Category Archives: The Seventh Sister

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What happens when someone dies but doesn’t go away? Negotiating loss when the dead can’t rest…

35.

35.

In November, a deposition was scheduled in Manchester, where our insurance company’s lawyer had his office.  My father and I were required to attend.  Marc drove me home, taking time from his classes to be with me for what we both expected would be a difficult day.

We drove in silence for a while, before he asked me if I’d seen Celeste.  I hadn’t told him about the appearance of Lizzie’s ghost in the library, but he knew that the dream was still bothering me.

“I saw her the other day,” I answered.  There was no inflection in my voice, no invitation to ask any questions or to continue the discussion.

But he did, anyway.

“How was that?”

“Oh, horrible.”

“Is she okay?”

“No.  Not really.”

He made a face.  “It’ll take time, I guess.”

“It’ll take more than that,” I said, a note of defiance in my voice.

He raised an eyebrow.  “Did you tell her about your dream?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“And?”

“She wouldn’t confirm or deny,” I said, my voice and expression distant.  I gazed out the window, remembering my promise to Celeste.  I couldn’t say anything about our conversation.  At least not now.  But it was hard to keep it to myself.  I wanted to tell him.  I wanted to share it.  It was a burden, and together with the loss of my friend I was having trouble shouldering it on my own.  I was having trouble understanding how I was just coming upon something so important, so devastating, now.  After her death.  After months without her. Just learning about it now.

But no, I couldn’t tell Marc yet.  I wouldn’t be able to face Celeste again if I did.

“Hmm,” he said, turning the car left to follow another route.  “Well, you’ll be seeing Mr. Verdano soon.  Maybe you can ask him.”  His sarcasm wasn’t lost on me, but I didn’t make an answer.  I was too numb to be pithy or sarcastic.  Too numb to talk around the truth.

Because it would just come out in a stream.

What Celeste had said.

Yes.

Yes, he did it.

She admitted it.

My father and I arrived at the lawyer’s office the next morning early.  We found two lawyers, a stenographer, some other men wearing suits who presumably represented the insurance company, the Verdanos, and ourselves.  All together, we filled a very long, very impressive-looking table completely.  In fact, the stenographer barely fit into the room with her equipment.

Wow, I thought.  What a crowd.  All there to listen to me and Dad talk.  A lot of money riding on our memories and the words we were about to utter.   I sat down nervously.  Dad sat next to me, businesslike, his expression wary.  He was flexing the muscles in his jaw.

The sight of Mr. Verdano was a jolt.  I kept remembering him in my dream, his pants around his legs.  It was hard to look at him.  But it was also hard not to.  It wasn’t the first time I noticed he was a very handsome man.  This I realized grudgingly and with annoyance.  He was very handsome and had a certain magnetism to him that was undeniable.  He was tall and dark, the possessor of a very penetrating gaze, which, at that moment, he turned and fastened on me.

Realizing we were staring at each other, I looked away, going red, despite myself.  My heart was thumping in my chest.  So strange, the effect he could have on people.  I didn’t want to risk catching anyone else’s gaze, so I looked at the table.  It was shiny dark wood covered with glass.  There were no comfort items present.  No flowers.  Not even dusty fake flowers.  No little bowls of candy.  No glasses of water.  No food.  In fact, it smelled suspiciously devoid of foodstuff there.  Even coffee.  I couldn’t smell coffee.  I thought that was strange.  Didn’t these people eat or drink?  Perhaps only outside of the office.  Or maybe they didn’t have feelings, didn’t get hungry.

The art on the walls was all repro pastel landscapes and cityscapes.  No character, no impact to it.  Just something to break up a wall papered in beige textured paper.  I imagined the office administrative assistant had gone to a local discount department store at lunch one day to buy them.

A woman dressed in a skirted suit and sensible low-heeled pumps came in with some files, and gave them to one of the lawyers.  He didn’t thank her.  Her navy suit was unattractive, and I thought, looking at her, that I’d sooner die than become like her after I finished college.   Boring, permed hairstyle.  Pantyhose.  Content to work in an office where they didn’t have coffee and she had to wear ugly, low heeled pumps.

She left.

I was sorry.  That meant the only other woman in the room, other than the stenographer, was Mrs. Verdano.  I was surrounded by older men, and it made me feel vulnerable and awkward.  I felt they would try to use my words for their own ends and this was frightening to me.

I peered toward the other end of the room.

The table was at least twelve feet long.  The lawyers at the other end sat next to the Verdanos.  They wore dark suits over soft, overweight bodies, were cleanly shaven, had hair that was cut short and combed back.  They were looking through legal-size files, pulling out pens briskly, talking quietly.

I wondered what Lizzie, the Lizzie I’d known in life, would say about this whole thing.  My brain tried to recall her, make her present here with me.  Imagine some clever remark she might make, or even just conjure her smile.  But in this serious, sterile setting she seemed a million miles away and I could not summon a memory to comfort me.  I did not want to think of the ghost or wonder if she could hear the proceedings.  Not now.

I cleared my throat loudly.

“Could I have a glass of water, please?” I asked.

It was as if a gunshot had sounded in the room.  Everyone looked at me, startled.  I needed to get out of the seat they’d assigned me.  The lawyer who apparently presided over the office looked annoyed.  He nodded, waving his hand toward the door and got up to show me out.  I felt clumsy following him, but satisfied that I had aggravated him.

“Dad, would you like a glass of water?” I asked, looking at my father.

He nodded, saying “Yes, thank you Rowan.”

Dad watched us leave, jaw still flexing.  I could hear his breathing.  Deep, steady breaths.  Measured.  His hands were folded in front of him on the table.

His tension made me nervous.  I wanted to reassure him; but of course, I couldn’t think of anything useful to say.  And I didn’t want any of the suits to hear me say anything personal to my father.

When I sat back down with my water, I summoned the courage to look at the Verdanos again.

Mrs. Verdano was sitting demurely, her eyes averted from the other people at the table.  Her blonde hair was tastefully pulled back and fastened against the nape of her neck.  She wore champagne colored eye shadow under her eyebrows which made her eyes look bright and attractive.  A flat gold choker-style necklace under a very flattering champagne colored suit accentuated her slim, attractive figure.  I gazed at her for a moment, letting everything I’d learned about her from Celeste sink in, blend with the woman that sat at the other end of the table from me.  Briefly, my mind went to a memory I had of her visiting Lizzie during a work shift one day at the beach early last summer.  I’d had the day off and was lounging near Lizzie’s lifeguard station when Mrs. Verdano appeared on the sand wearing a business suit and pantyhose, anxious to speak privately with Lizzie.  Her skin looked pale and humid.  Puffy.  Like risen dough on a warm day.  She spoke in a hushed voice to Lizzie, her expression anxious and tearful.  I was out of earshot, but I could see that Lizzie’s response was impatient.  After a few minutes Mrs. Verdano seemed satisfied and checked her watch. She came by the spot I was occupying to say hello politely before leaving the beach, her shoes in her hands, sand no doubt working its way into the fabric of her pantyhose and between her toes.

The memory made a sharp contrast to the picture of composure she presented there in the lawyer’s office the day of the deposition.

After Mrs. Verdano left the beach I asked Lizzie if everything was alright.  She’d hesitated noticeably before telling me that everything was fine.  That her mom had a nervous condition that sometimes required treatment.  I hadn’t thought much of it then, but I wondered who was responsible for treating her condition?  Her husband?

Seated comfortably next to his wife, Mr. Verdano was at ease, dressed in a white shirt and tie, his dark hair neatly combed back, cufflinks shining on his shirt cuffs.  His attention was fixed on one of the uninteresting pictures on the wall.  That was fascinating to me, since Lizzie had often told me her father liked to collect art, frequently attending estate auctions and art openings.  Surely most anything else in the room would have been a more interesting object for his attention.  I looked at his hands, folded together, resting on the table in front of him.  He wore a gold wedding band, and I noticed for the first time how carefully cared-for his hands were.  His nails looked as if they had been manicured, buffed.  I stared.  I’d never seen hands like that before.

“Well, I think we can get started, now,” one of the lawyers said.  He motioned to the stenographer, who nodded.  “We’re here taking depositions from Mr. Thomson and his daughter Rowan this morning, on November first, nineteen ninety,” he said.  The stenographer began to click click click at her machine.

The lawyer looked at my father, his hands resting on the table before him.  “Mr. Thomson, we’ll start with you.  I’m going to ask some questions.  Some of them may seem repetitive.  Try to bear with me.  We want to be as precise as we can.”

My father nodded.

“We’ll start with how the car arrived on your property.  Could you please tell us what happened?”

My father cleared his throat.  “Yes.  Our daughter Rowan was frequently in Lizzie’s car.  Often, Lizzie drove them to school in the morning.  At that time, I asked her if she was maintaining the car properly because it was an old model with over a hundred thousand miles on it.  Naturally I was concerned for their safety,” he paused there, taking a sip of his water.

“So when she told me she had never changed the oil in the car, I was concerned.  I offered to do that for her, since I do the same for all of our family’s cars.  It’s always been a hobby of mine to work on cars,” he added.  “She brought the car over and I changed the oil for her.”

It is our understanding that you agreed to do work on the car for Ms. Verdano,” the lawyer said.  “What, exactly, did you do to the car?”

I didn’t like the tone of that question.  His use of the word “to” suggested my father had damaged the car.  I glared at him.

“I didn’t do anything to the car, sir,” my father’s voice was steady.  “I simply changed the oil in the car and changed the brake pads.”  He took a deep breath, regarding the lawyer with his steely blue-gray eyes.

“Thank you,” the lawyer said shortly.  The rest of the questioning continued that way, detailing the extent of my father’s access to her car, which in the end was just to change the oil and brake pads once.  We established that no less than four times.  A half hour later the lawyers seemed satisfied that my father had changed the oil and the brake pads once, with Ms. Verdano’s full permission and knowledge.

We further established that I had been in the car with Lizzie both before and after my father had done the work.  This fact was established three times that I counted.              Fascinating, I thought sarcastically.

By the time they were finished questioning my father my annoyance level was matched only by my boredom.  What a waste of a day.

The lawyers finally turned to me after an hour and a half of asking my father the same questions fifty different ways.

“Are you going to ask me the same questions over and over again, as well?” I asked, disdain evident in my voice.

The lawyer smiled.  “No, Rowan.  We’ll try to keep our questions to you succinct and to the point.”

Phew.  That was a relief.

“Are you ready to begin?  Would you like another glass of water?”

“Yes, please,” I answered, anxious to get up.

