I’ve finished editing the book and am in the process of formatting it on create space. If anyone has any tips feel free to chuck them my way! In the meantime, here are a few more chapters for anyone who hasn’t given up waiting for me to post. 🙂
Marc returned that afternoon to find me curled up in bed. Not sleeping. Just curled up on the bed with my hands under my head staring out the window. Staring at the russet trees that announced the autumn. The last harvest. Halloween. Death. Trying to keep warm. Trying to ward off the shadows of Venus’ visit. In her wake, she’d left many.
He sat down beside me.
“What’s happening?” His tone was gentle.
I shook my head, my eyes dry, staring. The shadows fled with his warm, familiar presence. I moved to rest my head on his lap.
“Marc I’m so tired.”
“What’s happening, Rowan?” he asked again.
It was hard to speak. I didn’t have the pulp. Whatever energy I had was spent in my discussion with Venus and the hours following, in which I sat alone, brooding. Feeling guilty that I wasn’t doing homework and brooding over the cruelty and unfairness of everything. “Celeste is in the hospital. She tried to kill herself.” The words required a Herculean effort.
“Venus said she took some pills. Yesterday. She’s in the hospital in Portsmouth.” The fatigue that overcame me with Venus’ departure was more than I could bear. I couldn’t move. Why didn’t she seem to care about her sister?
“Oh, Rowan I’m sorry. She’s okay?”
“I guess she’s as okay as someone who tried to kill themselves can be,” I said without humor.
“Right,” he sighed. “Eva’s accident has been hard on everyone,” he observed reflectively. His voice was almost a whisper.
“Do you want to go see her?” he asked, rubbing my hands, which were ice cold. As usual. I had such horrible circulation. I’d been that way all my life. Susceptible to the cold. Cold when my energy was low. As if my fingers and hands were too far from my heart.
The hospital was quiet. The walls were gray and when we emerged from the elevator, the hall lights were low. Or dirty. I looked up at them noticing there were dead flies inside the plastic light covers.
I felt nervous that Celeste was here in this place. Just on the heels of losing her sister. We passed room after room, people lying in the beds quietly. No voices. Just televisions and the blips of machines. It seemed like there was no escaping darkness and death. It catches up with everyone eventually.
Marc carried some flowers we’d picked out down the street at a florist. We looked for the room number we’d gotten from the woman at the information desk.
We passed the nurses’ station.
Several women in scrubs sat behind a tall desk talking. There were some dim monitors on, their screens displaying patient beds in black and white, several three-ring binders with what appeared to be charts or medication records lying open, and a bowl of candy on top of the counter.
The nurses did not look up to acknowledge us when we passed.
We kept going. The floors gleamed. One ceiling light flickered.
We came to the room.
Hesitating outside the door, I craned my neck around to peer in. I could see the end of a bed, feet poking up under a thin white cotton blanket. The room lights were not on, but some late afternoon light filtered in through the window.
There was one bed, a TV on the wall, and a chair. I knocked tentatively on the door. Three little knocks.
“Celeste?” I asked softly.
I saw the feet move, but she didn’t answer.
I took a step forward, Marc standing still behind me with the flowers.
“Celeste?” I repeated.
“Yes?” Her voice sounded tired, and unhappy to be disturbed.
We advanced cautiously.
The top half of the bed was raised to support her in a sitting position and her extended arm was hooked up to an IV with white tape covering the needle. She looked pale, her eyes had dark circles under them, her hair lay flat against her head.
She turned her head to look at us, her eyes like murky pools, no light there. She did not look happy to see us. Rather, she seemed embarrassed and sad.
“Hi,” I said, not sure we should have come. Perhaps sending flowers and a note, waiting for her to come home, would have been better, I thought suddenly. Too late, now. “Venus told us you were here, and we thought we’d just come see how you’re doing,” I said, trying to sound relaxed and casual.
“Great. Never better,” she answered sarcastically. I noticed her pale lips were dry, cracking. She looked away.
