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Mystery Selves: A Novella By Nicole Jeffords

Nicole Jeffords 10 months ago

Part 1: As Nature Intended

The summer she was sixteen, Julie Hassler had three jobs: one as a chambermaid at a local inn, one as a regular babysitter for the Mclntyres who had more children than they knew what to do with, and one looking after the house of an older couple, the Randolphs, who were away on a prolonged vacation. Of the three, the last was the easiest since she could go there whenever she wanted (the Randolphs lived just on the other side of the woods, half a mile from Julie’s house), and all she really had to do was feed their cat. She could get to two of the jobs by bike (the Mclntyres, six miles away, usually provided transportation), and from early morning till quite late at night she seemed to be running ragged. If you asked what motivated her to work so hard, she’d say “Money,” which was the truth. Julie liked dollars. Her family was well off, but Julie, secretive by nature, liked being in charge of her own funds, even if they didn’t amount to much more than $80 a week.

She also liked getting away from her parents, Gail and Frank, who were always and forever intruding in her business. Gail taught cello at a nearby conservatory. She was a tall, blond, slow-thinking woman with a lugubrious streak that came out when she practiced in her studio behind the house. What mournful sounds she created! Little pieces of melody, lilts and crescendos that affected Julie’s heart like the deepest utterances of pain. It seemed that all of Gail’s insecurities flowed from her stooped and kinked-up body to her cello — her fear that she wasn’t good enough as a parent, that she was a disappointment to friends, that she’d never really measure up as a musician, that even as a wife she was wanting — all these were expressed in the sad, fraught way she practiced her music. Julie frequently wanted to take Gail’s cello and smash it to bits. She hated hearing her mother play for all sorts of reasons, not the least of which was the guilty feeling that she herself might be the cause of her mother’s unhappiness. And so she tried to be out of the house as much as she could, lying sometimes, saying she would be spending the night doing homework at so-and-so’s, when she really planned to go to a party several towns away.

Frank, Julie’s father, didn’t have the same insecurities as his wife. Nor was he as gullible. Big and honest-faced, with hair the dark rusty red of an old pipe, he owned two health food stores, one in Greenfield, Massachusetts, where he spent the majority of his time, and the other,­ which he often joked ran itself, in Springfield. Although he might be able to see through Julie’s lies, he usually got home too late and too tired to want to deal with sorting out his daughter. Easier to leave that to his wife. If Gail came to him weeping because of some shrill scene with Julie, a shouting match, a suspected untruth, he’d finish eating the dinner that had been left for him and plod unhappily up the stairs to Julie’s room to question her. Had she really gone against their wishes by driving in the car of someone they didn’t know? Was it true she’d been hanging around, smoking cigarettes with a bunch of do-nothing kids behind the diner in Brattleboro? Julie would give him her wide­-eyed, lamby look of appeal, the look that always softened him up. “You have to be nicer to Mom,” he’d say, glancing uncomfortably around her room at the trail of abandoned clothes, the fashion pics thumb-tacked gracelessly to the walls, the tangled piles of beads and earrings and trinkets. “Menopause is no picnic.”

Julie fervently wished her mother would take drugs, estrogen, instead of struggling with the changes in her body “as nature intended” (a favorite saying of Gail’s). Both her parents were like that, kind and decent people who enjoyed doing things the hard way. Julie was sick of hearing how wonderful they were, how lucky she was to have them as parents. (Not that anyone would dare come out and say that to her face.) She had been adopted from Korea when she was seven months old, and so while Frank and Gail were fair and blue-eyed and robust, their cheeks turning a ruddy red, their hair bleaching of color in the harsh Vermont winters, Julie was fine-boned and sleek with honey beige skin and narrow, tilted eyes that were black as ink in a tiny, doll-like face. She was so small that people still lifted her up and swung her around when they greeted her.

From the beginning, even before she could articulate words, Julie had known she came from somewhere else. “You grew like a little fish in another lady’s tummy,” Gail would say, determined to protect Julie from any nastiness or shock regarding the truth of her origins. “Daddy and I cried with happiness and love when the social worker carried you off the plane from Korea and put you in our arms.” Until quite recently Gail would stop whatever she was doing, stare at Julie misty-eyed and say: “We love you probably even more than a child of our own flesh.”

Love was the point that was stressed. Love, love, love, love. Growing up in Vermont, usually the only Asian girl in her class, Julie was made to feel she needed far more love than most other children, gobs and gobs of it, like extra padding against the cold. In time, Julie came to resent this love not only because it set her apart, but because it was like a giant, sticky net tripping her up, impeding forward movement. Gail and Frank insisted on scrutinizing every inch of her life to be sure there weren’t any rough spots or shadows that might blow up in her face. They worried about drinking and drugs (Gail could have sworn on several occasions that the smell of marijuana wafted up from Julie’s long black hair), about self-esteem, Julie’s occasionally low grades, the possibility of her getting in a car with the wrong person, or falling in love with the wrong boy. The summer she was sixteen she did fall in love with the wrong boy, but it was a while before her parents found out about it.

***

Part 2: Leo Wysocki

His name was Leo Wysocki. He was eighteen, had dropped out of school the year before, was good-looking in a tough, sinewy, broad-shouldered way that didn’t immediately appeal to Julie. (In fact, until he opened his mouth and she heard his voice which was wise-ass, raspy, she hardly even noticed him.) The first thing he told her was he worked in a pawnshop. The second was that he was saving his money to travel to Barcelona, Spain to find his father who probably didn’t even know he existed.