I went out into the office and pushed the little blue cold water tab down.  I waited, taking deep breaths and trying to relax.  I disliked that lawyer.  I disliked his questions, his tone, all of it.  I disliked his charcoal gray pinstripe suit and the dandruff that I noticed was collecting on his shoulders.

When I reentered the room everyone sat waiting in the same positions they’d been in when I left.  Was this what happened as people got older?  Did they fossilize?  Or was it just lawyers?

Not everyone in the group was suspended like that.  The Verdanos stood out despite their subdued presentation.  Mr. Verdano leaned toward his wife, his manner languid, the subtlest expression of pleasure there.  He said something to her that I could see pleased her.  The trace of a smile visited her lips and she blushed slightly, looking down at her lap.  Had he said something amusing?  Something suggestive?

My hate for Mr. Verdano rose up into my throat and spilled, sour, into the back of my mouth.   The feeling I had was like nothing I’d ever felt.  A visceral, animal hate for him.  I hated his self-confidence, his devastating good looks, his self-possession.  I knew he was cruel.  I hated him for disguising it.  I wanted to lunge across the table onto him, strangle him, stab him, bite him.  Destroy him.  The intensity of it made me dizzy.  I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, trying to control myself.

When I opened my eyes, nothing had changed.  I hated the idea of having to say anything, share a single memory, a single exchange, in front of the Verdanos.

“So, Rowan, we’re going to begin.” The lawyer nodded to the stenographer, who began to click away.  “We’re speaking with Rowan Thomson, November first, nineteen ninety.”

A pause.  “Rowan, what time did Lizzie leave your house?”

“She usually left around 9:30,” I answered non-committally, glaring at him.

“You think that Lizzie left your house at 9:30?”

“About that,” I answered.

“And where was she going?”

I could have sworn the table started to shake then. The whole room started to shake.  I looked at my glass of water.  Still.  Maybe I was shaking.

“She said she was going to work,” I said, resenting his questions.  Resenting the Verdanos.  Resenting the beige room and shiny table.  Pissed off, actually, and getting angrier by the moment.

I looked at the Verdanos, sitting placidly at the end of the table.  Well fuck them, I thought.

“She said she’d had an argument with her mother,” I added in an aggressive tone of voice.  I glared at Mrs. Verdano.  She looked surprised, hurt.  I wondered if she looked that way because I’d said something damaging or because I’d brought up a painful memory.

“Okay.  Well let’s stick with where Lizzie was going.  She was going to work.  Anywhere else?  Any stops on the way?”

“Not that she talked about.  Her shift at the lake would have been starting within a half hour, so I don’t know where else she would’ve gone other than to a gas station or convenience store,” I said.  “You know, the accident took place on her way to the lake, right?  So why are you asking me these—forgive me—stupid questions?”  I was letting my anger spill over into my voice, onto the table, into the air, and it was getting the best of me.

Carrying me away in a stream of poison.

This was probably a bad idea.

But it was too late, and nobody had given me the choice.  The lawyer didn’t call the house and say “Do you think Rowan would mind talking to us?  Giving a deposition?  Would she be comfortable with that?  Do you think she’d like to give us her version of the day’s events privately?  Would that be easier?”  I smiled at the ridiculous nature of my fantasy.  The thought of these lawyers respecting my feelings was ridiculous.

This added fuel to the fire that was threatening to blow the room up.

I leaned forward.  “You know, she wanted to be a nurse,” I said, glaring at the lawyer.

Dad touched my arm, took a sharp breath in.

Too late.

“A nurse!” I added, a laugh escaping.  “Imagine that.  She wanted to help people, even with a father that abused her.”

There.  I’d said it.

No going back now.  I glared at Mr. Verdano.  “Sexually abused her, as a matter of fact.”  I added, a laugh that sounded both spiteful and hysterical erupting.

Out of control.

I wanted to make him react.  But he sat there composed, cold, a trace of a smile there on his handsome face.  He looked at me, held me there with his eyes like a rag doll.  Looking almost as if he was amused with my outburst, but certainly not rising to my accusation.  I glared vainly.  Ineffectually.  Bored, he dropped me with his eyes and turned his gaze on the lawyers, his expression indicating he didn’t have any idea where I could have gotten such an absurd idea.

The lawyer cleared his throat.

I looked at Mrs. Verdano.  She was white.

“Rowan, I understand this is difficult for you, but please, let’s try to stick with the events of that day, okay?”

“Difficult?” I asked, my voice rising.  “Difficult?  You understand this has been difficult for me?  I don’t think you understand anything.”

I knew I sounded juvenile and out of control but I couldn’t help it.  I had to say these things.

The lawyers exchanged looks, eyebrows twitched.  Suited rear ends shifted in their seats.  Glasses were adjusted.  I looked at Dad, who was regarding me with something like interest, cautious fascination, even.

“Okay.”  The lawyer kept a calm exterior but I could see he was becoming upset.  By my impertinence?

It was too much to hope that my accusation had upset any of the cadavers at the table.  If they had responses to what I’d said, nothing was evident on their faces.  Except for Mrs. Verdano’s.  She looked like she was about to faint.

“Rowan, can we continue?” the lawyer asked, his annoyance seeping out now.

“Sure.  Fire away,” I said, getting comfortable with the tone I’d adopted and pleased to be punishing Mrs. Verdano in whatever small way I could.

My voice in the deposition would reflect the truth of my situation.  If they didn’t like it, they could spend some more money and reschedule their precious deposition.

“So Lizzie was going to work at the lake,” he parroted again.  “And when she drove away, did you notice anything unusual about the car?”

“Yeah, the wheel was wobbling wildly.  I yelled ‘Hey, Lizzie!  I think your wheel’s come loose!’  She said, ‘No worries, Rowan, I’m going to have that fixed this afternoon!’”  I finished, my voice alternating between a strained attempt to keep from crying and hysterical laughter.

I was trying, but I couldn’t control my voice or my expressions.  Looking at Mr. Verdano only made it worse, made me feel more desperate in my hate and desire to expose him.

The lawyer put his pen down and sat back in his chair, bringing his arms up to the back of his head.  The other lawyers looked at him.  “Ms. Thomson, this is a serious matter.  Jokes are not appropriate here.  If you can’t answer the questions then we will simply reschedule the deposition for a time that is more,” he paused, clearing his throat, “conducive to a productive outcome,” he finished.

“Sure thing.  Whatever works for you guys,” I said, the pitch in my voice continuing to rise, my expression a tight attempt to keep my laughter in check.

“I’m all about productive outcomes.  Rowan Productive Outcome Thomson.  See?  My middle name.”

Now Dad’s concern registered on his face.

“And while you’re at it, why don’t you depose Mr. Verdano?  Ask him how many underage nurses it takes to blow a sick psychiatrist?”

Dad went white.  But he didn’t say anything.  He just flexed his jaw, his eyes roaming from my face to the faces of the lawyers and back again.

“Let’s take a break,” the lawyer said, getting up and walking out.

I put my head down on the shiny table.

It was cold.

Everyone stood and walked past me.  I could feel them looking at the back of my head as they passed by me on their way out of the room.  I was embarrassed, self-conscious.  And I felt sorry for my father, who was undoubtedly embarrassed by my bizarre display.  I kept my head down, not daring to look at him.

Dad sat there beside me, drumming his fingers on the table.

“Honey, you’re scaring me,” he said after a few minutes.  “Do you think maybe you should talk to someone?  A psychiatrist, maybe?”

I raised my head, leaving tears on my arm and the table.  “Sure.  Why don’t we institutionalize me?  Then we could dispense with the bad jokes and hysterical behavior.” I didn’t look at him when I said that, because I knew he wanted to help me and didn’t deserve to be talked to that way.

But it was really my best answer.  I didn’t have any other response to that question in that moment.  The irony that he’d suggested I go to a psychiatrist — the very thing that Mr. Verdano did for a living — was not lost on me.

We sat silently there, together.

Finally the lawyers all filed back into the room.  Followed by the Verdanos.  Haggard now, I looked at my nemesis.  He returned my gaze comfortably, an eyebrow raised, a gesture of greeting on his face.

Red.  A veil of red descended on the room.  I nearly went wild with frustration at the sight of his face, digging my nails into the flesh of my palms to keep from screaming.

The lawyer that had been questioning me did not pick up his pen when he took his seat.  He still had dandruff on his shoulders and his suit looked rumpled.  Didn’t he have a secretary to tell him he was snowing on his shoulder?  I thought cruelly.  I contemplated pointing it out to him, feeling vicious.

He sat down, leaning on the table.  “We think, perhaps, we can do without any further testimony from Rowan,” he said, sounding tired.  “We realize this has been very traumatic for you,” he said, looking at me, “and we believe that we can settle this matter with the information we have.  Would that be acceptable to everyone?” he asked, looking around the table.

I nodded, relieved to be released.

Neither of the Verdanos gestured in any way, but the lawyers all nodded their agreement.

We were free to go.

When we stepped outside, the year’s first dusting of snow had fallen.  The lawyer’s office was on a hill.  We stood on his brick stoop and looked over the calm white quiet magic of the snow.  Powdery, swirling in some places.

We stood looking.

Dad buttoned his coat, pulled his lapels up against the cold and put his hands in his pockets.

“First snow,” he said.

I looked at our feet, side by side on the stoop.  No other footprints leading in or out of the office.  We would be the first footprints in the snow.

“Yup.  Pretty.” I sniffed.

He looked at me.  “Are you okay, Rowan?”

“Yup.”  Nope.

He put his hand on my back in a gesture of help and reassurance and we stepped off of the stoop together into the snow.

Dad did not ask me about what I had said.  I didn’t know why.  And I didn’t bring it up again.  That night at dinner we all tried to make light conversation.  Kori was quiet, and Billy tried to make a joke.

“How many Texas Aggies does it take to screw in a light bulb?” he asked.

I groaned.

Mom grinned.

Dad answered.  “Four, son.  One to hold it and three to spin him around.”

Billy smiled, clearly pleased with himself.

Inevitably, though, the conversation turned to the day’s main event: the deposition and its possible outcome.

Kori asked the question.  “Will Mr. Verdano get a lot of money?”

“Possibly,” Dad said, chewing.  “He could get the extent of our homeowner’s policy, which is about a half a million dollars.”

I thought that over.  In light of what I had learned about Mr. Verdano and his family it seemed beyond criminal.  The thought made my throat start to tighten again.  I pushed myself back from the table, feeling sick.

Everyone was watching me.  I couldn’t hold back my tears.  They came in a river.  It was too much for me to hold onto.  “It’s wrong, so wrong,” I said, my chest heaving up and down with the effort of controlling myself.