Marc put the flowers down on a table and stepped back to stand near the wall by the door. He didn’t speak.
She looked at the flowers. “You didn’t have to do that,” she said, a note of defeat in her voice. The room itself seemed full of defeat, I noted, looking around, with it’s dirty walls and dim light.
“We know. We just thought they would brighten the place up. Hospitals are so gloomy,” I said, pasting a smile on my face.
She didn’t answer. The six o’clock news came on the television. She turned away from us and stared at the television.
“Can I sit down for a minute?” I asked.
“Sure,” she said indifferently.
Marc shifted his weight to the other foot, but he didn’t sit. I looked at Celeste’s hand. The IV was just above her wrist, a testimony to what had happened. Proof that she needed help or support. Proof that she couldn’t nourish herself. Her arm lay flat on the bed. It looked pale, a little swollen. I was unaccustomed to seeing Celeste without any jewelry. No rings. No earrings.
“Celeste, what happened? Did you see Eva again?” I asked. I wanted to help her, but I didn’t know what she needed. Only that she clearly was not all right.
She looked at me, her eyes suddenly wide and dark. Her lips parted to speak, but she was silent.
I put my hand on hers. It was cold, dry, seemed to have shriveled. I waited for her to speak, to give me some idea of why she’d hurt herself, and what she needed. “She was in my apartment,” she whispered.
She closed her eyes and laid her head back against the pillow, as if the memory of the event exhausted her, and swallowed hard, trying to moisten her dry throat.
“Do you want some water?” I asked.
Glad to have something to do and an excuse to leave, Marc nodded and shot out of the room to find a glass of water for her.
I leaned forward, pulling the chair toward the bed, and picked her hand up, cradling it in my own and covering it with my other hand. She took a deep breath, relaxing, her eyes still closed. She wore a deep frown that made her look old.
“I saw her in my apartment,” she said, unable to move past that piece of information for the moment. She opened her eyes and looked at me. Her eyebrows came together and she pursed her lips, as if she was stifling tears.
“She isn’t gone.” This came out in a whisper.
Then she closed her eyes again, swallowing hard against her dry throat.
“Can you talk about what you saw?” I asked.
She shook her head no.
“Okay,” I said quietly. We sat there in silence for a few minutes, the news anchor churning out the day’s depressing events. The bad news of other people’s lives. People who lived around us but whom we didn’t know. Three family house burned to the ground. Woman missing. An accidental shooting in a nearby small town.
“How long do you think they’ll keep you here?” I asked.
She shrugged slightly and blinked.
We watched the news some more.
Marc returned with the water, handed it to me, and resumed his position against the wall.
I gave it to her and watched her drink. “When,” I paused, correcting myself, “if, you feel like you want to talk about what you saw, I can always listen,” I said, wondering if that was likely to happen.
She made no reply. Her eyes were fixed on the television.
“Do you want us to stay or would you rather we leave?” I asked.
“I think you should go. There’s nothing you can do for me,” she said, her tone tired and utterly, deeply resigned.
I didn’t like the sound of that.
“We could bring you some decent food. Or a book or something,” I said, realizing this was for people whose bodies were sick, not their minds.
But she seemed ready to end the conversation.
“And you’ll call me if you need or want anything?” I asked, hoping to convey that I was fully available to her. Feeling responsible, somehow.
“Yes,” she said, her voice despondent and tired. Hollow.
“Okay. I’ll check in again,” I said, and got up to leave. Something told me she wasn’t going to be all right. I was reluctant to go.
“Don’t tell Venus about the ghost, okay?” she asked quietly, looking up at me with round, dark eyes set into her pale face. She turned back to the television.
My heart sank. Now wasn’t the time to tell her that Venus had already come to see me. That I’d already spoken with her. That the information had already been shared.
“Okay,” I said, feeling afraid. It was a lie to agree to her request. But what else could I say? I wondered how this mess would all fall out. “Do you mind my asking why?” I asked. It was the wrong question at the wrong time, but if I had made a mistake, I needed to understand what the implications were.