“How come?” Julie asked.

“How come I want to find him or how come he doesn’t know I exist?”

“The latter.”

“Because my stupid mother was too fucked up to know she was pregnant.” He laughed at the alarm he saw in Julie’s eyes. “It’s okay, I’m cool with it. She claims she kept getting her period and by the time she got back to the States from her junior year abroad” (said with a spiteful flourish) “she was in her fifth month, too late for an abortion, so here I am.”

He sucked on his cigarette. Julie lit one of her own and blew out smoke. They were in the parking lot behind the diner with a bunch of other kids. It was nine o’clock; Julie had just been to the movies, and her father would be picking her up in about half an hour. “But she kept you. That’s something.”

“Yeah, I guess.” He took a last drag on his cigarette and ground it out with bitter energy. “She’s not really right in the head, though.” He aimed a finger at his temple to indicate just how nuts his mother was. “Bipolar. Lots of drugs. I haven’t lived with her since I was fifteen.”

“Really? So who do you live with?”

“No one. Myself.” He looked away and for a second she saw a shyness in his face that told her he was easily crushed, vulnerable. When he looked back, his eyes glittered with amusement. “Ain’t no one else gonna take care of me.”

Julie thought those were the saddest, toughest, sexiest words she had ever heard. Leo was standing quite close, and suddenly she was aware of the constriction in her throat, the nerve-zapping currents of electricity that flew between them. Her heart began to sing. She was in love.

It wasn’t the first time for her, though usually each time felt so new and spectacular that she had to discredit the love that had come before. Her first encounter with Leo had been a week ago, in the middle of July. Since then she’d visited him in the pawnshop where he worked and where he had to act circumspectly because of his boss, had run into him at parties and at the diner, but it wasn’t till yesterday when, as a favor, he’d driven her to the Randolphs to check the house, that he’d told her he loved her, too.

They’d smoked a joint and foraged for food in the Randolphs’ pantry, devouring a bag of Pepperidge Farm cookies and watching the Randolphs’ fat yellow cat pounce at shadows on the wall. “I feel good when I’m with you,” Leo had said, brushing a cookie crumb from her lips.

“Yeah?”

He laid his palm gently against her cheek. “You don’t know how great you are, do you?”

She was aware of the teary shine in her eyes as she shook her head.

“Well, you are, you’re beautiful, and you ‘re probably the only person who understands what it’s like to be me.” He stood and pulled her out of her chair, kissing her, his tongue fluttering against hers. She could feel his erection through his jeans. For a moment she was scared, unsure if she really wanted to do this, but then, as he reached under her shirt and cupped his hand over her breast, she heard him whisper sorrowfully, “We’re both mysteries to ourselves, aren’t we?”

The words were as lilting as music, as heart-wrenching and deep as the feelings her mother tried to express when she sat for hours in the studio, playing her cello. At the sound of them, the stitch of fear in Julie’s gut dissolved and her whole body went liquid with a tenderness that was almost painful. Leo helped her to the living room where they threw cushions on the floor and stripped off their clothes. Julie tried to hide the flat little breasts that always embarrassed her, but he pulled her hands away and lay her down, telling her over and over again how beautiful her childlike body was, and how from now on they would take care of each other.

Afterwards, as they lay on the cushions with the soupy green light of summer spilling over them through the windows, he talked about traveling to Spain to find his father. “Hey,” he said, propping himself up on an elbow and squinting at her. “You should come with me.”

Julie’s breath caught in her throat. “How? My parents would never let me.”

“Screw your parents.” He lit a cigarette and put it between her lips. “They don’t love you like I do.”

Happiness roared up from Julie’s feet, clouding her brain like a drug. “I love you, too,” she whispered. “When would we leave?”

Leo began to pull on his jeans. “Gotta get my finances together,” he said. As they straightened the room, he told her about his different schemes for making money. “I don’t do anything illegal.”

“I hope not,” Julie giggled.

“There’s this guy who gives me a couple of hundred bucks just to hold a little coke for him.”

Julie’s hand paused, twisting back her hair. “That’s dangerous, isn’t it?”

“People do it all the time.”

“But if you got caught, you’d get in trouble.”

He grabbed her wrist so the rope of hair fell away. “No way I’m getting caught. Especially if you help me.”

“Help you how?” she murmured.

“You could let me hide some here. No one would ever know.” He pushed her back a little, looked into her eyes. “You don’t have to, though.”

“No, no. I want to.”

“Okay. I’ve got some in the car.” He hugged her hard, then left the house. When he came back he was carrying what looked like a baggie of flour. Together they searched for a place to hide it, finally deciding on a shelf in the pantry, behind some cereal boxes.

A little later, he drove her to the Mclntyres. “You going to Ian’s party?” he asked as she slid across the seat to the door.

“When is it?”

“Tomorrow night.”

Tomorrow was Friday and she knew she was supposed to accompany some friends of her mother’s to a concert. Well, screw that. “Sure,” she said. “Can you take me?             

“Would if I could,” he said. “The car’s borrowed, so I won’t have it anymore. But I can meet you there.” He drew her back to him across the seat, kissed her deeply. Then she got out of the car and watched him drive away. The minute he was out of sight, she was filled with a sickening loneliness and despair. No matter what happened, no matter who came to visit or what punishments her parents might impose should she get caught, she had to see him again. ASAP.

***

Part 3: Diana

The next morning at breakfast, Julie’s father reminded her he was flying to Cincinnati for some sort of health food conference she couldn’t remember ever having heard of.