“Oh, sweetheart,” Mom got up and came around the table to hold me.

“No.  You don’t know what happened.  You don’t understand.” I said, the tears blurring my vision and what I was trying to say.  I felt like an erupting volcano, anger oozing everywhere.  I couldn’t articulate.

They were silent, watching and listening.

“He … ” I burst into a fit of crying that completely obscured my words.  I burbled a bit, trying to speak, and couldn’t.

They waited.

“He was abusing her.” I finally spat, shaking my head and clenching my fists.

“You said that today,” My father said, putting his fork down and folding his hands calmly.  “Where do you get the idea that Mr. Verdano was abusing Lizzie?”

Taking deep breaths to regain myself, I glared at Dad.  It wasn’t that I was directing my anger at him, but it was spilling out.  Everyone sat silently staring at me.  Billy’s food was on his fork in mid-air, suspended there.

“I had a dream about it.  I went to see Celeste, to see if it was true.” I said, trying to affect some calm, through clenched teeth. My nose was running, and there were little paths where the tears were making their way over my cheeks.

“She said it was.  True.”

Everyone’s jaws hung open, stunned.

“Oh, God,” my father said, leaning back in his chair to rest his head against the wall behind him. From there he looked at me, his expression registering a mix of disgust and pain.

In a flash, the image of Lizzie’s ghost came back.  The grip of the vision jolted me, a realization slamming into me.  At the launch.  He.  Look what he did to me.  He, he, he. Could it be?

I jumped up and ran from the room, pursued by the ghost.

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34.

Note to readers:  The main character’s name has been changed for publication (to protect the innocent 😉

34.

 

I have a memory of Lizzie dancing.  We were hanging out in our family room, talking about school, boys, vacation plans.  She had brought the new Madonna album with her, and we were listening to it on the stereo.  She jumped up and started to dance around, singing along with the song, her hair flying wildly as she spun around and around, wiggling to the Spanish rhythm.  Saying she couldn’t stand to have me sit there and watch her, she pulled me up off the sofa to join her.

She did that sort of thing whenever the mood struck her, sometimes while she was driving.  Holding onto the steering wheel with both hands, she would bounce up and down or wiggle back and forth in her seat, singing along with the music.

Or just walking along, wherever we were, at the beach or on our way to school, she would dance.  Being so openly happy, so often, really wasn’t normal, I told myself.

And there was something else:  She never had anything unkind to say about anyone.  That, also, was surprising and seemed abnormal.  I didn’t know anyone else, again, including myself, who didn’t indulge in a little mean-spirited gossip now and then.  I never really understood that about her.  Always happy, never a mean thing to say.

I compared my schoolmate with the apparition I saw on the boat launch, of the girl whose father had violated her.  The intensity of her ghost was not like my school friend.  I compared the Lizzie I remembered to the dreams I’d been having, to Celeste’s description.  But it was hard to compare an apparition that made her own sister feel threatened to the Lizzie I had known.

Somehow, I couldn’t accept that dying had made my happy friend unhappy.  And where had she found the strength to go through life as if everything was all right when it wasn’t?

I lay in my bed thinking of her, a book covering my face.  I groaned, a renewed realization of her physical absence sweeping over me.

“You all right?

I took the book off of my face, annoyed at the interruption.  One of my classmates, a girl named Sue, stood inside the door looking like perhaps she was somewhere she wasn’t sure she should be.

“Sort of,” I said.  “What can I do for you?”

“I just wondered if you had finished your Astronomy homework.  I’m having some trouble with it.”

I laughed.

Homework.  I hadn’t put much energy into that so far this semester.  Even an earnest attempt to do research for Food and People had come to nothing when Lizzie’s ghost appeared in the stacks.

“Uh, no.  I can’t say I’ve even looked at the assignment.  When’s it due?”

“Tomorrow,” she said, shifting on her feet and looking around.  “Well, sorry to bother you.  I guess I’ll see if I can find someone who’s looked at it,” she turned and left.

I put my book back over my face, resuming my brooding state.

A mother who chose not to protect her children: that aspect alone, Mrs. Verdano’s unexplainable choice to allow her daughters’ continued abuse, was more than I could understand and made me very angry.  Even if Mrs. Verdano was medicated, how could she do this?  And Lizzie’s super-human ability to disguise the situation …I was sure there was some psychological model that would explain all of this, but I couldn’t recollect a single memory of anything Lizzie had said or done that would have clued me into the bizarre picture that was emerging of the Verdano family.  How was it all possible?

It seemed to me that I had never really known Lizzie.

My mind returned to Mrs. Verdano.  Bake sale volunteer, flower shop owner.  She always bought the most stylish clothes and jewelry for her girls, always looked elegant herself.  I had jokingly called her the PTO queen.  She’d never missed a meeting.  She’d also never had a spare moment for any of us.  It seemed to me that perhaps she was always busy as a means of avoiding what was happening at home.  Had she used her many business and volunteer commitments as a kind of shield?  A means of removing herself from something she could not or would not deal with?  Why?  Was Mr. Verdano so important to her, did she feel so invested in that relationship that she would sacrifice her daughters to it?

And her father.  Polished, sophisticated, charming.  All of Lizzie’s friends harbored little crushes on him.  An Italian-American from New York, he’d graduated from an Ivy League school and ran the psychiatry department at Manchester Hospital.  He was well-known in our little community, well-respected.  Had even donated a room to our local library.  As I contemplated him, though, I realized that part of his mystique and appeal had always been a kind of smoldering mysteriousness.  He was never available to anyone I knew for anything more than the most casual, passing conversation and cordialities.  Even at social functions he chose to attend, he rarely appeared on time, preferring instead to arrive late enough to avoid introductions and idle chatter.  Unless he was a benefactor or speaker.  At those events he shone.  All generosity and humility.

I thought about school ball games.  Celeste had been a cheerleader for the football team.  I hadn’t thought much about it before, but if memory served correctly, he often disappeared early from games.  I remembered Mrs. Verdano and the girls getting into her car on their own; Mr. Verdano’s Mercedes was almost always gone by the time the rest of us reached the parking lot.  Still, my parents had always considered the Verdanos friendly acquaintances.  And now he was filing a lawsuit for wrongful death against my father.  It seemed like a work of fiction too surreal to be believed.

I tensed again as the image of the ghost, an image that was always there, burned into my mind.  The vision of her apparition visited me over and over again, causing my heart to leap.  Always accompanied by her words.

Look what he did.

Breathing consciously, listening to the very real physical event of air rushing into my body and then out again against the book still lying on my face, and doing it a second time, noticing the pages flapping during my second out breath, I thought about being halfway though the semester.

Lizzie would have been halfway through her Biology class and the Food and People class I was enrolled in.  Probably the sight of fat deposits wouldn’t have made her throw up, and it was a safe bet that she would be earning good grades.  She’d always been an honors student.

Most likely, I wouldn’t have been lying there with a book on my face if she’d come to school with me.

I reflected.

And I certainly would have been earning at least passable grades as well, if things had been different.  I hoped.

Probably, she would have made a habit of dancing around our dorm room with a Madonna album playing.   And, she most certainly wouldn’t have let the badly intentioned Steve drag me, sick, out of a fraternity party and up a set of stairs.

 

 

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Chapter 33.

33.

The next day I went to the library.  I had a paper to write for my Food and People class that required some research, and I needed to immerse myself in something mundane.  All the talk of dreams, visions, druggings and rapes was starting to get to me.  I felt like I was living a Gothic novel.

The dark hue that fell over my days was preventing me from doing any homework.  I didn’t even know what material we were studying in Astronomy, and Probability and Statistics was so far over my head I’d given up on it. I no longer bothered with labs and incomprehensible jokes in Japanese.  I felt guilty, and I felt a need to ground myself, to do something constructive.

So I went to the library and entered the stacks.

There’s something comforting about the smell of old books.  Rows and rows of hardbound books in dimly lit corridors.  All written in English.  Or mostly, anyway.  The feeling that they’d been there, reliable, sanctioned, cared for by the establishment, was reassuring to me.  I was someplace safe, surrounded by books that had endured school year after school year, ministering to young minds, accounted for in the library’s catalogue.  I breathed deeply, trying to absorb the smell into my pores, my eyes, my hair.  I had always loved libraries, from my earliest memories of the brightly lit children’s room with its low shelves and colorful picture books right up through my travels in reference, fiction, and eventually nonfiction.

I had a short list of call numbers, and all the books I was looking for were on the same floor.  I began my hunt.

I walked along the corridor, reading the call number labels.  Out of the corner of my eye, I saw something move behind me, into one of the corridors.  A faint rustle in the air.  A breath, perhaps.

Another student.

I continued and found the aisle for my first call number.  Good.  I turned right, saw something move behind the stack to my right.  I turned and glanced across casually, expecting to see another student there.  No one, though.  Sure I’d seen something, I stopped and bent my head forward to look over the books into the aisle there, but I couldn’t see anyone.

Feeling a chill and taking a breath to steady myself, I looked down at my call number and began hunting along the shelf, squatting to read call numbers one row up from the bottom.  As I did, a breeze came up from behind me, accompanied by the sound of rustling paper.  This time the movement seemed to be in the aisle behind the left side stack.  Again, I peered over the books, through the shelf, trying to see the source. But there was nothing.

Suddenly, it was beginning to feel cold. The lights in the ceiling flickered.  Determined not to be spooked, I continued my search for the first book on my list.  Finding it, I pulled it from the shelf.  It was hardbound in burgundy leather binding with white Courier style typeface on the cover.  I opened it, the smell of an old book reaching my nose.  I breathed it in, closed it, and ran my hand over the cover, my fingertips pausing over the title painted in white on the hard cover. Then I tucked it under my call number list.  One down.

Leaving the aisle, I continued along, looking for the second book.

I caught a glimpse of someone passing at the other end of the stacks, no doubt whoever I’d been seeing out of the corner of my eye.  Continuing along until I came to the next aisle labeled with the call number range on my list, I turned, and hunted along the shelf for the next book.  The pleasant feeling of being among these old books began to give way to a feeling of anxiety.

I looked around.  No one there.  I told myself the chill I was feeling was silly.  All the same, I was ready to leave the stacks.  Finding my book I pulled it from the shelf, stacking its blue cover over the red one. Feeling the weight of the books I decided two was enough.  These would occupy me for an evening. I hadn’t intended to leave with just two books, but my mood had shifted.  I put the call number list in my pocket.

I would come back for the others.

Turning to exit the aisle, I found I was blocked.

