacked out the moment he saw his legs burning.
"I thought you blacked out."
Randall lifted himself off Eric's chest.
"I must have." He kissed Eric's forehead gently. "Because I don't remember any pain."
Outside, the first siren was joined by a second in discordant chorus.
Randall slid out from Eric's arms and swung his legs to the floor. He reached for his pack of Dunhill Lights on the nightstand and extended one to Eric. Eric didn't need to shake his head "no." Randall knew he wouldn't smoke. But of course, their silent and shared joke was that the man who had just cheated on his wife with one of his male students wouldn't be caught dead with a cigarette in his mouth. Randall lit it and crossed to the bedroom window. Eric saw the snow for the first time, framing Randall as he stood naked in front of the glass, one arm braced against the panes over his head where a slow curl of smoke crept from his fingers through the street light's frail glow.
"Where are you going?" Eric asked.
"So I was just a pit stop."
Surprised, and no doubt amused, Randall turned from the window.
"Are you asking me to stay?"
"She's not coming back."
"I know." Randall returned his attention to the fat flakes falling with determined force past the window.
"Sometimes I think she might stay," Eric added, unnerved by Randall's silence.
"That would be easy, wouldn't it?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean it would be easier than leaving her."
Silence fell as Eric realized they had wandered dangerously close to forbidden territory, and he felt the urge to appropriate one of the few sayings of his generation Randall frequently used: Don't go there.
"You made the rule yourself, Eric. Can't spend the night, remember?"
"We have rules?"
Randall's only response was an amused exhalation of breath that couldn't qualify as a laugh.
"It seems more real with rules. Otherwise all we are is a bunch of stolen moments lined up in a row. Both of us are too afraid to actually give this a name, and when it ends, both of us will spend the rest of our lives trying to figure out the best ways to call it a mistake. It's not fair to me when you think about it."
"Why is that?"
"Because I'll live longer than you."
"What makes you think that?"
Randall turned from the window, no longer a softly lit profile. A dark shadow staring back at him. The sound of Randall's breathy laughter startled him. Randall's shadow moved to the chair draped with his clothes. By the time he heard the tinny rattle of Randall's belt buckle sliding to his waist, Eric spoke again.
He could see Randall's head turn.
"I'm asking you to stay."
Randall was still for a second before he moved to the foot of the bed, crawling across it on all fours until his mouth was inches from Eric. Eric didn't move. Randall was still shirtless, his jeans unbuttoned. His gelled and spiked hair was slightly mussed and matted from being twisted against the pillow. He stared at Eric, eyes bright, teeth sinking slowly into his lower lip, and Eric felt his stomach tighten with anticipation. And then Randall slowly shook his head "no."
"No. I like you better when you don't get everything you want."
Randall's kiss was brief but firm and Eric fought the urge to lean in and draw the boy's tongue out of his mouth. Randall's weight left the mattress and Eric slouched back into the pillows, rolling over onto one side as Randall left him alone with the mournful song of several sirens which no longer seemed to be approaching or departing but had joined together in a consistent, off-key wail that was impossible to locate because of the distorting wind.
"Want to cut through the Elms?"
"Shut up, April."
"They're a good shortcut if you're not loaded. Or you don't have an overactive imagination."
The snow was driving and they were forced to walk with their shoulders hunched. Kathryn could hear sirens coming from the city below the hill. April had brought her jacket up over her neck. Kathryn shot a glance at the dark expanse of suggestive shadows to their left. To bypass it they had to walk through residential streets.
"I don't get it," Kathryn said.
"How much money did they spend to build the Tech Center?"
"And they still haven't managed to build on the Elms?"
The trees were thinning out and up ahead the four houses fringing Fraternity Green were fishbowls of light. Strobe lights inside Burton House cut stained glass shapes across the snow-blanketed lawn. "You think they should put a dorm there just because it gives you the creeps."
"No, it's just weird that Michael Price can't get his hands on a piece of prime real estate."
"Please. Be grateful. If someone doesn't stop that jerk, he's going to coat the entire campus in chrome!"
Michael Price was one of Atherton's most prominent alumni. The world-renowned architect had made a point of bringing cold and sterile modern architecture to his alma mater, which students and faculty alike found glaringly inappropriate for a predominantly Gothic campus.