“Well, I hope you haven’t forgotten the Woolseys,” Gail said, glancing up from the paper.

“The Woolseys?” Julie pretended to be mystified.

“You never listen, do you?” Gail laid down the paper and poured herself a second cup of coffee. “My friend, Mona, who I grew up with, and her daughter, Diana? I told you about them the other day.” Her spoon clinked noisily against the side of the cup as she stirred in sugar and cream. “They’re from Texas, but they’re visiting family on the East Coast. The daughter’s your age. We’re all going to my concert tonight.”

“Well, I can’t go,” Julie said. “I promised the Mclntyres I’d babysit. I’m sorry, Mom. I’m really sorry. I just can’t let them down.”

The last place Diana Woolsey wanted to be was stuck in a car with her mother, driving to Vermont. The trip from Saratoga (where they had been staying with her grandparents) took three hours and the whole time she didn’t talk, though Mona kept making bright comments like: “It’ll be interesting for you to get to know Julie,” or: “Gail’s so talented; you’re gonna just love hearing her play.”

Why would I? thought Diana, who wanted to be home in Austin, Texas, with her own friends and not on the East Coast, going to family reunions and visiting people she didn’t give a shit about. She was a tall, leggy girl with swift dark eyes that were often full of judgment, and a face whose harsh beauty didn’t much appeal to boys her age. Four months ago, on her sixteenth birthday, her life had totally changed: her parents had given her a car of her own to drive, a brand new, pale gold Chevy Tahoe that she thought was the most beautiful thing in the world. Suddenly she wasn’t chained to her mother, she was free, independent, allowed — because of her good grades — to more or less come and go as she pleased. And with that freedom came a sense of superiority, a growing suspicion that her parents didn’t know quite as much as they pretended to. She had always assumed that her father, Harry, who was brilliant but hated anyone intruding on his thoughts, was a little on the dim side. It was her mother who was the disappointment, good-natured Mona who’d led Diana through childhood with a quiet explanation for every kink and setback and strange event, who’d seemed so cool with her job writing for the local paper, who everyone said was smart but who, Diana now realized, was just a silly shallow woman with a penchant for wearing clothes that were too young for her and making dumb remarks, like: “Cigarettes are hard to give up.”

Diana particularly hated it when her mother danced to music behind the wheel of the car (as she had this afternoon, stopped at a light in the middle of Amherst in front of a bunch of students), wriggling her arms and shoulders in a way that made Diana want to curl up and die of embarrassment. She wished she herself could drive, but legally you had to be twenty-one to operate a rental. When they pulled off the main road onto a dirt one and stopped in front of a rambling wooden house, Diana decided to stay where she was, not get out of the car. “Well, here we are,” Mona said cheerfully. She undid her seatbelt, peered out the window. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”

A pale brown Weimaraner trotted across the front lawn to the car, not barking or making any kind of a sound, but appearing somewhat scary with his strange, almost mystical blue eyes. A screen door slammed and a tall blond woman in a jade green dress walked swiftly toward them. Mona jumped from the car and ran into the woman’s arms. They hugged with closed eyes, thumped one another on the back. When they pulled apart, they kept their arms around each other and Mona gestured to Diana with her free hand.

“Come here and meet Gail!”

Diana got out as slowly as if she had chains on her feet. She trudged over to Gail who looked her up and down with a slow smile and said, “Well, aren’t you beautiful! Just like your mom when she was your age.” Diana gave a frozen little smirk. What was she supposed to say to that? She didn’t have the distance from Mona to appreciate her looks, though she knew people found her striking with her dark hair and high cheekbones and flashing eyes. To her Mona was Mona, a nagging force in her life, an irritant like a pebble in her shoe, or the grind of a guilty conscience.

They took their bags from the car and entered the house, which was low-ceilinged and cozy with Berber rugs and big comfy chairs and flowering plants on all the tables. There was the smell of something sweet and gingery — herbs, or maybe candles. “I’m sorry, Julie’s not here right now,” Gail said. “She had to babysit, so she won’t be coming to the concert with us.”

That was fine with Diana, who enjoyed making new friends about as much as she enjoyed studying for a physics exam. Plus, the sight of Julie’s room — which was where she would be sleeping — told her this person was out of control. Clothes and shoes all over the floor, bed unmade and soiled-looking, bureau drawers hanging open, spewing socks, jewelry, underwear. “Julie’s not the tidiest,” Gail moaned, removing laundry from the other bed so Diana could put her bag down. She smiled apologetically and left her to unpack. Diana stepped over a pair of rumpled shorts and some magazines and peered out the window, where she saw a garden planted with roses and tall orange lilies. A small cabin — Gail’s studio she found out later — sat at the end of a smooth lawn. Behind the cabin the woods began, and even from this distance Diana could hear the gurgling of a stream. She thought she had never in her life seen so much green. The green of fresh-cut grass, of big droopy leaves, of moss-covered stones, of forests with soft, beckoning paths. Rich smells wafted up from the garden and above the whole shimmering tableau hung a stillness as deep and mysterious as the sacred quiet of a cathedral.