Eva stood in the aisle before me, preventing my exit on that end.  Not again.  Why?  Why here?  I felt the cold that seemed always to be there when the apparition appeared surrounding me. Instinctively I turned to reassure myself that the other end of the aisle was clear.

I started to back up, but she advanced.  “Rowan.”

“Eva, please.” I felt short of breath, still instinctively afraid despite her repeated appearances.

“It’s okay, Rowan.  It’s okay,” she whispered, holding her hand out to me.

The ring.  She was wearing her ring.  I stopped, felt my own ring against the books, which I held crushed against my chest, a kind of shield.  I stood looking at her, wondering if I should run.  But I didn’t.

“Rowan, remember the dream.  What you saw was the truth.  Remember what you saw!”

She stopped advancing, looking sad.  Sad and intense.

“It isn’t over,” she said.

I looked at my friend.  She was incongruous standing in the library stacks with her cutoffs and guard shirt.  She still wore the clothes she’d worn every day of the last summer of her life.  Here, in the library stacks at UNH.  I wondered if she was aware of that.  Aware, as she’d been of the ring I’d left in her casket with her.

“Eva, I don’t understand what you want,” I said.  “Do you want me to accuse your father?  I don’t have any evidence!  Nothing!” Tears sprang to my eyes at the sight of her.  I missed her so much.

That realization brought me face to face again with the unfairness of it all.  I was attending school here alone, without her.  The sight of her here in the library that she would have used gave me pain in my chest, made my throat tighten.  I felt robbed.

Our exchange was cut short by the sound of someone entering the stacks at the end of the hall.  Turning to see another person intruding on our privacy, she disappeared.

Eva’s appearance impressed the urgency of the matter upon me, and I realized that I needed to help settle whatever was disturbing her.  Or I would continue this way.  My life and mind disrupted, effectively shattered.  Unable to accept, much less embrace, my grief.  Wasting time and money in a place that could never be anything other than a ruined dream, drowning in disappointed expectations.

Another trip across campus, this time unannounced.

She’d lied to me about being at the party.  For all I knew, Celeste and Venus were dealing drugs.  Meanwhile I was tormented with the possibility – or rather, a ghosts’ insistence — that my dream of Eva’s abuse had been real.  What, if anything, did Eva’s abuse have to do with date-rape drugs?

I was missing something.  Some answer.  Some link.

Ghostly visits by my bed and in the stacks were taking my mind over with shadows and realities that weren’t tangible.  It seemed whenever I tried to reach for a concrete idea, it disappeared.  I was a stranger in my own world; Eva’s visitations had taken over the landscape.  There was only one other person who had a place in the dark world I was traveling in.  Celeste.

I had to see Eva’s sister to find out the truth.

I knocked with determination on Celeste’s door.  She was at home, clad in sweats, hair in a bandana, gold-rimmed glasses on.  I didn’t know she wore glasses; I’d never seen her wearing them.

She invited me in, her surprise at seeing me so soon evident in her expression.  A biology book lay open on the pink ottoman in the living room.  I didn’t sit, my voice spilling out ahead of me as I paced the room.    “Celeste, I’ve just seen Eva again.”

Celeste’s eyes widened in surprise as she followed me into the living room.  I didn’t pause, charging on with what I had to say.  “And I had a strange dream last night about her.  And your father.  Maybe it wasn’t a dream.  I don’t know.  Maybe it was Eva … I didn’t know who else to talk to about it,” I said in a rush, hopeful that the truth, however confused, abrupt, and straightforward, was the right avenue.

She looked puzzled, seated herself, and waited for me to continue.

“The dream was about Eva,” I repeated deliberately, “and your father.”

Her eyes flashed.  She picked up a book nervously.  Opened it.  Closed it.              “I don’t see what this has to do with me,” she said, getting up.

“Celeste, please.  I need to know what happened.”

“Don’t you think this is horrible for me?” she demanded.  “She was my sister!”

“Of course,” I answered, wondering if coming had been a mistake.  But it was too late.  I had started this, and I had to know if the dream was true.  “But I feel like something happened — something bad … ”

“Yes, something bad happened.  Eva is dead.  Isn’t that bad?  Really, Rowan, what could be worse?” she demanded, anger flaring in her voice.

I wasn’t getting anywhere.  I had to be more explicit.  “Celeste, I need to know what was going on between Eva and your father.”

“Nothing.”

“What do you mean, nothing?  Nothing was going on between them?” I asked.

She looked at me coldly.

“No, Rowan, nothing was going on between them.”

I stared, not sure where to go next.  “Abuse.  I dreamt your father was sexually abusing Eva,” I said, going for broke because she had risen and was walking toward the door.

“That’s disgusting.” She turned to glare at me.  “I can’t believe you would suggest something so … ” She broke off, shaking her hands in frustration, her jaw clenching.  “Especially with everything else I have to deal with!” Her voice was rising.  She stopped, stopped talking, seemed to stop breathing.  And then I watched as her anger turned the corner to grief.  The hostility disappeared as she gathered a great breath.  She filled her chest, held it there, her face contorting as she tried to hold it, whatever it was, in.

I watched, transfixed.  She was transforming.  The cool, beautiful veneer I had grown so accustomed became a mask of pain as the muscles in her face tightened, drawing the corners of her lips down toward her jaws, her forehead into a crumple.  Her eyes were like the ocean during a storm: turbulent, angry, wet.  Celeste’s pain.  A silent eternity passed, she remained frozen, her face contorted, holding her breath and whatever was behind it, in.  The breath finally expressed itself from her chest in a wail.  As I stood there, I watched and listened to her crying escalate to the kind of keening tears you hear on recordings from the east.  She slumped against the wall, holding herself.

I was stunned.  Guilty and ashamed of exposing her, full of fear, regret, and remorse at the sight of her.  Her pain was scary, hard to watch, even ugly.    Lost, I tried to touch her shoulder, looking for a way to bring back the Celeste I knew.  But she shrugged my hand away violently.  “I’m sorry, Celeste, I … ”

“No!  You don’t know what happened!” she spat, tears streaming down her cheeks.

Crying violently, now.

“You would never understand!  You have no idea what it was like growing up like this!” She was sliding down the wall to the floor.  “With a mother that never protected us.  She left us there, with him, all those years, one night after another, he did these things to us! She knew … ”

Huddling there, crumpled, she cried piteously.  Shocked at her sudden disintegration, I started to cry, too, kneeling down next to her.  Both of us were now awash in tears, mirrors of each other’s pain.

“Celeste, I’m so sorry …”

But it wasn’t enough.  What had I done?  Exposed an already suicidal girl’s source of pain.  Sorry didn’t begin to touch the truth of the situation.  Suddenly I could see how Celeste truly felt, what her world was really like.

“I am sorrier than I can ever tell you …”  I began again, reaching out to touch her shoulder.  She didn’t throw my arm off, but just continued to cry, her shoulders shaking.  Her face streaked with tears, her expression wrenched with pain, she continued.  “He raped us over and over.  Since junior high school he’s forced us — made us do things — sometimes to each other.  His own father did the same things to him.”

She looked at me then, awash in silent tears everywhere.

“She knew, Rowan.  My mother knew.”  She looked at me, her face laid open with frustration, pain, anger.

“Please.  Come sit with me in the living room,” I said, consumed with shock, wanting to regain dry land, bringing my own crying under control.  I had opened a Pandora’s box for Celeste and I had to try to calm her down, comfort her, help her if I could.

I led her back to the couch and sat down next to her.  We sat there for some time, Celeste crying, me watching helplessly.  “I’ve tried killing myself,” she said between sobs.  “Once I took some pills but Eva found me and they rushed me to Emergency.”

I sat there, disbelief taking me captive.

The elasticity of my mind had been stretched to its capacity and here it was stopping, contracting, perhaps.  Her father abused.  Abusing.  Eva had never let on.  How could I have imagined I was so close to her?

Celeste’s last suicide attempt was not the first.  The girls had all been sexually assaulted by their father.  For years.  It ran in the family.

Poison in the soup.

All along.

“Celeste, what can I do?” I asked, wanting to help, but not knowing what she needed.  “Eva never told me.  I didn’t know,” my voice trailed off.

I felt impotent and stupid.

Who did I think I’d been in Eva’s life?  And who could I be to this girl?  Celeste peered at me, her eyes dark pools of still water.  Haunted.

“Can you help Eva?  Can you help her rest?  Can you take away everything that he’s done?  Go back in time and wipe away the ruin and filth?”

I went cold, stared silently.

Realized that Celeste and Eva were linked, attached, to each other by the family, by their common experiences.  Their lives stolen from them.  Together in the despair of ruined hope, ruined innocence.  A ruined childhood.

Together.

Eva was haunting Celeste in vain.

Celeste was capable of doing that for herself, to herself.  She didn’t need the reminder from her dead sister of what was wrong, unfinished, unpunished.  For Celeste, hell was right here on Earth.  And the devil was at large.

“I don’t understand how your Mom,” I started to say, and thought better of it.  She looked at me miserably.  “I’m sorry, Celeste.  I never knew your father did this.  Eva never gave me the slightest indication,” I let the sentence hang there unfinished.

“Rowan, my father controls everything.  My mother, my sister, me, his clients, business associates.  Everyone.  Before him, it was his father.  That’s all.”  She turned away, then, trying to compose herself, wiping at her eyes delicately and taking deep breaths.

I paused, wanting to say something encouraging but realizing that was probably a futile inclination.  Especially now.  I decided to try anyway.  “You are beautiful and brilliant, Celeste.  Don’t leave the world.  I don’t think Eva would want that.”

She smiled, an ironic, tragic smile.  “I think, Rowan, it’s too late for that.  But I’ll think about what you said.”

“Promise?” I asked.

“Promise.”  She took a deep breath then, seeming to realize the weight of what had been said for the first time.  Her hands came up to cover her face.  She sobbed, taking several deep breaths.  Back and forth, I could see she was trying to regain control.

“Oh God, I shouldn’t have said anything,” she said, looking at me with red eyes.  “Rowan, please don’t say anything.  Please,” her voice was imploring.  “My father, Venus … they’ll kill me.”

She looked at me, fear evident in her wide-eyed expression.  “Venus would kill me, never forgive me.”  Her tear-streaked face was a mask of dread, misery.

“For telling?”  She nodded, sniffing, tears resuming in a trickle.

“Okay,” I said, defeated.  “I’ll keep this to myself.  But Celeste, do you want things to stay the way they are?  When you go home –”  Ghosts flitted through my mind.  Horrible whispers of what it must be like for her.  A reality that had endured generations.

She looked up at me.  “We don’t have to go home anymore.  We support ourselves,” she said, her voice almost a whisper.