“Yeah,” she said, without turning to look at me.
“I do mind. Please, just don’t tell her.”
That night there wasn’t any rest.
I dreamt the accident. Eva’s accident. Or I had a vision of it. One or the other. Impossible to say which, but I was there.
Trying to pull the car over. The wheel grinding and wobbling. Pulling over but something has gone wrong. The tire has come off. A horrible crushing and glass. The sound of metal crunching, crushing. Screeching. There is glass everywhere, flying past my eyes, filling them. I am kicking violently, bringing my knees and shins up against the steering column, the bottom of the dash, kicking because I can’t stop, kicking because it hurts.
Oh God it hurts.
My legs are jerking violently. I’m not kicking anymore, they’re just jerking up over and over again, hitting the steering column. I can’t stop them. Please, no.
The windshield has collapsed, crashing in on me.
I can’t breathe. Can’t see. Can’t move. Can’t be happening. This pain is an explosion. Someone else’s pain. This isn’t real.
Still in the car. The car. The wheel of the car.
I stay inside the car.
Stay there forever. Stay because I can’t move. Stay because I can’t get out. Stay because I don’t know what’s happening. Stay because none of this is happening and I don’t know where I am.
Where am I?
Someone tells me it’s time to go. Time to leave the car. It’s time to come out of the car. The wheel of the car is off.
But I can’t let go. My fingers are clamped to the steering wheel, with its blue leather driving grips and twine. Curled around the wheel. I can’t loosen my hands. They’re holding on. I can’t get up.
I’m stuck here, blood stuck to the seat, cemented to the seat behind me. The wheel of the car has come off.
I can’t move.
Who are you? The tire is gone.
There is a light suddenly rising above a nearby hill off to my left. A path into it. It’s beautiful, a golden light there, shining over the hill, filtering through trees and onto a hillside of golden grass.
I look away from it.
The voice is soft. Get up. Stand up. Come out of the car. Come with us. I look at the handle of the door. Pull the handle open.
I can’t. I’m waiting for tomorrow. I’m waiting for tomorrow to come.
The steering wheel is here, in my hands. I have to wait for tomorrow. Everything will be all right, then.
But tomorrow never comes.
Not for Eva.
I awoke the next morning confused. Not sure if I’d actually been in the car. An experienced psychic could have told me that those things sometimes happen. Those visions. Re-experiencing a violent event. An event that’s stopped some poor soul dead in its tracks. An event that hasn’t been settled. Dealt with. Released.
But I wasn’t an experienced psychic.
Course work was becoming impossible. I thought about Celeste ceaselessly. And when I wasn’t thinking of Celeste I was thinking about Eva.
I was thinking of anything but school unless I was brooding about failing.
Still, I tried, going to class, reading, attempting to do assignments.
A few weeks of going to Probability and Statistics class passed. I tried to listen and understand, did homework, went to lab, and repeatedly found that my work was painfully wrong. I did not learn Japanese and sat in my seat silently hating the TA, who incessantly tried to make jokes in English that no one could understand. After each little bomb he would laugh excitedly in Japanese at his own good sense of humor. I looked around at my lab mates and wondered if any of them understood anything he said. It was hard to tell. I noticed one girl picking at fuchsia nail polish that was well past its sell-by-date on her fingers. It didn’t seem like she was listening to him and I wondered why she had come to the lab. For that matter, why had I come?
Writing class wasn’t much better. I was blocked, writing stuff even I didn’t want to read, when I wrote anything at all. We were asked to write an analysis of Yeats’ The Lake Isle of Innisfree and I came away mumbling “for peace comes dropping slow,” over and over again. It was the only line that registered in my mind and rather than taking up the beautiful image of a bee-loud glade or the quiet imagined symmetry of nine bean-rows, I wrote three pages about peaces dropping slow. Pieces dropping slow. Pieces of what? I contemplated the slow dropping of peaces fifty different ways.