"You know the Pamela Milford story, right?" April asked. Kathryn shook her head "no." They were steps away from Burton House and the bass pounding of disco was already audible. "I think it was the '80s. She wandered out of some party here, drunk off her ass, stumbled into the Elms and drowned."
"How did she drown?"
"There's some kind of creek, I think."
"All the more reason to raze it."
On the front porch of the house, Kathryn looked back to the Green.
"He might be inside. Can we just go in?"
April tugged on her shoulder.
Inside, they were swallowed by the shoulder-to-shoulder throng clogging the front hallway. The living room had been transformed into a poor man's Studio 54. Every other dancer wore a neon-colored wig and a Warhol film was being projected onto the ceiling. A rail-thin boy done up in drag shoved a tray of Jell-O shots in their face. April took one, shot it and then handed one to Kathryn.
"I told you they didn't card!"
"What's in this?" Kathryn asked the drag queen.
"X," he shouted back, before vanishing into the adjacent dance floor.
April brought one hand to her mouth. "He was probably kidding," Kathryn said, as she dropped her shot onto the stair above her head.
"Whatever. If I'm still awake in four hours, cuddling up against you in bed and stroking your hair, then these freaks are going in front of the Disciplinary Council!"
Kathryn hooked her by the shoulder. "Let's find Randall."
The kitchen was as crowded as the rest of the house, but Kathryn spotted an open back door. A hand slapped her ass. When she turned she saw April several steps behind her, and whirled to face the offender. Tim Mathis grinned back at her, raising dimples. His cherubic cheeks had the blush of too many drinks and to an ignorant observer it might have looked like the short, stocky peroxide blonde with the bicycle chain around his neck was making an ill-advised pass. That illusion was broken when Tim threw both arms skyward with a squeal before enfolding Kathryn in a sloppy embrace. "It's my favorite couple!"
"Have you seen Randall?" Kathryn asked as she pried herself free.
"Nope. No sign of the Ice Queen. But his roommate is certainly here, though!" Tim said, exaggerating the word roommate with a sexual suggestiveness that turned Kathryn's stomach. "He's out on the dance floor bumping and grinding with some twelve-year-old."
"Who?" Kathryn asked, before she could stop herself.
"Someone who doesn't know any better," April cut in, grabbing one of Kathryn's shoulders.
"What's the guy's deal anyway? Randall wouldn't give me any of the dirt. Is he a member of the spur posse or something?" More drunken guests were shuffling into the kitchen and Kathryn was being pressed up against Tim's chest. April's hand didn't leave her shoulder, ready to pull Kathryn away from a conversation she knew Kathryn didn't want to have. "I mean, don't get me wrong. Jesse Lowry is a Bruce Weber photo waiting to be snapped, but forgive me for thinking that a man who sleeps with that many women doesn't have something to prove!"
"Have you quit smoking yet?" April asked her.
"Let's go have one. I can't breathe in here."
"No, I wasn't talking. Really," Tim cut in. "And aren't you a med student?"
"Nice try. Biomedical ethics. And aren't you a music major?"
"Then why don't you try talking without singing!"
"You're just pissed because you're a dyke."
"I'm also black. Which fills me with rage. Kathryn, cigarette!"
"No, no. Not so fast!" Tim grabbed Kathryn's other shoulder. "Seriously, Kathryn, now I know how you and Randall are. You two probably did the whole finger-pricking, sharing blood thing. And I hate to be the first one to tell you but I think there might be more going down behind that door when you're on the other side . . ."
"No offense to you or your kind, Tim, but Jesse Lowry is as heterosexual as they come," April cut in.
"Bullshit. He's sexual. When are you girls ever going to learn the difference?"
Kathryn guessed that Tim had had no idea how much his flip comments had disturbed her, but the hand on her shoulder had begun to grip and pull. "Maybe you can interview Jesse for your column, Tim," she managed.
"Screw that. I'm about to quit. They think if they make me a news editor then I'll stop trying to rile shit up. I mean, do you guys even read the Atherton Herald? It's like three pages long and the major headline is always something real scintillating like, 'Sophomore Plants Tree.'"
"Have I told you I'm claustrophobic?"
"Jesus, April. All right. Tim, if you see Randall tell him I'm looking for him."
"Yeah, right. Like I ever see Randall anymore," Tim managed, raising his plastic cup in a sarcastic toast as April dragged Kathryn toward the open back door.