They drove through that green stillness to Gail’s concert, which was held in a hall whose vaulted wooden ceiling reminded Diana of an inverted ark. Large windows were thrown open to the night. Everyone in the audience (except for Mona, whose hair was dyed the red brown of an Irish Setter) seemed to have milk white hair and to sit in deep concentration as the music floated in sharp, precise notes over their heads. Diana couldn’t stop wriggling. She glimpsed the small smile of contentment on Mona’s face and hated her more than ever. What bad thing had she done to get stuck here in a room full of dried-out old farts listening to a bunch of dreary old Bach cantatas on a Friday night? Her stomach clenched and a glistening tear of self-pity drifted down her cheek. She held herself stiff-shouldered and erect, a martyr on a bed of nails, wanting Mona to see how unhappy she was, but instead Mona started crying herself, big silent tears that she brushed away with the backs of her hands like a child. “It’s just that it’s so beautiful,” she whispered tremulously to Diana.

After the concert they helped Gail lug her cello across the dark lawn to the car. She was so elated from playing that she babbled like the brook behind her studio. “That’s where Julie is,” she said as they flew past a house with lit-up windows and a dog that darted out at them, barking. “Oh, why don’t we stop and say hello?” Mona cried, and Gail jammed on the brakes so suddenly that Diana, sitting in back with the cello, had to throw her arms out to keep from being flung against the seat. Mona and Gail opened their doors. “I’m not going in there,” Diana announced flatly.

“Why not?” said Mona, who already had one foot out and was allowing the dog to sniff her knee.

“I wouldn’t want my mother stopping by if I were babysitting.”

“She’s right,” Gail said, snapping her belt back on and pressing her foot down on the accelerator. Mona had to slam the door fast, the dog chasing them again as they sped up the dirt road. Ten minutes later they were home. “I always get so revved up after a concert,” Gail said as she led the way into the house. “I’ll never be able to sleep tonight.”

Diana went upstairs, brushed her teeth, fell into bed. Through the closed door she could hear the murmur of the two women talking downstairs. Bzzz. Bzzz. Bzzz. And then Gail’s voice saying very distinctly: “Frank’s gotten so fat, I don’t really want to sleep with him anymore.” Diana squooshed the pillow over her head. She didn’t want to think of Gail’s sex life. But despite herself, she had a mental image of Gail pushing away her fat husband, touching him with far less love than she had for her cello. It was too hot to keep the pillow over her head for long. She threw it off and heard her mother’s laugh float up the stairs, followed by Gail shushing the dog, or perhaps shushing Mona, because after that there was silence.

***

Part 4: Ian’s Party

Julie got a lift to Ian’s party which was in Brattleboro, about ten miles from her own house, with a girl named Terry who lived down the street from the Mclntyres. It was nine-thirty when they arrived and already the place was jammed. Terry immediately grabbed a boy and started dancing. Julie wandered through the rooms, looking for Leo. When she couldn’t find him, she shared a joint with someone out on the porch and went for a walk on the road behind the house, under stars that had just begun to shimmer in a thickening sky.

What had she done to anger Leo? she wondered. Otherwise he’d be here, wouldn’t he? Oh Jesus, chill, she told herself. The pot was making her paranoid. But as she walked up and down the road she couldn’t push away certain scary thoughts: perhaps she had slept with Leo too fast; perhaps he had found her ugly, stupid with her slanted eyes and tiny little nothing boobs; perhaps he didn’t want to take her to Spain after all; probably he was off with another girl.

She walked up and down that road at least twelve times, thinking the longer she stayed away from the party, the surer he’d be to arrive. But when she went back in the house, the only change was more couples were dancing in the living room where the rugs and furniture had been pushed back to accommodate them, and more people had paired off and were kissing on the stairs. No one knew where Leo was. Julie decided to get drunk.

She had three beers, then found a bottle of Smirnoff’s with an inch left which she depleted in two swallows, then found Ian, a skinny redheaded kid whose father, Mr. Hicks, was some sort of writer who didn’t mind a party as long as they kept the noise level down and didn’t make pigs of themselves. “Where’s Leo?” she yelled.

“He had to go somewhere,” Ian yelled back.

“Where?”

Ian didn’t hear her and started to walk away. She grabbed him by the T-shirt and hollered: “Where’d he go?”

“I don’t know!”  Ian said, shrugging her off. “You’re pretty drunk, you know that?”

After that interchange her mind went dark (the next day, she’d have only the dimmest recollection of it). Perhaps she had a few more beers. Perhaps she danced with someone, or locked herself in the bathroom and wept, or wandered around in the dark some more by herself. All she knew was that at some point Terry dragged her to the car, pulling over to the side of the road so Julie could get out and puke because everything was spinning so badly. She remembered creeping into her house, as clammy as if she had fever, stepping out of her clothes and burying them beneath a pile of dirty sheets and towels in the washing machine, climbing the stairs with the dog sticking its cold nose in her ribs. She remembered sinking down into her bed and being startled by a blurry white shape in the bed across the room — ah yes, the girl from Texas. The last thing she remembered before passing out was thinking she’d forgotten to go over to the Randolphs to feed their stupid cat.

***

Part 5: Into the Woods

Diana awoke to birdsong and the clink of dishes being put away downstairs. She sat up, glanced over at the other bed. All she could see was a shock of black hair. She swung her feet to the floor, grabbed some clothes, tiptoed from the room.

Downstairs the two women were drinking coffee at the kitchen table. Diana told them she was going for a run and plunged through the screen door into the green redolent world outside. Barns and cows flashed by, hayfields, a pond, little kids on bikes. When she strode back through the door, the women were still in the same place. Mona’s face looked flushed and excited and a little sneaky — a look that vanished the minute she saw Diana. “What?” Diana said. Suddenly she felt unwelcome.

“Have a good run, sweetie?”