My teacher did not find it clever.
Astronomy: I definitely understood everything but hadn’t done well on a quiz that required far more memorization than I had either interest in or concentration for. Somehow being able to regurgitate the mathematical formula for the speed of light failed to ignite my interest. As a result I failed the quiz, our only grade recorded so far this semester.
Food and People, which I opted for at the last minute as a kind of tip of my hat to Eva’s dream of becoming a nurse, had been fun until the professor showed us a movie that contained graphic detail of human biology and fat accumulation. Actual footage of an autopsy. I got sick and ran out of class to throw up.
In short, my usual academic prowess was toast. And my grades were going to reflect it. Which didn’t leave me much to fall back on or be cheerful about. There was, aside from Marc, a silver lining in my overcast, gloomy existence, though: I was making friends with some of the girls on the floor. Every evening Belinda and a varied smattering of other floor mates that reliably included a girl named Mary, came to call on me for dinner.
Belinda was pretty, and popular with our floor mates. She had good hair. Blonde and worn long. Mary was a very nice Italian girl from a big family who was studying to become a nurse. When Belinda introduced us I liked her immediately. She was a calm girl, without affect, and in a small way she reminded me of Eva. She smiled a lot and always seemed anxious to avoid conflict or judgment. Both Belinda and Mary were also taking Food and People and we found lots to talk about related to our experience of fat calipers and learning about the lack of nutrients in canned vegetables.
“I never knew how unhealthy I was!” Mary proclaimed as we left class one sunny day to walk to lunch together. “I don’t know how I’ll break the news to my mother that she’s been feeding us nutritionally defunct, unhealthy food all these years.” She seemed genuinely concerned. “Maybe I shouldn’t tell her,” she said, her lovely brown eyes resting on us worriedly.
“They’ll be happy to hear their tuition money is being well spent!” Belinda said cheerfully. Mary and I stared.
It wasn’t clear whether she was being sarcastic or she meant it.
We went to the dining hall, exchanging comments about our homework assignments, standing in line together and making fun of the food. We put our new food awareness to work in the hot plate line at the dining hall, guessing at the identities of the dishes. Like all of the other students, I realized with some surprise. I seemed to be integrating. At least in a shallow way. Having new friends was a relief. It got me out of my own troubled head.
And it kept me from brooding on Celeste, who, for some reason, I didn’t feel I could visit.
One afternoon, Mom called to tell me that a deposition had been scheduled by the lawyers for the insurance company and I would be required to attend and give my story. This did not sound like good news to me.
I didn’t know what a deposition was, exactly, or what it would be like. But it seemed obvious that it would be difficult. After all, it involved lawyers and my father’s homeowner’s policy was on the line. Dad was wrestling with guilt over something he felt sure he hadn’t done, but couldn’t prove he was innocent of. Likely it was worse wondering if he’d made a mistake than knowing for certain one way or the other and trying to manage a known reality. Meanwhile, what if I unwittingly said something wrong? Something to tip the scales toward my father being at fault?
The situation was loaded.
It became a buzzard on the horizon. Circling endlessly.
I asked Mom how things were at home. She told me things had been quiet, Kori and Billy were doing fine in school, Dad seemed to be holding up.
Holding up. Like Atlas, I supposed.
I didn’t have the heart to tell her about my grades.
She would know soon enough.
A few weeks later Belinda stopped me in the hall to talk. She looked perky. Her hair was in ponytails and she was wearing a pretty pink matte lipstick.
“Are you going Friday night?” she asked, referring to yet another fraternity party that was announced via a barrage of flyers hung up all over the dorm.
“I don’t think so, no,” I said, my actual response decidedly more polite than the one I was thinking of, which was ‘Hell, no!’
“Why not?” she asked, all wide-eyed, her lips forming a perfect pink little pout.
“As in why ever not?” I quipped, unable to resist poking fun at her Scarlett O’Hara-like feigned disbelief.
She smiled. “In a manner of speaking, yes.”