On the patio, smokers shivered in huddles. Trash cans lined the back wall spilling flattened beer cases.
"That was rude," Kathryn finally said.
"The guy bugs me. He talks about the Herald like it was the Washington Post and he's just trying to milk you for info on Randall with all that Jesse bullshit. He needs to move on."
Kathryn was silent, knowing that April had dragged her away from Tim solely because he had mentioned Jesse's name. And it wasn't just because Kathryn happened not to like her best friend's fanatically arrogant, albeit incredibly attractive roommate. The one time Kathryn had voiced her opinions on guys who sleep with a different girl every other night and refuse to call any of them back, April had accused Kathryn of being a puritan.
"Are you rolling yet?" Kathryn asked.
"Shit. It's Svet."
Kathryn followed April's frightened stare to where one of April's previous girlfriends of the moment stood smoking next to a trash can, shooting slant-eyed glances around the patio as if any number of the other guests might jump up and try to oppress her.
"Is that Abba?"
"I told you not to call her that. You and Randall need to start learning people's names. You're sociopaths."
The girl had claimed to be Swedish royalty, so rather than risk embarrassment in attempting to pronounce her name, Kathryn and Randall had agreed to nickname her after the famous Swedish singing group.
"How royal is she?"
"I have to talk to her."
"Why? You dumped her last month."
"That's why I have to talk to her. It's like noblesse oblige. Wait here."
But April was already crossing the patio. Kathryn turned, instinctively scanning the other guests to make sure no one was staring at the girl who had just been left standing awkwardly by herself.
Where the hell was Randall?
She shoved her way back inside. There was no sign of Tim in the kitchen, so she moved into the front hallway. She stopped in the doorway to the living room, scanning the dance floor and narrowing her eyes against the flashing strobe lights. There were plenty of blond heads, some with the same military-short buzz cut that Randall sported. But none of them belonged to Randall.
When her eyes met Jesse Lowry's, her breath came out in a startled hiss.
He was halfway across the living room and his dance partner was a rail-thin brunette who clung to Jesse's broad frame as if she were in a drunken swoon. They were engaged in a slow, swaying embrace completely out of synch with the uptempo disco. Jesse wore his UCLA baseball cap, with the bill shading his eyes from the flashing strobe lights, but Kathryn could make out his slight, suggestive smile; a smile that implied Kathryn had been watching Jesse for hours. The cap was a permanent fixture and she guessed his hair was dark under it. He wore a tight, cable-knit sweater which accented the broad swells of his chest. Most girls went weak in the knees -- not unlike his current dancing partner, and chosen one-night stand -- when Jesse bothered to look their way. Kathryn had trained herself to react with a mixture of disgust and suspicion.
After several seconds of this icy eye contact, Kathryn saw that it wasn't alcohol that had turned the girl in Jesse's embrace into a limp noodle. One of Jesse's hands disappeared behind the unbuttoned, slightly extended waistline of the girl's jeans, and she rocked up onto her toes, trying to bring her mouth to Jesse's before her intended kiss turned into a defeated gasp against his cheek.
Jesse withdrew his hand from the girl's pants. Kathryn left the doorway right before Jesse brought his finger to his mouth.
When he returned home from the department meeting that evening, it had still been light out. Eric descended the stairs to the pitch-dark first floor, where the view out the living-room windows glowed brighter than anything inside the house. Parked cars along Victoria Street sat beneath layers of white and the snowfall had thinned to frail flakes that danced on their descent; the evening's blow had turned into a dusting.
He wasn't sure what prevented him from turning on any of the lights. Randall was long gone and his paranoia was probably just that. But he crossed to the gas fireplace in the living room without flicking a switch. With a flick of the wrist, he turned on the gas and lit it with the fireplace lighter, the flames catching with a sudden whoosh as they punched through the plastic, charred coals. The firelight was too weak to illuminate the framed prints on the walls and they looked like hanging patches of deeper black.
Halfway to the kitchen, something hard banged his knee and he stepped back, realizing he had walked into the liquor cabinet door, which Lisa had left standing open. Angrily, he pushed it shut before realizing that he was hardly in any position to curse his wife's forgetfulness. Never mind that Lisa had spent the last three years of life fomenting scotch and Darvon as staples of her diet, he could still taste Randall in his mouth.