“Support yourselves?” My voice raised to make the words a question.

She nodded emphatically, sobbing.

“How?” I asked, the question of dealing drugs springing into my mind like a nimble cat.  She looked at me, her eyes almost black with the weight of everything.  This was all too much for her.

Too much for us both.

I decided to back off the question.

“Please,” she whispered.  “Just forget your dream and this discussion.  Forget all of it.  Please.”

I gave an exhausted nod of consent.  “I promise,” I said.

“I’ll come and see you again.  Will you be all right?”

She nodded.  “I’ll be fine.”

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Chapter 32.

I’m under instructions to keep posting despite the broken formatting of the blog.  So I’ll keep them coming.

32.

That night after dinner Marc came over.

“I have to find her.  There must be a campus directory,” I said.

“There is, over in the Student Union building,” Marc regarded me with a look of doubt.

“I have to talk to her.  It’s important.”

“About what?”

I was reluctant to tell him.  It might be a completely untrue accusation.  But somehow I had to find out what I could.  My stomach had been in knots since I had begun to ponder the matter of Celeste and Venus dealing drugs, since I’d retreated under fire from Mary’s room.

“I just feel like I have to check in on her, see how she’s doing,” I said, biting my lip.

He stared at me.  “Yeah?”

I didn’t want to come clean with him.  I didn’t want to tell him what I was thinking.  It was too risky.  He would try to talk me out of it.  Maybe he would think I was inventing things.  “Why do I need a reason?  I want to see how she’s doing,” I said, frustrated and annoyed with myself for not sounding more confident.

He was dubious.  “Rowan, Celeste didn’t seem very happy to see us when we went to the hospital.  Did you notice?”

I nodded.

He sat down beside me on the bed, and faced the wall opposite us, sighing.  “Maybe it would be better to leave her alone for a while.  Give her- – and yourself — a rest.  You haven’t been yourself lately.  Can’t you put this thing aside for now?  Long enough to let your self feel better and move on?  I bet that’s what Celeste and Venus are trying to do.”

I knew he meant well.  But he didn’t know about Mary’s rape, the drugs, the bizarre sightings of Celeste and Venus at the fraternity houses.  This wasn’t just about my dead friend anymore.

And I couldn’t let it go.

“It’s something else.  One of the girls in our dorm was raped the other night.  The same way they tried to rape me,” I said, looking at him.

He looked angry, and then disgusted.

“Jerks,” he growled.

“That’s an understatement, I think.”

“But what does that have to do with going to see Celeste?” he asked.

“Gretchen saw Celeste at the party.  She arrived alone, carrying a handbag.  Apparently she went into a room with some fraternity brothers alone and left soon after, still alone.  There’s been a question raised.  What was she doing?  Dealing, perhaps?”  I looked at him hoping he would agree with me.  See my position.  Support me.  Come to my rescue.

He stared at me.

I continued.  “So, I thought after seeing Venus at the Zeta party doing something similar, coming in alone and going into a room with some of the fraternity brothers, maybe I should see what I could find out …” my voice trailed off.

“Venus was at the Zeta party?” he asked, surprised.

Just then it occurred to me that I hadn’t told him about Venus’ mysterious disappearance into the back room at the fraternity house.  I had completely forgotten it in the excitement and horror of my near disaster at the hands of the would-be rapists.  “Yes.  I saw her that night.  But we didn’t talk.  In fact, she didn’t even see me, I don’t think.  She went into a room that was off toward the basement’s back side and disappeared behind a locked door.  Sort of the way Gretchen says Celeste did the other night at this other party.”

His mouth hung open in disbelief.  “You know, for someone who spends so much time with you it’s hard for me to understand how I know so little about what the hell’s going on.  How is that?” he demanded.

“Well … I, um, I’m not keeping anything from you,” I said apologetically, not really understanding why he was angry.  “Things have just been so crazy.  I didn’t even think to tell you about Venus.  I didn’t think it was important, ” my voice trailed off as I watched his face, tried to understand why he was upset.  I had expected him to be dismissive, disbelieving.  But not upset.

He continued to stare, his expression slowly registering real annoyance.  Anger.  His mouth gaping, he regarded me with mounting incredulity.

I recoiled, not sure what was coming.

Finally he spoke.  “So you think these girls are dealing drugs and you want to go find out?  Does it occur to you that you could get hurt?” his voice was rising.

“Rowan, you know it seems like lately you’re dropping a bomb every day.  Ghosts, drugs, rapes, suicide attempts.  Honest to God, what’s with all this drama?” he spread his arms wide to emphasize his point.  “Is there anything else you haven’t gotten around to telling me?” He looked at me, obviously really angry now.

Very sexy, angry like that.

“Umm, nope, I don’t think so,” I said, my mind turning from finding Celeste’s address to jumping on him.  I smiled suggestively.

But he wasn’t having it.

“I’m not going to help you find her.  You know why?  Because it’s dangerous, if it turns out to be true.  You nearly got raped the other night and as far as I’m concerned you should stay away from Celeste and Venus.  You aren’t going to grieve Eva this way. Finding out if her sisters are dealing drugs is not going to bring her back.”

That hurt.  Being swept aside, treated like a little girl who didn’t know what was good for her.  I realized I was relying on him for a lot.  Too much.

“Maybe you’re right,” I said defiantly.  “You know what?  That’s fine.  If you aren’t going to help me, I’ll find Celeste myself.  Thanks for the tip.”

I got up and stormed out, slamming the door behind me and leaving him alone in my room.

I knew he was trying to protect me.  I knew I shouldn’t be angry with him for that.  But I was angry at everyone and everything, and Marc came in that category.

I walked, fuming, to the Student Union building and found the information desk.  She did not have campus housing anymore, as I expected, but there was a phone number listing for her name.  I went to the nearest pay phone and fished a dime out of my pocket.  I didn’t know what I was going to say, but I dialed anyway.

“Hello?” a woman’s voice came over the line.

“Hi there.  May I please speak with Celeste?”

“This is she.”

“Hi, Celeste.  It’s Rowan.”

“Oh, hi,” she said, sounding surprised to hear from me.  She hadn’t given me her phone number.  Perhaps that was why.

“I’m sorry to bother you.  I was just wondering if maybe I could drop over for a minute?  To say hi?”

“I guess so.  What’s it about?” she asked, sounding unsure.

“Just a social call,” I said.  “What’s your address?”  I asked, not giving her a chance to change her mind.

She gave it to me.  Just out of the center of town.

“Will you be there for a while?  I can come now.”

“For a while,” she said.

“Okay.  I’ll be right there.”

Celeste showed me into the common space, which she called a living room, and sat down, waiting for me to speak.  Her apartment was comfortable and very well furnished for a student’s space.  There was a contemporary style pink couch, walls painted a shade lighter than the furniture, and some framed repro art posters on the wall.  It was neat as a pin, magazines stacked neatly on a coffee table.  There was a bathroom with a door.  I realized that I missed having a bathroom with a door.  I resolved to use it before I left, even if I didn’t have to go.

I took a seat on an ottoman, which was also pink.  I didn’t feel comfortable sitting in a seat.

It was odd, but I didn’t feel like a guest.

“I wanted to see how you’re doing.  I haven’t seen you in a while,” I began, looking at her.  She looked fine.  No trace of the suicide attempt.

“I’m okay.  How are things over at Randall?” Her tone was relaxed.

“Well, a little weird,” I said, seeing an opportunity to open the discussion about the fraternity house and the drugs.  “One of the girls on our floor was raped the other night over at the Tau house.”

She grimaced.  “Nasty.  Is she all right?”

“Well, she’s pretty upset, as you can imagine.  And she got crabs from one of them,” I said, making a face and sticking my tongue out.

“One of them?” she asked.

“Yeah,” I said, disgust in my voice.  “She was raped be a few guys.  They drugged her,” I added, watching her face very carefully.

“Wow,” she said, sitting up and bristling a little.  “I’m really sorry to hear that,” she said softly.

“Yeah,” I agreed, nodding.  “Not joyful.  Nearly happened to me once … ”  She looked at me, surprise registering on her face.  But she didn’t ask me when or where.  She kept very silent, in fact.

“You weren’t at that party by any chance, were you?” I asked.

She shook her head.  “No, I don’t go to those things,” she said, a look of distaste on her face.

That was interesting.  She wasn’t at the party.  But Gretchen had seen her at the party.  No reason to lie, was there?  Or was there?  My line of questioning dead ended, I changed the subject.

“How’s your semester going?”

“Oh, fine,” she said languidly.  “The usual.”

“What’s your major, again?”

“Physics,” she answered.

Bright girl, Celeste, I thought.  “Wow,” I said, smiling appreciatively.  She and Eva both were inclined toward the sciences, where I, myself, had been unable to determine the sex of the frog I was assigned to dissect in sophomore biology.  Quite miraculously I had discovered both ovaries and testes in my own specimen.  Mr. Carter, our biology teacher, had made a point to showcase the unusual nature of my findings to the class, much to my horror.

Chemistry hadn’t been better.  Mine had been the only exploding beaker in class that year.  The sciences were definitely not my area and I’d sworn them off beyond general requirements for college.

Celeste smiled.  “Science was always my thing.  Safe, cut and dry.  Not a lot of writing,” she said.

“Right,” I answered.

She waited for me to say something else, perhaps to reveal why I’d come.

“You haven’t seen Eva since we talked, have you?” I asked.  If Venus had told her about our discussion perhaps there would be evidence of that now.

“No,” she answered, sounding relieved.

I smiled.  “I guess that’s a good thing, then, right?”

“Definitely,” she answered emphatically.

“Well, I’m glad.  I just wanted to stop over and say hello.  See how you’re doing.  I’ve been thinking of you.”  I said, leaving off of the indelicate matter of her suicide attempt.

“Yeah, thanks,” she said, acknowledging what I hadn’t said in her expression.  “I’m okay.”  And she gave me a little smile.

“Okay, well.  It’s late and I should probably get going.  Take care of yourself,” I said, rising to leave.

She walked with me toward the door.  “Thanks for stopping over,” she said as she reached to open the door for me.

I smiled back at her as she closed the door.

Interesting, that.

She’d lied about being at the party.

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Filed under The Seventh Sister

Chapters 29, 30, 31.

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.  🙂

29.

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.

“What happened?”

“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.

“Mmm.”

“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.

“Yeah.”

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.

No answer.

“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.

I did.

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.

She nodded.

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.

“Rowan?”

“Yeah?”

“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.

I hesitated.

“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.”

30.

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.

Crying.

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.

31.

Course work was becoming impossible.  I thought about Celeste ceaselessly.  And when I wasn’t thinking of Celeste I was thinking about Eva.