Diana nodded and went up for a shower. After that she curled up on the living room couch with breakfast and a book, and it wasn’t till twelve-thirty that the dog started wagging its tail and Julie came downstairs, silent as a cat, and crept to the refrigerator for juice, downing three glasses in a row before she was satisfied.

Mona and Gail had migrated to the screened-in porch that adjoined the kitchen. “Come meet my friend,” Gail called. From where she was, Diana saw Julie make a face of annoyance before doing as her mother told her. There was a murmur of hellos and then Julie returned, a tiny creature in baggy jeans and an oversized sweatshirt. She zigzagged over to the couch where Diana lay. “Hi,” she said shyly.

“Hi,” Diana said back.

“I’ve got to go check on this house nearby. Want to come?”

They crossed a bridge of stepping-stones over the gurgling brook behind Gail’s studio, and entered the woods where the light was choked off by tall trees and it was at least five degrees colder. Diana stole glances at Julie who was extremely pretty, but whose skin had a grayish pallor beneath a scrim of deftly applied make-up. Her eyes were gloomy and it was clear she didn’t really want to talk. “Your mom seems nice,” Diana said to break the ice a little.

“Uh hunh.”

“My mother talks about her a lot, their college days, how they once drove across the country with pot stashed in a box of Kotex, how a cop stopped them in Iowa or someplace for speeding and your mom was so scared she wet her pants.”

“Your mom talks about stuff like that?”

“Sure, why not?”

Julie shrugged and fished a pack of cigarettes from somewhere inside her jeans. “My mom’s such a goodie goodie. I can’t imagine her smoking weed.” She lit a cigarette, offering one to Diana, who shook her head.

They were deep in the woods now, enveloped by a stillness and gloom that made Diana think once again of a cathedral. She shivered, sensing menace here, perhaps because of the way Julie hunched her thin little shoulders together, or because of a bird taking off suddenly with a monstrous flapping of wings. Diana wished she were in Austin where the air was bright and arid instead of in these damp, dark woods with this surly Asian girl who kicked at leaves and pebbles with her sandaled feet and exhaled smoke in hard, nervous puffs. “How much further?” she asked.

“Just around that bend.”

They walked a little faster and a house came into view. Julie lit a cigarette from the one she already had going.

It was a small, dark house set close to the ground. Trees hemmed it in on all sides, throwing it into a constant shade that even the flowers planted in front couldn’t brighten. Julie crushed out her cigarette and tried the door. It wasn’t locked and suddenly she looked even more tense and worried than she had out in the woods. A wave of mustiness hit them. “When were you last here?” Diana asked.

“Day before yesterday.”

They went inside. A cat came yowling out of the shadows. His fur stood up in tufts and his eyes were huge and desperate. Julie reached down to pet him and he jumped into her arms and clung there, digging his claws into her skin as if terrified. “Wow — is that normal?” Diana asked.

“He must’ve been scared no one was coming,” Julie said. “C’mon, let’s feed him.”

They entered the kitchen, Julie holding the cat in her arms. There was an odd mildewy smell in the air, a damp, sweet, sick odor as if water had trickled onto a carpet, or the trash hadn’t been thrown out. At the far end of the room a chair had fallen over and something, or someone, lay crumpled on the floor. Julie dropped the cat and latched onto Diana, dragging her forward.

It was a Hispanic man of about twenty-five. Diana knew instantly that he was dead. His face was a waxy gray and there were black threads of blood trickling from his nose and mouth. His eyes were open — that was the worst part, the way the eyes stared with such great knowledge at nothing at all, except maybe the world beyond. Every hair on Diana’s body stood on end. She gave a single loud shriek and ran from the room.

Julie stayed there a moment longer, peering at the man and then rushing to the pantry and rustling around. “Oh my god! Oh my god!” she kept screaming. When she appeared in the hall she was white-faced. The two of them flew out of the house, running as fast as they could, not screaming anymore, just tearing through the woods until they were almost at Gail’s studio. Then they fell into each other’s arms, shaking and trying to get air into their lungs. “Who was that?” Diana asked when she finally had enough breath.

“Don’t know.”

“We should call the police.”

Julie pulled away violently. “No!”

“Well, what should we do? We have to do something.”

Julie’s face fisted. She started weeping — big glossy tears that carried filaments of mascara with them. “It’s my fault,” she whispered.

Diana watched the tears form soot marks and thought of the black lines of blood trickling from the dead man’s nose. “Why?” she asked. Julie didn’t answer, so she gave her a little shake. “Why’s it your fault? Why?”

Julie gasped and shuddered. “Because.” She dug sharp nails into Diana’s shoulders. “If I tell you this, you have to swear not to tell anyone.”

Off in the distance they heard a dog bark, followed by a series of barks as other dogs picked up the call. And then, close by, they heard something else: the sound of musical scales as Gail began to practice her cello. Diana immediately flashed on the rapt, white-haired audience of the night before, the wriggling boredom she had experienced.

“All right,” she said.

They moved a little further back into the woods. Still shaking, Julie told Diana about Leo and how she had agreed to let him hide a bag of coke in the Randolphs’ house. “But when I looked on the shelf where we’d hidden it in the pantry, it was gone.”

“‘We’?”

“I mean he– Leo.”

“Did you do it so he’d love you?”

“No.” Julie shook her head slowly.

“Why else would you agree to something like that?”

“All right, maybe I did. So what?”

Diana gazed at her, sickened and shocked. “If we don’t tell the police, we’re accessories to a crime.”