In the kitchen, he flicked on the overhead light, glancing at the phone. Lisa had left one of her usual notes, they were also cursory and by now unnecessary.
"Went to Paula's . . . Paula had a bad week. Back Mon. Prob Late."
He had popped open the fridge when the phone rang, startling him.
He turned and crossed to the phone. His hand was almost to the receiver when his eyes landed on the note, written on the banana-shaped stationary usually reserved for grocery lists. Instead of picking up the phone, he picked up the note, raising it closer to his face even though he had no trouble reading it at all.
I SAW. I KNOW.
His breath didn't catch, it simply stopped. Then a painful stab in his chest reminded him to breathe, and when he sucked in his first breath he realized the phone must have been on its tenth ring.
"Is this Eric Eberman?"
An unfamiliar female voice, its tone clipped and professional.
"Sir, is this . . ."
"Yes. Who is this?"
"My name is Martha Kellerman, sir. I'm afraid I have some bad news."
"Lisa . . ." There was no shock or urgency in his voice. He had answered on instinct.
"Your wife has been in an accident."
He looked down at the note he held in one hand. The urge to tear it in two struck him with such sudden force that he almost dropped the phone. Instead, he opened the nearest drawer with one hand and slid it inside, shutting it slowly so as not to be heard on the other end. By the time the woman was explaining that a patrol car was on its way to pick him up, Eric remembered the wail of sirens which had only come to a stop twenty minutes earlier.
Burton House shook with the bass thud of disco. Tim rested his head in both open palms as Kathryn fished a cigarette for him out of her jacket pocket. He took it with a weak smile and popped it into his mouth, before she lit it for him.
"This kills, you know?" he managed after exhaling his first drag.
"Shit. Why didn't anyone tell me?"
"Sorry about earlier," Tim muttered.
Kathryn feigned ignorance with silence.
"So what's his deal anyway?"
Kathryn had assumed that Randall's fling with the guy she had referred to as the "junior reporter guy" was over simply because the last time Kathryn had asked about it Randall had commented, "He's too earthy. He makes his own soap."
"He's from New York," Kathryn responded, unsure of how much she should be divulging.
"Only child, right?"
"Yeah. I guess that explains a lot."
"The New York thing explains a lot more." Tim sucked a drag. "Sorry. I just realized we've been on a few dates and I barely know a thing about him."
"I didn't think you guys actually went on dates."
Tim smiled wryly. "He tells you everything, doesn't he?"
"I don't ask for all the details."
Tim's eyes were downcast and Kathryn felt a stab of sympathy when she realized that Tim was still smarting from the sting of rejection, albeit a silent one.
The door to the house popped open and April emerged, tailed by Svetlana and three other lesbians Kathryn didn't recognize. "We're going to the Hole!"
"Gross. Be sure to shower," Tim commented.
"You coming?" April asked, eyes on Kathryn as she punched her fists into her gloves.
"Some of us don't have fake ID's."
"I can get you in," one of the lesbians offered. Kathryn attempted a grateful smile and just shook her head "no."
"No sign of the Ice Queen?" April asked.
"Looks like my nickname stuck," Tim said proudly.
April shot Kathryn one last disapproving look before turning to her entourage. "Let's head out, girls!" They shuffled down the steps past Kathryn. "We might meet you!" Kathryn called after them, and April only responded with a wave over one shoulder.
Kathryn stared after them before noticing a dark shadow striding down the path toward Burton House, moving a determined and fam-iliar gait. On instinct, Kathryn rose and descended the front steps of the house. Randall's eyes lit up when he saw her, glancing briefly over to where Tim remained seated behind her. He hooked an arm around her waist and kissed her on the cheek. "You were waiting?" he asked, tone apologetic.
"No. It's cool."
She heard Tim rise to his feet behind her and turned to see him brushing off the seat of his pants. He gave Randall an acidic forced smile and Kathryn felt a current of tension pass between both men before Randall returned the smile with a stiff and formal one of his own. "Tim," was the only greeting he managed.
"Randall," Tim responded mockingly, descending the steps. "All right, Bopsey Twins. I'll see you guys later." He passed them and Kathryn heard him add, "Maybe," under his breath.
Once he was gone.
"I know. The soap," Kathryn said.
"What did I miss?"
"Nothing. But you might still be able to see Jesse reel in tonight's catch."
"I'm sure I'll run into her later."