And death.

Looming mortality.

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.

Stupid girls.

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?

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.

Moo.

“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.

Condescending bitch.

“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.

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chapter 27.

27.

We made our way back to street level and started back down Bow Street toward the town center, in search of dinner.  I was light-headed and a little exhausted; I would have been happy to lie down in bed.  Maybe do it again.  But we were in Portsmouth Center, hungry, and the dining halls were closed on campus.

We were standing at the corner of Bow and Market Streets when an expensive car drove past and pulled up to park near to where we were standing.  An older, familiar-looking man in a tweed sport jacket got out of the car and crossed behind it to open the passenger side door.

We watched as a beautiful redhead emerged, long legs preceding her, dressed in a revealing dress.  Marc stared, his jaw hanging open.  I followed his gaze back to the woman.

Venus.  It was Venus on the arm of an older, distinguished-looking man.  They crossed the sidewalk and entered at an expensive address overlooking the waterfront.  We both stood there aghast for a few moments.

“Who was that she was with?” Marc whispered, intrigued.

“I don’t know.  But he looked familiar,” I said.  “Someone from the university?” I wondered aloud.  He had the sophisticated, casual air of a professor.

Amazing.  She was full of surprises.

“Well, whoever he is he’s got money,” Marc said, looking appreciatively at the car they’d gotten out of.  A convertible Mercedes.

“Well, well, well,” I said.  Inside of a week she had made her way from a fraternity house basement to a waterfront flat in a Mercedes.  “She gets around, doesn’t she?”

 

 

That night I dreamt of Eva.

In the dream, Eva is sitting beside me in my dorm room, lightly rubbing my arm.  I wake.  She seems calm and content; there is no trace of frustration or sadness in her countenance.  She smiles and says, “Hi.”  Her hair is loose around her shoulders, her voice is easy and relaxed.  My heart aches.

“Eva, are you going to stay with me now?” I ask, sitting up in my dream to look at her.

“I’m always with you, but I have to go back,” she replies.

“But that doesn’t make sense,” I say, upset.

“You have your own work to do,” she says.  “Your life.  But first you have to help me with something,” she says, smiling a knowing smile and patting my arm.

“What work?” I ask, perplexed. “Help you with what?”

She continues to pat my arm lovingly.  “You’ll see, Row.”  It feels good to hear the little abbreviation she would use sometimes when she was talking to me.  “You’re going to tell everyone something very important for me,” she says, getting up.  “Come.  I have something to show you.”

Rising, she moves toward the window.  She reaches it and turns, her hand out to me.  I take it.  Together, we pass through the window and into the night.  We’re standing on the lawn outside of Randall Hall.

All is quiet.  Durham is sleeping.  Streetlights shine on empty streets.  I look up.  There are a million stars in the sky.

In a moment, we are among them, up in the air, flying over the middle of campus with its walkways, trees, and brick buildings. We fly out over Main Street.  I can see the pizzeria I had lunch in with Celeste, the sidewalk lit for no one.  We are flying over streets we would have driven.  It’s fantastic, cool, and fast.

In a flash we’re standing in front of her house in Chester.  Eva turns to me and smiles, gesturing for me to look around.

I take the invitation.  The lawn is freshly mowed.  The gardens are kept; they’ve been weeded, trimmed, and mulched.  The trees all around us rustle in the night air.

I approach the house, stopping at the front door.  I turn.  Eva seems to be gone.  I can’t see her.  But I can hear crying inside the house.  I knock softly, but no one answers.  I let myself in, concerned that something serious is wrong.

I walk past the living room on the right, the sofas there are empty, the pillows all neatly lined up against the arms.  Moonlight shines through the windows, illuminating the tidy room.  A ray of silvery light falls across a clean wooden coffee table.  I hear a clock ticking quietly.  And some more muffled crying.  It sounds like it is coming from upstairs.  I continue down the hall and turn left to go up.  They are carpeted, and my ascent is soundless.

“Come over here, Nurse Eva,” this is a man’s voice, and it’s coming from the room at the end of the hall.  “Come over here, sweetie.  I need something special from you tonight.  Come on,” he’s coaxing.  “Get down on your knees for me.”

“What if I don’t want to?”  It’s Eva’s voice.

“I didn’t ask if you want to.  I’m telling you.  Or we’ll have to involve your sisters tonight.  Do you want that?”  He sounds almost sorry as he makes his threat.

“Why can’t you just leave me alone?” She is sobbing.

There is a long pause.  And the sound of a zipper.

“I’ll tell Mom when she gets home tonight,” she says feebly.

“Oh, sweetie, you are an idiot.  Don’t you think your mother knows?”  He laughs softly.  “This is a family tradition that started long before you came along.  Even before your mother, your sisters . . . we all do as we’re told.  Come on, sweetheart.  Show me you love me.  Now.  Before I give you a real reason to cry.”

I approach the door silently and take the brass knob in my hand.  The hall around me is dark.  I pause, my stomach tightening into horrible knots that nearly bend me over.       I start to cry.

“Uhhh … nice,” I hear the man’s voice saying.  “That’s good … Mmm …Just like that.”

I don’t want to open the door, but I have to.

I have to see.

I turn the knob, and open the door just a few inches.  Far enough to see Eva kneeling in front of her father.  Far enough to see his pants at his feet.

Far enough to choke, to scream, to wake.

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chapter 18

18.

Tampered with.

Tampered.

With. Tampered with.

I sat on my bed with my head in my hands. What the hell did that mean? Tampered with? Someone—who? Tampered with her car. I tried the expression again. Tampered with. I said it out loud.

“Tampered with.”

Gretchen looked up from her book momentarily, and then dismissed me with a frown.

I couldn’t sit still. I was frantic, so I got up, took my key, and left.

The night air was damp and cool. I said a silent thank you for the darkness to whom or whatever might be listening. And then I started to walk without paying any attention to where I was going. There were street lights lighting all of the campus walkways, but there weren’t any other students around. Just empty walkways lit against the dark.

The night was still. No wind. No sense. I had no sense. It made no sense and I had no sense. Did someone want to hurt Eva or had it all been a horrible accident? Worse still, had it been an accident that my father had inadvertently caused? “Uuuh…” I groaned, looking up to the trees. A breeze moved through them, seeming to answer me, whisper something. I listened, trying to make out what they were saying. But it wasn’t clear to me. Beyond the trees were clouds that blanketed the sky, purple from the lights of the town.

“Why?” I cried out loud. “Why Eva?”

The trees were silent. The clouds seemed to absorb my question. Warm tears started again and I made no effort to stop them.

Earlier on the phone, Mom had been at a loss to deal with me.

“Mom, what does Dad mean, tampered with?” I had asked earlier when she came back on the line.

“Well, we’re not sure exactly, but it seems like someone might have actually loosened the lug nuts on her wheels.”

“Why? That’s impossible. It’s crazy,” I said, grappling with the news.

“Oh, honey, I know…”

“That’s insane. What reason could anyone possibly have to hurt Eva?”

A sigh. “Honey, I know it sounds crazy. Maybe Travis will be able to turn something else up. We’ll keep you posted.” 

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chapter 17

17.

I came back from the dining hall the following day to find Marc perched on my bed. Gretchen sat at her desk writing, the dour expression she usually wore firmly fastened to her face. I sat down next to Marc.

“Hi.”

“Hi.”

“Nice room,” he said, looking around.

“Yeah,” I said without enthusiasm.

“Want to go for a walk?” he asked.

“God, yes,” I said.

I noticed Gretchen smiling in a way that demonstrated her satisfaction with our departure. So did Marc. He shook his head and sighed, leading me to the door and opening it for me.

“So long, Gretchen,” he said.

“So long,” she said. She sounded a little like a cow, her voice doleful and flat, when she said that. He closed the door softly behind us.

“What’s with her?” Marc asked when we were out of earshot.

“Beats me,” I said. “She’s been that way since I arrived. She locked me out of the room the day after we moved in,” I said. “I was in the shower. Had to walk across campus in a towel to get the room key.”

That stopped him in his tracks. He turned to look at me in disbelief.

“Seriously?”

“Seriously.”

He whistled. “You have had a seriously bad few weeks,” he said.

“Yeah. I know,” I said, trying not to feel too sorry for myself.

“Seen any more ghosts?” he asked, the weight of the question greater than he let his tone give away.

“No,” I said. “No more ghosts, unless you count my memory. My heart stops every time I remember it.”

“I bet,” he said, sounding as if he still wasn’t sure he believed I had actually seen a ghost.

We walked to Marc’s dormitory room in Stoke Hall. He closed the door behind us and took me in his arms, enveloping me in a warm, strong hug.

“Baby I’m sorry. I heard about the name on your door when you moved in,” he said, still holding me. His face was turned into my hair.

“Your mum called and told me. That was a fuck up.”

“Uh, huh,” I said, angry at the memory. He led me to his bed and sat down next to me.

“My roommate won’t be back until after dinner,” he took my hand. “I think I probably got luckier in that department than you did. Gretchen’s…” he searched for the right word, “unfriendly?” he asked. “No, miserable,” he finished, finding it.

“It wouldn’t take much to be luckier in the roommate department than I am,” I assented, leaning back on his bed, exhausted from the emotional strain of the past two days.

Taking this as an invitation, he laid down next to me, propping himself up on his right arm.

“So, what should we do now?” he asked, a smile on his face.

“Dunno. Have anything in mind when you came to see me?” I looked at his smile. He had beautiful teeth.

He laid back and stretched out. “Definitely not,” he said, still smiling.

“Good,” I said, not moving.

He leaned into me then, kissing me hard. “I’m glad you came.”

Tired and near tears I kissed him back. All of the pain of the past week was welling up, threatening to overcome me. I felt like a train wreck. Slipping my hand into his T-shirt and burying my nails in his side, I pulled him against me. The back of my throat was tight. Straining to hold back my tears, I tried to control my breathing, to avoid crying. I unbuttoned his blue jeans.

He was rock hard. Silent, hot tears started to roll down my cheeks. We sat up. He laid his finger against my cheek, wiping one of my tears away.

“Don’t cry,” he whispered.

I nodded. Looking at me as if he wanted my consent, he took his T-shirt off. I watched. His skin was darker than mine. He kissed me, pulling my black tank top up and over my head.

“Ummm,” he straightened to pull me against him. Chests together, he held my hips with his hands. He was hot, hard, slipping his hands into my pants, moving against me.

He could unfasten my bra with his right hand, a trick he’d been practicing for months. Now we both laughed at his dexterity with the hook.

Crying and laughing at once.