“I don’t care,” Julie said. “I can’t let my parents know about this.” She began crying again.

Diana felt no pity. “That guy back there died because of your boyfriend.”

“No, he didn’t! He o.d.’d. Obviously he had a problem.”

They looked at each other with apprehension. Both were sweating profusely, damp hair pushed back from their faces. “You promised,” Julie said fiercely.

***

Part 6: The Bonds of Love

They knocked at the door of Gail’s studio. It was just a screen door, so they could see her bent over the cello, swaying back and forth as if she and the instrument were physically connected. The muscles of her forearms bulged and her face was as concentrated as a blind person’s and it was that, perhaps, a total immersion in her music that kept her from noticing them at first. They had to pound frantically and when Gail finally looked up, blinking at them, annoyed, she was slow to tear herself away from her cello. By then Mona had already come flying across the lawn and within five minutes the police were there and neighbors appeared and the profound country silence was broken by a continuous wail of sirens.

The police questioned Julie in the living room of her parents’ house. There were two of them, the younger one porky and blond with a fuzzy mustache, pink cheeks, and the stupid arrogance of a rookie who’d grown up somewhere in the back woods and now thought he was hot stuff, the older one mild-mannered and debonair with a highish voice that made one wonder about his sexuality.

“You left the front door unlocked?” the older cop asked.

Julie nodded miserably.

“Why was that?”

“I don’t know. I guess I was in a hurry.”

“Anyone ever go there with you?”

“No.”

“Your friends know about your job at the Randolphs?”

“I guess.”

“Did you talk about it?”

“No, not really.”

The young cop jumped in. “You didn’t talk about it, yet your friends knew you had this job looking after an empty house?”

Julie looked from one to the other, confused. The older cop cleared his throat. “Where were you last night, Julie?”

She took a deep breath. Her mother was in the room. “At a party.”

“I see. Whose party?”

“A boy named Ian Hicks.”

“We’re gonna want a list of your friends,” the young cop said.

When they finished interrogating her she wrote out a list, but didn’t include the name Leo Wysocki. It seemed they didn’t know about the cocaine that had been hidden in the pantry, and she wasn’t about to tell them. A smashed-in window had been discovered at the rear of the house, so the presumption was the dead man (who was as yet to be identified) had somehow learned the place was empty and broken in to snoop around and get high.

Gail was overwrought by Julie’s lie about babysitting. “I can’t trust you,” she kept wailing.

“Kids do stuff,” Julie remonstrated. “You and Mona used to smoke pot.”

Gail’s eyes flitted to the window. The cops were just driving away. “Yeah, but I’m a grown-up now and what I did in the past isn’t important. I don’t want you getting in trouble.” She studied Julie unhappily. “That guy o.d.’d, Julie. Take it as a lesson. You’re grounded.”

The police also questioned Diana who, true to her promise, said nothing about Leo or the hidden cocaine. Afterwards she took a long walk and inadvertently ended up at what she now thought of as the house of horror. It was dusk and she wanted to turn and run, but something made her stand there and observe the yellow police tape slashed across the front door, the shadows settling even more deeply over the dreary little house.

Never, she thought, would she allow herself to fall in love the way Julie had. She was still a virgin, had not yet even been properly kissed, a fact that shamed and upset her since most girls she knew already had boyfriends. But Diana was too particular to go with just anyone — at least that’s what she told herself (deep down inside, she feared that her manner was too aloof and her bony face too sharp and ugly to attract boys). She didn’t want to admit, not even to herself, how afraid she was of the bonds created by sexual love, the stupid, desperate emotions that ended up controlling one’s whole life, dulling the brain and pushing one into choices that might be perpetually regretted.

She forced herself to return to the house via the woods, even though the inky light scared her so much she ran most of the way, tripping once and scraping her knee. When she came abreast of Gail’s studio, she heard voices and realized her mother was in there. The two women seemed to be arguing. “What the hell would you know?” Mona yelled. “You live this idyllic, new age, fucking life in Vermont with your cello and your health­-food-store-tycoon-husband and your Weimaraner and your kid who makes you look like such a good person because she’s adopted!”

Diana ducked down beneath a window.

“That’s a low blow and you know it!” Gail cried. She sounded really angry. “It’s wrong to have an affair. I don’t care how attracted you are to the guy.”

Her mother was having an affair?

“Oh for Christ’s sake,” Mona said. “Whoever thought you’d turn into such a priss.” Her voice dropped. When she spoke again, Diana had to strain to hear her over the babble of the brook. “Maybe Frank listens to you. I feel as if I’m alone in my marriage.”

“Frank doesn’t always listen to me.”

“Well, he listens more than Harry does.” She sounded all choked up. “You can’t make moral judgments when it comes to falling in love, Gail. It’s just not fair.”

Fair? Diana leaped to her feet. She wanted to smash her hand through the window, but instead she crept away like someone who felt guilty, like her mother ought to have felt but obviously didn’t. When she got to the house, she flew up the stairs and dove into Julie’s room, slamming the door behind her. She threw herself onto the bed.

Unfortunately, Julie was there, in the bathroom. She emerged with red-rimmed eyes. “What’s with you?”

“Nothing.” Diana turned her face to the wall.

“Doesn’t look like nothing to me.” She sat down and drummed her fingers annoyingly on the desk. “Well, I’ve been grounded.”

Diana wished Julie would shut up and go away.

“I’m not allowed to go out at all, not even to work.”

Diana curled herself into a tight fetal position.