“Because the last time I went to one of those things my boyfriend had to carry me out,” I said, still nursing my anger and embarrassment over the episode.
“Too much to drink?” she asked, smiling knowingly.
“No. The wrong thing to drink. Someone drugged my beer,” I said darkly, leveling her with my best catch-you-by-the-seat-of-your-pants look.
She looked shocked. “You’re kidding!” she exclaimed conspiratorially, as if I’d said I had the president of the United States waiting naked for me in my room.
“No, I’m not kidding,” I said, thinking her surprise was the wrong kind of surprise.
“And I’ll answer the question you’re dying to ask: no. They didn’t rape me, thanks to my boyfriend. Otherwise I’m sure they would have taken turns on me.”
Here I got the response I was after. She was genuinely shocked and offended. I smiled at my success and made use of the moment. “It does occur to me to wonder, Belinda, when I see these posters up everywhere, how many of these parties they’ll have before they’ve worked their way through the dormitory’s population and exhausted the list of possible victims?”
I smiled sweetly.
Kaboom. Her revulsion. My anger. A bomb.
Oh, yes. Great way to maintain a friendship, Rowan, I thought, angry with myself. I didn’t wait for her to reply. I walked away, frustrated. Mad. Shooting myself in the foot. Stupid girls. Angry that we encouraged each other into dangerous situations. Certainly not wanting to be right.
All of us.
That following Friday night it actually happened. Mary, my new friend, was drugged and raped repeatedly at the very party Belinda had been talking about. I wondered if they had gone together. Even after my warnings to Belinda.
The fraternity brothers had recorded the whole thing on video tape, and Mary was a wreck. I overheard some girls who lived on our floor whispering outside the bathroom. She’d taken to her room and she was crying a lot. To add final insult to injury, she discovered she had crabs as a result of what had happened.
The news made me sick. My heart sank. Images of Mary prone on a bed, one brutal aggression after another penetrating her flew through my head, made me dizzy. And a film of it.
Why document their own depravity? It was more than I could understand. More than I could stand, in fact. Everything in me cried out silently, images and visions of her victimization rolling over me again and again, upsetting my stomach. I had to sit and take deep breaths. When I finally managed to calm myself, I went down the hall to see how she was, share my own experience with her if it would be helpful, or just be sympathetic, caring, supportive, whatever.
I found her in her room surrounded by girls.
No, I thought. No sharing today.
“Hi, Rowan,” Mary said when I knocked quietly at the door. “Come in.”
I did, and sat down across the room at one of the desk chairs. Nobody spoke for a while. It was strange. So many girls in the room, nobody speaking. Mostly they just sat quietly staring at Mary. It was a kind of noisy silence. A few of the girls rocked back and forth, their hair swinging. It reminded me of pictures I’d seen of 60s sit-ins.
Mary had become a kind of inverse icon.
The martyred Mary.
“How are you doing?” I asked, in part to find out and in part to calm the oppressive soundless clamor in the room.
“Oh, okay, I guess,” she said, looking around at the girls that had planted themselves all around her. Taken root. Like so many wildflowers. It seemed they were there to demonstrate their support or to create solidarity. Girl power, I thought, with some sarcasm. So powerful we walked into the lion’s den and came away surprised at being attacked. Stupid.
“I’m embarrassed that everyone knows,” she said, looking down at her lap.
I wasn’t surprised and didn’t ask how that had happened. Such news traveled fast. Nothing like a bit of morbid gossip to remind everyone to congratulate themselves for having avoided peril and disgrace.
My roommate Gretchen was there, sitting in the little crowd. I didn’t say hello. In fact, I was so anxious to avoid her that I looked away, pretended I didn’t see here there. But it didn’t work.
“Your friend Celeste was there,” Gretchen said.
“Where?” I asked, knowing what she meant. Wanting to make her work.
“The party,” she said.
“Oh, yeah?” I answered, nodding. There wasn’t anything to say, but it was an interesting bit of information.