I yanked at his pants, trying to pull them off. He stopped me, taking me in his arms and holding me against him.

“Baby, are you okay? We don’t have to do this now,” he said, sounding concerned. His skin felt so good against mine. So warm.

“I’m fine,” I said, without looking up into his eyes.

“Sure?”

“Yes,” I said. “Now please take your pants off.”

He laughed, “Yes, ma’am.”

The first day of classes was uneventful. Astronomy and Probability and Statistics. Both were large lecture halls filled to the gills with other freshman. Bright lights and theater-like classrooms. One after another, we filed in and up a staircase to find seats in long curved rows. Little desks folded down between the seats. I knew no one and felt awkward. Seeing other students standing around talking outside of the classrooms, I resolved to make some new friends.

After class I walked across campus, still unsure of where I was going, looking for Randall Hall. Looking for home. The sun was hot, and there were birds singing, which I found annoyingly cheerful. But I had a reminder that I was not completely alone: I was still sore from making love to Marc the day before.

A silver lining in my cloudy sky.

After dinner I went back to my room to look at my new textbooks. I sat at my desk, skimming the first chapter of my astronomy book. It was already 8:00 pm and the sun had set. Gretchen was lying on her bed reading a romance novel. The room was dark: the only lights were the lamp on my desk and the little lamp next to Gretchen’s bed, which cast unflattering shadows across her face.

I felt a chill air blow across my neck. I looked up, but both windows and the door were closed.

“Do you feel a draft?” I asked.

“No,” she said, looking up from her book. Her expression suggested she thought I was crazy. I wondered what I had done to earn her disdain, or for that matter, what I had done to deserve her as a replacement roommate for Eva.

She got up, laying her book by her bed, and left, closing the door behind her. That was a relief. The room was quiet. I went back to my textbook.

Again, I felt a cool breeze on the back of my neck. I looked around. I had a strong feeling I was in company. But I was alone in the room. Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling someone was there with me.

My cell phone rang.

“Hello?”

“Rowan?” Mom sounded concerned.

“Hi, Mom.” It was good to hear her voice.
“How’s it going up there?”

“More or less as expected. How are things there?” I replied.

“Has Gretchen been agreeable?”

“Something like that.” I said.

“Mmm. I was afraid of that,” Mom said, sounding worried. “Honey, Travis is here and he has some questions for you,” she said. “Do you feel up to talking to him now?”

“Sure.” I sat down on the floor, preparing for a long discussion. I sat on the floor, leaning against my bed and extending my legs in front of me. I tried to relax. There was a rustling on the line and I heard Travis clearing his throat.

“Hi, Rowan.” Travis’ Texas drawl was always a welcome sound.

“Hi, Travis. How’s it going?”

“Well it’s goin’ all right. I’m here with your Daddy and we’re just going over some things. Gotta second to talk?”

I watched as the branches outside my window blew and swept against the night sky, hitting the dorm room window. “About what time did Eva leave the house the day of the accident?” he asked.

“Around 9:10. Her usual time,” I answered.

“Okay. And did you hear or see anything unusual? Did the car sound okay? Any scraping sounds or anything?”

“No. I had an awful feeling in my stomach and asked her to let me drive her. But I didn’t hear any unusual sounds from the car.” I paused, recalling.

“No. I didn’t hear anything.”

“And what about Eva? Did she seem upset or distracted?”

“No,” I thought about her invitation to the movies. “In fact, she had a date that night and seemed to be in very good spirits.”

“Oh-kay,” he said breaking the word into two distinct syllables. It sounded like he was making notes. “I might have some more questions after I’ve seen the car, but that’ll be all for now. I’ll give you to your Daddy. You take care, now.” 

 Dad came on the line. “Rowan, some things have come up since Travis arrived. He contacted the police and they said they think the car was tampered with. We’re going to look at it again tomorrow. I’ll call you when we know more. I love you.”

He handed the phone to my mother without waiting for my response.  

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Chapter 16

16.

The day I moved into my dorm room in Randall Hall was hot and humid. Mom and I pulled the car up to a door that turned out to be an entry to the basement. I was on the second floor, so we were walking two sets of stairs. My mother groaned.

“Are you sure you don’t want to come home with me?” she asked, only half joking.

I didn’t answer her question directly because I wasn’t sure of anything. Instead, I took out my dorm assignment sheet and read it, as if Eva and I hadn’t said the room number a thousand times over the summer.

“Randall 214.”

Randall 214. Randall was an all-girls dorm. We’d requested this on my father’s insistence. I would not be allowed to live in a co-ed dorm.

Mom and I made our way up the stairs and down the mint green and beige hall. I noticed the paint was dirty. Depressing. The floors were freshly polished black and white tiles. We found 214. There were two white sheets of paper hanging on the wall beside the door of the room. One said “Eva Verdano.” Below it, the other said “Rowan Thomson.”

Mom drew in her breath.

“I called them and asked them not to post Eva’s name.” She sounded apologetic.

“It’s okay, Mom. There are a lot of students coming. It probably just got overlooked in the shuffle.”

But my eyes and throat were burning.

We entered the room, where I was surprised to find my new roommate had already arrived and claimed the bed, bureau, and desk she preferred. Gretchen had blonde hair that was cut into a frizzy bob. She had a dour expression and didn’t shake my hand when I extended it to introduce myself. Retrieving my rejected hand, I looked around. Her bedspread was a green and blue plaid that matched her neatly arranged desk and bureau. Her pencils were already unpacked into a pencil cup and she had filled the closet of her choice with neat, preppy style clothes.

My mother looked dubious.

We left the room to bring in some more of my things from the car. On the way, we stopped to inspect the bathrooms. The walls were the same mint green and beige as the hallway, but the floors were tiled green and blue. There was a bank of sinks on one side of the bathroom that faced a bank of toilets. A wall separated the second half of the bathroom, where there was another bank of sinks and a row of showers opposite. Each shower had a plain white plastic curtain for privacy, and that was all.

“Still sure you don’t want to come home with me?” This time she wasn’t joking.

I took a deep breath. It was true, Gretchen was apparently inconsiderate. But I wasn’t turning back now.

“Thanks, Mom,” I smiled. “But, no. I’m going to do this. It’ll be okay,” I said, using Marc’s words.

After we finished unloading the car Mom suggested lunch. We left my bed stacked high with crates full of my paraphernalia. Gretchen’s sour expression when we left the room conveyed her disapproval of the mess.

“She’s going to be a real gem,” Mom said as we crossed the street, heading for a pizza place in Durham center.

I agreed, but didn’t answer. She was only a roommate after all. We didn’t have to be friends.

Later that afternoon, having made my bed and fussed profusely over arranging my room for me, Mom left me with money and a big hug. She was crying.

“Oh, Mom, don’t cry,” I said

“You’re my oldest. It’s going to be so strange at the house without you. Are you sure you’ll be okay? Are you sure you have enough money? And everything you need?”

“I’m sure,” I answered, starting to cry myself.

Seeing this, Mom gave me a squeeze and got into the car. I closed her door and stood there waving as she drove away. I turned and went up the stairs, thinking that I should be excited, or exhilarated, or at least nervous. I felt none of those things. I just felt sad. Randall 214 should have been our room, Eva’s and mine. But I didn’t even feel welcome as I walked into it. Instead of Eva’s beach scene bedspread, we had blue and green plaid.

I realized that Gretchen had already left for the dining hall, leaving me to find it for myself and eat alone. I heaved a great, heavy sigh. Upperclassmen would be arriving in a couple of days, and with them, Marc.

Things would be better then.

The next morning I took a bucket filled with shampoo, conditioner, soap, a razor, and my toothpaste and toothbrush to the bathrooms for a shower. I noticed that was how everyone conveyed toiletries to and from the shower farm and had fallen in with the rest. Pulling the curtain closed, I tried to relax. I found the lack of privacy difficult. I was used to going into our bathroom at home and shutting the door. The curtain did not cover the whole shower door, leaving me exposed on either end. I shifted the curtain back and forth as I moved around in the shower, looking for footholds to shave my legs and places to put my razor and shampoo.

After drying off and wrapping myself in the big comfy pink bath towel Mom had bought for me, I squished barefoot back toward room 214. I turned the doorknob, which didn’t move. I jiggled. Nope. The door was locked. I banged on the door. No answer. I banged again.

“Gretchen!”

No answer.

I fumed. She had seen me leave the room for the shower with my bucket and towel. Not exactly dressed to go out.

I considered our locked door, cursing Gretchen under my breath. And then another thought occurred to me. After dinner the night before, we had all been herded into a large community room in a neighboring dorm for freshman orientation. The speaker said that there was a Resident Assistant on the first floor of Randall Hall. The office was supposed to handle administration issues for Randall and the other dorms in “the quad,” which were nearby. Maybe they would have a key.

I left my bucket beside the door, promising myself that when I next saw the dour, sour Gretchen I would have at least a few choice words for her.

But the office on Randall one was closed. A note on the door said “For Housing Issues: Housing Office, 100 Main St. Have a nice day.”

My heart sunk. I would have to walk in my towel all the way across the center quad area to Main Street.

One more try: I went to a nearby phone and looked to see if there was a campus directory. Water running from my wet hair down my back, legs, and onto the floor, I squished toward the phone.

No. Nothing. Just a few things scribbled on the wall in black ink. They looked like names and dorm numbers, mostly. Shit.

Squaring my shoulders, I told myself this could not be the first time a student was locked out of their dorm room. It couldn’t be. True, it was the second day of freshman orientation, I thought as I walked barefoot out onto the sidewalk. True as well that I was in a towel and had water running in a stream from my hair down my back and legs. But at least one other person must’ve experienced this since the university had been founded.

At least one.

I lowered my head, hoping not to see anyone who would recognize me.

I wondered if any student had ever killed a roommate at UNH? As I plodded across campus miserably I fumed, mentally rehearsing a gleeful scene in which I bludgeoned Gretchen over the head with my ten-pound astronomy textbook.

There was one small consolation: upperclassmen weren’t here yet, and campus was quiet. There were a few people walking around, but they were surprisingly indifferent to my compromised state. That was a relief.

Maybe this did happen all the time.

No, probably not, I thought, my anger with Gretchen resurging.

I trudged across campus, found the office, and went in. My feet were slippery on the black and white tile floor, which was dirty. A young woman sat at a desk reading. She looked up, a grin spreading across her face at the sight of a wet girl with nothing but a bath towel on. She looked perky and efficient.

“Can I help you?”

Worse than looking perky and efficient, she sounded cheerful, too. Someone slovenly and dull would have been preferable. Someone like that might have been better able to understand how I was feeling. This girl did not look like she had ever been locked out of her room while wearing a towel.