“And I can’t use the phone or computer.” She sighed loudly. “You know how to drive, don’t you, Diana?”

Down in the garden Gail called to the dog in a fluty voice.

“I know you do,” Julie said. “You told me you had your license. I need you to drive me into town, Diana. Later. After they’re asleep.”

Diana rolled over and looked at her. “You’re kidding, right?”

“No,” Julie said, and burst into tears.

Downstairs a screen door slammed and there was a rattle of pots and pans. Julie sobbed into her hands. Diana watched her a moment, then rose and went into the bathroom and ran the water till it was ice cold before splashing it over her face. Somehow Julie’s misery made her feel a little better. She went back into the room. “I’m not allowed to use my mother’s rental, but I’ll do it anyway,” she said. “As long as we’re quick.”

***

Part 7: Risky Business

At dinner Mona pushed away her plate of pasta and said, “Gosh, remember how John Travolta stuck that hypodermic in Uma Thurman’s chest in Pulp Fiction? I wonder if that works in real life.”

Until then they’d all been silent. Gail gave a sharp laugh. “I can’t see either of our girls doing that.”

Mona started to peel an apple with delicate fingers. “I’m not saying they could have saved the guy. Anyway, he was dead before they got there.”

Diana and Julie exchanged a glance. After dinner they cleaned the kitchen while the mothers took a walk. By dark they were in bed. Diana must have slept immediately because it seemed like no time at all had passed before Julie was kneeling over her, whispering, “Diana! Wake up!” She sat up fast, experiencing a horrible moment of flatness before the adrenaline kicked into her system. Her mother was having an affair. She pushed the thought away and grabbed her sneakers.

The keys to Mona’s rented Nissan Altima were in her handbag on the hall table. Diana felt like she was performing surgery as she removed them. Outside it was cave­ black and the hot thick air resonated with a continuous croaking chorus of frogs. Diana slid behind the wheel of the Nissan and held her breath as she started the engine. Mona took sleeping pills, so they didn’t have to worry about her, but one never knew with Gail who was up two, three times a night to pee. She backed the car with excruciating slowness down the drive. No lights came on in the house. She backed onto the dirt road — still no lights — put the car into drive and accelerated. They were in business!

They were going to Leo’s apartment, which was somewhere in Brattleboro. Julie gave terse directions. Diana inched down the road to avoid attracting the police. She found herself crossing her fingers as Julie got out of the car and crept through the shadows to the front door of a ramshackle two-family house. The dashboard clock said 1:46AM. It wasn’t till 1:49 that a light flickered on and the door flew open.

A woman in a hastily thrown on robe and a head full of curlers appeared. Diana could imagine her lips tightening into a snarl at the sight of the small beautiful Asian girl who now turned and slunk back to the car with drooping shoulders.

“What’d she say?”

“He’s gone, moved out.”

“Where to?”

Julie leaned her head back against the seat and drew in a sobbing breath. “She didn’t know. He didn’t leave a forwarding address.” She pressed her hand over her mouth like a bandage. From behind damp fingers she said, “I have to find him.”

Diana wanted to go home, but Julie insisted. “Just one more place,” she begged, pulling at Diana’s shirt. They drove through dead-looking streets to someone named Ian’s house. This time Diana accompanied Julie to the door. It was a little after two o’clock, but people were still up — Ian’s dad, fuzzy-armed in a short-sleeved plaid shirt, who went back to his computer as soon as he let them in, Ian and his sister, Bethie, and two other girls, lying on the living room floor, watching videos.

When Julie and Diana entered, they patted the floor, indicating the girls should sit down, and pushed a giant bowl of M&Ms toward them. They’d heard about the dead guy, but no one knew who he was other than some sad sap junkie. “What about Leo?” Julie asked in a wobbly little voice.

“What about Leo what?” Ian said. He was a swimmer, so his red hair was cut flat to his head and his body, in a loose white T-shirt and boxers, didn’t have an ounce of extra flesh.

“Leo Wysocki?” Bethie said. In the flickering TV light, Diana saw that her tongue was pierced. She lisped when she said Wysocki.

“I was supposed to meet him here at your party last night,” Julie said.

“Oh, yeah, I remember.” Ian reached for the bowl of M&Ms. “You were pretty drunk. I guess I was, too.” He laughed abruptly and popped some candy in his mouth. “I heard Leo left this morning. On his way to Spain, or something. Actually, I lent him a suitcase.”

“Was he going for the summer?” Bethie lisped.

“Dunno.” Ian glanced at Julie who managed a tight smile though the rest of her face was bleak with misery. “Leo’s not a good dude. I wouldn’t put too much energy into him if I were you.”

“What if I’m pregnant?” Julie wailed when they were back in the car. Her entire face glistened with tears.

“He didn’t use anything?”

“I don’t think so.”

“What do you mean, you don’t think so? Couldn’t you tell?”

”No. I didn’t look.”

Though she’d never been with a guy, Diana couldn’t imagine being that stupid.

“I just finished my period,” Julie added, her voice as thick as mashed potatoes.

She began weeping again. When they pulled onto the dirt road that led to her house, she said: “Do you think he was just using me?”

Well, duh, Diana thought, and was about to say as much when she saw flashing police lights up ahead in Gail’s driveway. She glanced at Julie, whose mouth had flopped open. Uh oh, she thought, and her heart began to pump like some kind of animal running for cover. “This is your fault!” she stammered to Julie.

She’d  never been in trouble before.