“Yeah, she seems to be very friendly with some of the fraternity brothers there,” she said, her stare turning hostile. I thought I detected the faintest trace of accusation in her voice.
I stared back at her, but didn’t bother to remark. I didn’t know anything about Celeste’s associations.
“In fact, I saw her go into a room with some of them early in the night. She came in alone and had a handbag with her,” she said, her expression flat. Watching me with her great bovine eyes.
Where was the dour cow-troll going with this?
“Right. And?” I asked, facing her directly and letting my voice rise to meet her challenge.
“So there were drugs at the party, right?” she asked, meeting my eyes coolly.
“I’m sure there were,” I answered, beginning to understand the direction she was taking.
“So it seems a little odd that an older girl who lives off campus would show up alone with a handbag, disappear into a room with some fraternity brothers and then leave a few minutes later, doesn’t it?” she leveled a self-satisfied gaze on me that was complemented by the faintest smile.
“I’m not sure she lives off campus,” I replied. “I don’t know where she lives. But it does seem odd,” I admitted, disregarding her offensive manner for a half a moment. Thinking the story over. It was odd, indeed. Especially since a couple of weeks ago I’d visited Celeste in the hospital after a suicide attempt.
“I don’t know anything about Celeste’s associations, and I have no idea what she was doing there,” I said with all the confidence that a true statement conveys.
But I was thinking of Venus’ appearance at the Zeta party. She had also arrived alone and disappeared into a room.
Mary was watching me. I looked at her, determined not to let myself be associated with the accusation, completely circumstantial in nature, that seemed to be brewing. I was not the villain here.
“Mary, I came to see how you are. I can see you’re surrounded, so I’ll go.” I glared at Gretchen meaningfully.
“If there’s anything,” my voice trailed off. “Well, you know,” I said, catching myself as I realized there wasn’t anything any of us could really do, except maybe pretend nothing had ever happened. But it was too late for that.
“I’m happy to go punch any fraternity brother in the head that deserves it,” I ended, trying to make a joke. “Just name names and consider it done.” Feeble, but well-intentioned. The truth was I felt awful and would have gladly gone along to the fraternity house to make a stand on her behalf. But it wouldn’t have done any good. In fact, it would have been laughable to imagine that I could provoke guilt or incite self-examination in the fraternity brothers who had victimized my friend.
Not a chance.
She smiled a bright little smile. “Thanks, Rowan. I’ll remember that.”
I walked back down the hall deep in thought. The shiny floors were so heavily polished and shined they were slippery. I pushed through the fire doors, trying to sort out the possibility of Celeste dealing drugs at the party. Celeste and Venus, Eva’s older sisters. Both talented students from a well-to-do family. Their mother a well-known, well-liked member of our hometown community, our very own beautiful, energetic, PTO champion. The Parent-Teacher Organization was widely regarded as a group of the community’s most involved, respectable citizens. An empowered local business owner, Marissa Verdano was always ready to jump in and lend a hand for a worthy cause. Her bright, beautiful daughters seemingly had every advantage.
It didn’t seem possible that they were drug dealers.
Together with seeing Venus behave similarly at the Zeta party, Gretchen’s revelations concerning Celeste were troubling me. As I collected my books and trudged off to class, I added the night Marc and I had seen Venus in Portsmouth in the expensive car to the picture. The same night of Celeste’s suicide attempt.
Altogether, it was more than strange.
Perhaps it was time to visit Celeste to see how she was doing. I hadn’t visited since seeing her in the hospital and I thought it might be a good time to check in. But as I walked up a grassy hill toward the building my Astronomy lecture was in, I realized that I didn’t have Celeste’s address. It was true what I’d said to Gretchen. I wasn’t even sure if she lived on or off campus.
In all of the confusion and misery of the past several weeks, it had never occurred to me that both Celeste and Venus had been to see me, and I didn’t have any idea where either of them lived. As a freshman, I still didn’t know my way around Durham. I heaved a sigh as I walked into the lecture hall.
I would just have to find them.