It was hard to keep my sense of humor, but I tried.

“I hope so.”

“You look like you could use it.”

“Yeah.” My voice caustic, I said, “My lovely roommate, who I am anxious to thank, was thoughtful enough to lock me out of my room while I was showering this morning. The office in Randall, where I live, was closed. A note on the door said to come here.”

“Ah. Might I suggest bringing your key to the shower in future?”

“You might. Though one wouldn’t expect to need their room key in the shower, would they?” I smiled sweetly.

“If your roommate didn’t know where you were…?”

“She knew,” I fairly spat the words. The last thing I wanted to hear was the slightest suggestion of a defense for Gretchen.

“Room number?”

“214.”

“Here you are. We need it back within 24 hours. Hope your day improves.”

Highly unlikely.

“Thank you,” I said, taking the key gratefully.

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Chapter 15

15.

The next day, Jen came into the bookstore. It was my last shift of the summer, and the owner had gone for the day.

The Book Nook was a small store in the center of town that sold used and new books. It had a sort of musty smell to it. The carpets were beige Berber that were worn down and permanently gray. The store had been there for twenty years, started by the current owner’s father. Mr. Robinson Junior was a kindly man, portly, short, and single. He spent every morning at the bookstore and left me to tend it during summer afternoons. I had often wondered where he went and what he did during those afternoons. Bingo? Golf? Horse racing? He never said and I never worked up the pluck to ask.

It had all started my last year of junior high. I made a habit of browsing his store for cheap paperback books whenever I was in town with my parents for errands. He got used to seeing me there, and one day when I was in browsing he asked if I wanted a summer job. As a result, I had been his summer help through four years of high school. In the afternoons it was my responsibility to bring the books that were arranged on a table outside on the sidewalk into the store, cash the register out, lock the doors, and walk the deposit, if there was one, to the bank next door. I could read all I wanted, as long as I kept an eye on the front of the store.

I imagined I would have my job back the following summer, when I would be home from college, but Mr. Robinson Junior and I had not discussed that.

That afternoon was slow, and the shop was empty. I was sitting behind the counter reading a Riordan novel, trying to escape the previous night’s jolt. The image of Eva on the boat launch had been persistent in my mind, causing my heart to skip a beat every time I remembered it.

“Hey, Rowan,” Jen’s crisp voice startled me out of my book and into the present as she came through the door, ringing the little brass bell that hung there.

“Hey.” I put the book down. I didn’t feel happy so I didn’t smile. Definitely no need to keep up appearances with Jen.

“Ready for school?” She sounded sarcastic.

“I don’t know,” I sighed. “I guess so. Mom seems to have it all under control. There’s a mountain of crap in my room. I have no clue how she expects to transport everything. No doubt she has a plan.”

Jen grinned. “I hear you. My mother’s already got everything but the kitchen sink in the van. We’re bringing my little brother to carry it all.”

Jen was going to Johnson and Wales, a small professional school in Rhode Island, where she planned to study the hospitality industry. It was a perfect course of study for her. With an excess of energy, a social temperament, and a matter-of-factness about her, I had no doubt she would be successful.

I, on the other hand, was without direction. I looked at the counter, feeling sorry for myself.

“Remember the time we all went up to Hampton in the Banana Boat?” she asked.

Her parents’ yellow VW van. The Banana Boat.

“Yeah,” I said, smiling. Jen and Keith, Eva and Rob, me and Marc, Ronnie and Mike. We went up to Hampton Beach one Friday night in early May, as a kind of birthday celebration for Jen, Eva, Ronnie and me. The beach was about an hour northeast of where we lived, a place frequented by people who lived in southern New Hampshire. The beaches there were nice, and there was plenty to do. Shopping, restaurants, arcades for the younger kids.

At dinner, Keith, Rob, Mike, and Marc sang Happy Birthday to us; we were all turning eighteen within a few days of each other. My birthday was thethird. Eva’s was theninth, Ronnie’s was thetwelfth, and Jen’s was thenineteenth. The matter of our shared birth month was a kind of joke because my sister Kori was born in early May as well, on theseventh, and Beth, Marc’s sister and our friend, was born thefifteenth. As a final irony, when Eva discovered this synchronicity, she revealed that her sister, Celeste, was also a May baby, born thefourteenth of the month. And so we called ourselves the seven sisters, all Taurus girls, like the Pleiades.

“Anybody want ice cream?” Eva asked after we’d eaten.

“We’re going for a walk. You guys go have ice cream. We’ll meet you in an hour,” Jen said, taking Keith’s hand. Keith raised his other hand in feigned helplessness and followed her off in the direction of the sand dunes.

Eva looked at the rest of us, a playful smile on her face. “Poor Keith,” she said mirthfully. “What’s it going to be? The beach or ice cream?” she asked, likely guessing our response. I looked at Marc, who didn’t answer or indicate a preference.

“The beach. I’m full,” I said, smiling. “An hour. What’s that? 10:00?” Rob looked at his watch.

“Yup. 10:00.”

“All rightee, then. See you in an hour!” I called over my shoulder as I pulled Marc in the direction Jen and Keith had gone, leaving the four of them to their decision. When we got to the beach, we took our shoes off to walk along the water, not worrying whether Eva, Ronnie, Mike, and Rob had gone to have ice cream or were off playing in the dunes.

An hour later, Marc and I made our way back to the meeting place, still shaking sand out of our hair and clothes. Jen and Keith arrived just after we got there, equally uncomfortable.

“The price you pay,” Jen said, as she shook sand out of her shoe.

But no Eva, no Ronnie. No Mike, no Rob.

We waited.

They didn’t come.

“Let’s walk and see if we can spot them,” Jen said. “Maybe they lost track of time.” We started to walk, looking for them. 11:00 came and we still hadn’t found any of our missing friends. We were starting to feel worried, so I approached a police officer.

“Excuse me, officer?” I asked. The officer was red-faced and portly. He had a nightstick hanging from his belt. He turned to look at me, chin lifted as he peered past his bulbous nose.

“Yes?”

“We’re looking for our friends. We’ve looked up and down the boardwalk and can’t find them. I’m a little worried that maybe something’s happened. I wondered if you could help us?”

“I’m not sure what you want me to do. How long have they been missing?” he asked, looking at my friends suspiciously.

“About an hour,” I answered.

“They’d have to be gone longer than that,” he laughed. “Maybe they’re off walking the beach.” I shook my head no. “I guess I could radio into the station and see if there’ve been any reports,” he said with a sigh. “What do they look like?”

I described Eva and Ronnie as best I could. Blonde, medium height and weight, wearing a pink skirt and shoes; dark hair and big brown eyes, wearing blue jeans and a T-shirt with a kitty face on it. And Marc described Rob, tall, dark hair and eyes, thin frame, glasses; and Mike, medium height and build, light brown hair, khaki pants.

We waited while the police officer radioed into the Hampton police station from his cruiser, which was parked nearby. He came back from his car, his nightstick swinging as he walked toward us.

“There are some kids that fit your descriptions at the station. Eva Verdano and Rob Johnston. Those your friends?” he asked.

“Yes!” I answered, relieved to have found them, but confounded at their whereabouts. “And Ronnie and Mike?” I asked.

“There are four kids there, but I only got two names.”

“Why are they at the police station, sir?” I asked.

“They prevented a robbery earlier,” he answered, his expression registering more respect than he’d shown previously.

Marc, Jen, Keith, and I exchanged looks of confusion.

“Prevented a robbery?” Marc asked.

“Yes. At an ice cream stand earlier, apparently. Don’t know the details, but you can pick them up at the station. I think they’ve finished giving their report.”

We thanked him and drove the Banana Boat to the police station. There we found Eva, Ronnie, Mike, and Rob drinking soda and having a good laugh in the waiting room.

Rob had chocolate ice cream all over his shirt and pants. Eva, Ronnie, and Mike still looked clean and intact.

“What have you guys been up to?” Jen demanded when we came in.

“Rob fell on top of some guy who was trying to rob the ice cream stand,” Eva said laughing.

“I didn’t fall on him,” Rob said. “He hit me.”

The story came out. Rob had just ordered a chocolate ice cream cone for Eva and a sundae for himself, and was turning to bring it to where she was sitting at a picnic table with Ronnie and Mike, when the would-be robber jumped the counter and took cash from the open register. The clerk was busy putting the money Rob had given him into the register and didn’t see the attack coming.

The thief secured the cash and jumped back over the counter, but Rob had turned to see what the commotion was about and stood in the attacker’s way. He plowed into Rob, knocking both ice creams into Rob’s shirt and Rob to the ground.

Rather than letting the attacker past him, Rob grabbed the attacker’s shoe as he stepped over Rob’s head, leaving the thief with one sneaker. The attacker kept going, and Rob jumped up, sneaker in hand, and chased him. There was a policeman in a nearby arcade who heard all the yelling, and came out in time to see Rob running up the street, still holding the sneaker, and the young man running from him, one foot bare. They caught the young man and asked Rob and his friends to come to the station to file a report.

Truly, Jen, Marc, Keith, and I felt like we’d missed something good. Months later, standing in the bookshop sharing the story, we were laughing.

“Crazy,” Jen said, shaking her head. “That was something.”

“Yeah, really it was,” I said. We sat together for a minute with our memory, not speaking, shaking our heads.

“I wanted to say goodbye,” she said. “I’m on break. Today’s my last day at the insurance office,” she said.

I realized that we hadn’t really spent any time together since the accident. “I’m sorry we haven’t seen each other much this summer,” I said, looking at the counter.

“I know. No excuses either, except that we’ve both been busy.”

I looked up from the counter. Her big green eyes were fixed on mine. She was right. We’d been caught up with school preparation, our summer jobs, our boyfriends. Jen worked a block away at Donnelly’s insurance company. It made it easy to jump back and forth between offices on breaks, but we hadn’t been doing that.

“I know it’s been a rough summer. You were closer to her than anybody. I still can’t believe this whole thing.”

She pulled a spare stool up to the counter.

“You have a roommate at UNH yet?” she asked.

“Apparently,” I said. “The school called this week to say they had assigned someone to our room,” I frowned, not sure what that would be like.

As if she were reading my mind she said, “It’ll be all right. Don’t worry.”

“You around tonight?” I asked, hoping she would grab an ice cream with me after work.

“No. Keith is taking me out. That’s why I came by, I’m leaving tomorrow.” She leaned over and hugged me. “Call me when you get to school,” she said.  

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Filed under chapter 15, The Seventh Sister, Uncategorized