Randall tugged his silver flask from his inside jacket pocket, uncapped it and handed it to Kathryn. She took a slug and winced. "Christ, Randall, can't you add soda or something?"
"Lightweight. Come on." He took one of her hands and began leading her off the sidewalk and onto the lawn.
"Mind if I ask where we're going?"
Kathryn yanked her hand free. "No, Randall. I hate that place."
"I'll let you change. They'll only card you if you're dressed like you are right now."
His playful smile indicated he was only half-serious, but when she didn't show any of signs of giving in he formed his mouth into a slight pout and stuck out his lower lip. "Don't," Kathryn said. Randall furrowed his brow, jutting his lip out further. His expression had transformed from baby-faced pleading into a monkey scowl and by the time he had raised his hands to push his ears forward and complete the effect, Kathryn had grabbed one of his wrists. "Fine!" she barked, to choke off her laughter. "Stupid of me to think you could hang out with anyone who doesn't wear Prada."
"This is Gucci," Randall said in a small voice.
"Don't push it!" Kathryn made a sharp turn, leading them back toward the sidewalk.
"Where are you going?" She turned and saw Randall gesture with one arm toward the Elms. "Are you kidding?"
"Come on. I'll protect you." He curved an arm around her shoulders. Kathryn let out a defeated groan and allowed herself to be led into the dark woods. To her surprise, they were easily navigated. There was no underbrush and the only obstructions were shoulder-height tree branches that were hard to make out in the darkness. Randall pressed her head down and pushed branches out of their way with one gloved hand as they went.
"You don't even want to know what I saw your roommate doing tonight."
"Now I do."
Randall came to a sudden halt. Kathryn looked down and saw they were standing at the edge of a five-foot drop down into a creek swollen with runoff from melting snow. She looked to Randall, who stared down the drop as if it had foiled his plans. "I didn't know it was so wide down here," he mumbled, eyes scanning the creek bed.
"I thought you knew your way."
"Come on," Randall said, taking her hand and leading her up the bank. The trees began to thin out, revealing houses beyond. "So?" Randall asked.
"He and the girl he was dancing with needed to get a room," Kathryn said, instantly regretting that she had brought it up.
"Is there any reason you can't refer to him by his first name? He's always My Roommate, or That Asshole."
"He's both," Kathryn responded. They came to a sidewalk with a stone banister that crossed over the top of a large drainage pipe which emitted a crystalline mixture of black water and miniature ice floes extending from the bottom lip of the opening like white teeth. Kathryn's breaths were more steady now that they were on the solid ground of the sidewalk. The welcoming halos of Brookline Avenue's street lamps beckoned up ahead.
"I think it's interesting how some people make concessions for the beautiful, but you hold them to a higher standard," Randall said.
"He's not beautiful, Randall. He's hot. There's a big difference," Kathryn said, thinking of the magazine ads of shirtless, buff male models Randall used to bridge the gaps between posters on the cinderblock wall of his room; models who bore a striking resemblance to Jesse in their perfectly proportioned frames and inscrutable, distant facial expressions which suggested they were permanently aloof as well as physically indestructible.
"You might want to sleep with him. Just once."
"I'm going to pretend you didn't say that."
"Why? It might take away his mystique."
"He doesn't have any mystique."
"That must be why we're talking about him, then."
They had arrived at the stop light across the street from Madeline's. Brookline Avenue's only hip restaurant had made its ten o'clock transformation into a nightclub. Its front door emitted a long and impatient line of the university's best dressed, shivering in the cold as they waited to pretend they were in Manhattan for the rest of the night.
Randall had turned to face her, still holding one of her hands in his.
"What's next?" he asked gently. "Campus-wide outreaches for one-night stands gone wrong?"
"You've played the messages for me, Randall."
"Every time it's a different girl. It wouldn't bother me so much if I didn't think those messages were getting him off as much as the act itself."
"Fine. No more messages," Randall responded. "I don't think I should be indulging this fixation on Jesse's sexual habits."
"You know every time I talk about him, you and April make me out to be this Puritan."
"You talk about him a lot, Kathryn."
A note of concern had crept into Randall's voice and it took Kathryn a second to decide whether it might be condescension. Slightly wounded, and now feeling like a neurotic, she met Randall's gaze, unable to give voice to why she kept returning to Jesse as a conversation topic. Recognition flickered in Randall's eyes and leaned into her, reaching an arm around her waist and cupping the back of her neck slightly in one hand.