Julie pulled up the bottom of her oversized sweatshirt and wiped her face. “I’ll deal with it,” she said through clenched teeth. “We were both freaked out, okay? We thought a drive would help.”

***

Part 8: Secret Kept

The cops were a different pair from the two of that afternoon. Since it was a small community and they knew Julie’s father, they didn’t bother writing up a ticket for Diana who theoretically could have had her license suspended. After they left, the two mothers closed in. “I thought I was going to have a heart attack when I saw the car was gone,” Mona yelled. Her red-brown hair stood up in spikes and she wore a robe of Gail’s that was way too large.

Gail herself sat on the couch with an air of exhaustion. The blue-eyed dog was draped over her lap. “I know it’s very disturbing to see a dead person,” she said. “But you could have woken me up to talk about it instead of running off into the night like that.”

“That’s right!” Mona exclaimed. “You’re usually so responsible, Diana! Wait till your father hears about this.”

Three hours later they were on their way back to Saratoga Springs. It was seven­ thirty in the morning, Sunday, and Diana’s life was as empty as the road ahead of them. “You can just kiss that sweet car of yours goodbye,” Mona said for the hundredth time.

“I can never have it back?” Diana asked, ready to punch her.

“Not for a long time,” Mona said. She had combed her hair and was wearing one of her revealing camisoles, but tiny little lines of worry had sprouted at the comers of her mouth. Who was the man who had kissed that mouth? Diana wondered. She thought of her father, a rumpled presence forever hidden behind the newspaper, and said without planning to: “I know you’re having an affair.”

Mona’s driving instantly became erratic. Her cheeks flushed violently and her pretty hands in their pretty rings tightened on the wheel, but she didn’t deny the allegation. Instead she jerked the car across two lanes of traffic to the side of the road. “What makes you think that?” she said, switching off the engine.

“I overheard you talking to Gail.”

A hawk swooped overhead. Mona stared out the window at it. The little worry lines at the comers of her mouth had deepened and her breasts rose and fell rapidly. She turned to Diana. “You’re way too young to understand, sweetheart.”

“Don’t tell me that,” Diana snapped. “You’re married to my father. You’re not supposed to have affairs.” Despite herself she began crying. Mona reached out to touch her, but Diana pushed her hand away. “Are you going to divorce him?”

Mona’s face filled with grief. “No, I’m not going to divorce him. At least I don’t think I am.” She was silent a moment. Diana wiped furiously at her eyes. “He doesn’t know about this, Diana.”

They looked at each other cautiously, a long, slow, measuring look devoid, in that moment, of love or animosity or any emotion at all.

“I don’t think I should have my car taken away,” Diana said finally. “I’ve been punished enough.”

A truck roared past, causing the Nissan to rattle and shake as if it would burst apart. Belatedly, Mona switched on the hazard lights. “Okay,” she said.

Diana’s eyes filled again. “There’s something else I have to tell you.” She remembered the comfort of her mother’s arms, the soft, sweet, tolerant way she’d had through the years of piecing Diana’s world together. All those years they’d been like one. Now they were separate and it made Diana want to cry her heart out. “I swore I wouldn’t tell anyone this,” she said, gasping a little. “So you have to swear, too.”

“All right,” Mona said. “I won’t tell anyone. You can trust me.”

Diana took a deep breath. “Julie was going out with this guy who made her hide cocaine in the kitchen of that house in the woods.”

Mona stared out at the lazily circling hawk. “You’re putting me in a bad position here, Diana.”

“You said I could trust you.”

“All right. Go on.”

***

Epilogue

Mona kept her word: she never told anyone. After that, the two pulled close again. Mona stopped her affair a few weeks later, though she continued to have passionate friendships with other men. Diana flew in and out of the house as she pleased, a trusted young woman now. The following summer she lost her virginity, but she didn’t tell her mother — or anyone — about the desolation that swept over her the first time she was with the boy, about how, as his arms closed around her, it all came rushing back: the dead man toppled on the kitchen floor, the sound of cello music and her mother’s voice rising above the babbling brook as she talked about the morality of love. Feeling cursed, Diana squeezed her eyes shut, opened her mouth to the boy, and dove in.

Julie spent the month she was grounded daydreaming about Leo — how she’d feel if he showed up again, what would happen if she confessed the truth to the cops, what she would do if she found out she was pregnant. When she got her period, she felt oddly empty and disappointed. She went into the woods and smoked a cigarette and had one last fantasy about using the money she’d worked so hard to earn earlier in the summer to fly to Barcelona. Then she ground out the cigarette and thought about the dead man, whose name was Jose Cruz and whose only family in the United States was a brother who rode racehorses for a living. She decided that once she was allowed to use the computer again, she’d find out the brother’s address and send him a letter of condolence.

But she never did. When she regained privileges, it was time to go back to school and then she was too busy for anything except her studies and lacrosse and the little bit of socializing her parents allowed her. Eventually she started going out with another boy, a senior named John William Hayden III who showed every sign of liking her as much as she liked him. She got rid of her old, baggy clothes and Gail drove her down to Boston to buy expensive new ones. Leo was completely forgotten. She lay with John in the back seat of his car and in the woods and in the houses of various friends. When she discovered she was pregnant, she didn’t tell John or her parents or anyone else. She waited till the last possible moment, thinking of her real mother, some strange Korean lady who ate different food than she did and would have been horribly embarrassed if Julie showed up on her doorstep. Then she made a secret trip to Boston and used her own hard-earned money to pay for an abortion.