"Kathryn. I know better. All right?"
She didn't say anything else, she didn't need to. Once again, Randall had exhibited his knack for cutting straight to the truth, and doing it gently. Maybe this was one of the major reasons they had fallen into such a deep and all-inclusive friendship. Kathryn only had to do half of the work, because Randall could usually intuit the rest. Did this make her lazy?
She returned his embrace before giving him a surprise slap on the ass. He jerked.
They were both startled by a high-pitched whistle.
"Break it up, you two!"
Kathryn steeled herself at the sound of a familiar voice. Jesse's date clung to his shoulder, and let out a short, barking laugh as they approached down the sidewalk. Kathryn's eyes immediately shot to the girl's crotch to see if her jeans were buttoned.
Candles on wall sconces lit the interior of Madeline's. The bar was clogged with Armani- and Gucci-clad students downing shots between boisterous fits of laughter. Anemic, black-clad waitresses maneuvered between the cramped tables carrying trays of drinks on their rail-thin arms. A strange mix of acid jazz and ambient music pumped from unseen speakers, a stark contrast to the flickering images of the local eleven o'clock news Kathryn watched on the television above the bar.
Kathryn sipped her club soda and shot a glance over one shoulder. Through the plate-glass windows, cardigan-clad students made the walk back to their dorm, weighted by overloaded book bags and shooting withering glances at the designated hangout for Atherton's Euro Trash and designer-drug addicts. Kathryn prayed none of them noticed her.
Kathryn didn't bother to look at Jesse as he slid onto the bar stool next to hers.
"I thought you two were like attached at the hip."
Kathryn took a sip of her drink. "What's her name?"
"Don't know yet." Jesse sipped his drink and Kathryn finally made eye contact. He lifted his glass. "7-Up."
Kathryn nodded, as if impressed.
"Club soda. I thought you were a Schlitz man, Jesse."
"Not when I have to perform."
Kathryn's smile hurt her cheeks.
She looked toward the bathroom, praying Randall would emerge. Instead she saw Jesse's brunette, filing out of the women's room with three other girls. The brunette's eyes shot in both directions before she clasped her hands as if in prayer, using both index fingers to wipe at her nostrils. Kathryn noticed one of the other girls applying a liberal amount of chapstick. She read the group's behavior in an instant. They hadn't gone to the bathroom together to put on make-up.
Kathryn turned, startled, to see Jesse leaning toward her with one bent elbow braced on the bar. "Mind if I ask you a question?"
"Never," Kathryn answered.
Jesse laughed, eyes not leaving hers. "No, I'd just love to know what it is I do that pisses you off so much."
"I think it's really important you find one girl who won't sleep with you."
Jesse leaned back onto his stool and gave her a slight nod, not in agreement, but as if satisfied to get an explanation for the constant chill she greeted him with.
"You know, I think it's kind of cool what the two of you have."
"What do you mean?"
"I just remember the way you guys were during Orientation Week. Everyone else was hanging out in the lounge making bullshit conversation, spouting off those statistics about how ninety percent of married couples meet their other half in college, or going to those stupid ice cream social things. Not you and Randall. You were always out in front of the dorm smoking."
"I don't exactly recall you bonding with our dorm unit, either."
"I didn't," Jesse responded, without pause. "That's why I think it's cool."
Puzzled, she waited for him to continue. "Jesus, it's like everyone on our floor. They're all rushing to join some club, or they've got some whacked-out major like April with a hundred requirements and they've already gone to three classes by the time I wake up. It's like they're working their asses off to be anything other than what they are."
"What are they?" Kathryn asked.
"Kids. Away from home. But if you ask them they'll tell you they're a major. Not us, though," Jesse continued. "The three of us. You, me, Randall. It's like we didn't get taken up into the fold. Everyone else here, they're like Stepford Child freaks. It's like they're still high on all that bullshit they tried to feed us at Orientation."
"April says I use Randall to avoid making new friends," Kathryn said carefully, reminding herself who she was talking to. She left out April's other point, she used Randall to avoid meeting a boyfriend as well.
"I don't know," Jesse said nonchalantly. "We've only been here, what? Two months? It's like the two of you have taken vows or something."
She was reminded of Tim's comments about finger-pricking and sharing blood.
"So who's he dating anyway?" Jesse said.
"Randall? No one."
"That's weird. What happened to that reporter guy?"
"That's over," Kathryn responded.
Jesse's eyes narrowed.
"He's just been staying out really late."
"No, he hasn't," Kathryn said, unable to restrain the hint of anger in her voice.
"He leaves after you two get back."
The brunette suddenly slid between them, perma-smile plastered on her face, pupils dilated. Kathryn was definitely sure the girl was high and she watched as she leaned in to Jesse and whispered into his ear. She withdrew, laughing slightly, but Jesse's face had gone blank. Kathryn was startled to see him cup the girl's chin in one hand and gently push her face back several inches, surveying her.
"What?" the girl asked.
Jesse reached up and swabbed at the girl's nostrils with one finger.
"What are you doing?" the girl cried indignantly.
Jesse turned his attention to his 7-Up as the girl's eyes moved from him to Kathryn, having watched the entire scene. "Oh, I get it!" She snorted and turned on one heel. "Asshole!" she barked over one shoulder before making a beeline for the front door. Jesse didn't look up from his glass.
"High as a kite," Kathryn finally said.
Jesse's eyes shot to hers.
"How could you tell?"
Jesse arched his eyebrows suggestively.
"Not me. I had friends in high school whose entire weekend was an eight ball."
"But you never touched the stuff?"
"Never," Kathryn answered, her gaze unwavering.
Randall sidled up to the bar in between them. He shot Kathryn a curious glance, obviously wondering how long she and Jesse had been bonding. "Can I get an apple martini?" he asked the bartender.
"Randall, someday you're going to introduce me to a homosexual who can drink something that doesn't have a visible shade in candlelight!"
"Wait!" Jesse piped up. He grabbed one of Randall's shoulders and turned him, cupping his chin and examining his eyes.
"Mind if I ask what you're doing?" Randall said.
"He's clean," Jesse said to Kathryn with an unnerving grin.
The bartender delivered Randall's drink and he paid in cash. He turned his back on Jesse and leaned in. "What the hell was that about?" he asked, voice low.
"Inside joke. You're on the outside. Sorry."
"You two have inside jokes now? I was only in the bathroom for ten minutes."
"I know and we wanted to know why."
"Are you saying that the two of you actually bonded?"
"Mmmm. No, not really." Kathryn grabbed his chin. "But let me see somethingÉ"
"I don't do drugs."
"Then why do we keep coming here?"
"Damn!" Jesse barked. "Check that out!"
He pointed to the television screen above the bar, where Kathryn saw the mauled remains of a Volvo station wagon being hauled from the black water of the Atherton River. Police lights flared on the bridge overhead.
"Turn it up!"
It took Kathryn a second to realize Randall had shouted at the bartender, who was occupied on the other side of the bar.
On television, the news report cut live to a reporter at the rail of the bridge at the exact moment when Kathryn thought they were going to be given a glimpse of the person behind the Volvo's wheel. The volume bar suddenly appeared on the bottom of the screen. Heads around the bar jerked at the sound of the reporter's voice, now fighting with the music. Kathryn turned to see Jesse, bent over the bar, holding the remote.
". . . trying to chase down the anonymous caller who placed the 911 call reporting the accident, but so far they are short on leads. And also, no comment on whether or not that caller might have been involved in tonight's fatal accident which claimed the life of forty-one-year-old Lisa Eberman."
The reporter cut to footage of paramedics rolling a gurney towards the flaring light of an awaiting ambulance, smeared halos through the driving snow.
"As we told you earlier, Eberman was the wife of noted Atherton art history professor and published author, Dr. Eric Eberman."
"Dude!" The bartender snapped, before yanking the remote out of Jesse's hand. "This isn't a sports bar!"
Kathryn turned to find Randall staring rapt at the television screen.
"Do you know her?" she asked.
Randall turned, eyes glazed over and distant.
"Her husband. I'm in his course," he said.
Kathryn nodded as Randall gripped the stem of his glass and took a slug.
Jesse rose from his stool. "Looks like I've got work to do," he said, gesturing with one arm to the rest of the bar.
"Good night, Jesse."
Jesse departed into the crowd milling around the tables.
"You ready?" Randall asked.
She was surprised to see he had downed his entire drink.