16 (rough draft)
October sniffed twice more, working the sleeves of her sweatshirt against her face, giggling subtly. “Sorry.”
“It’s okay,” Casey said, because that’s all he could think to say. “I know they’re pretty messed up.”
“I’m sure that’s the way it seems.”
“Never been any doubt in my mind.”
She looked up at him. “I’m so embarrassed. I got overwhelmed. I thought I was ready for anything. Brig’s dad is a trip with his talk of god and duty, loyalty to an invisible being. I mean, when I’m alone, I know I’m seeing out this window. We all have a window.”
“Ock, I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Okay, let me see if I can give you an example.” She nodded, reclining back on the bench, her hands on her lap, one leg over the other, her eyes closed. “Santa Claus.”
“Yes. Santa Claus. I caught on pretty early that Santa Claus wasn’t real, yet everyone walked around talking like he was. We even have radar tracking on the TV.”
“I think I always knew Claus wasn’t real, everyone pretending with a wink and a nod. Claus and the whole Claus thing is a lot of fun, so I played along. Some kids didn’t understand the game and would say there’s no Santa Claus as if they’re revealing some secret. Sure, there’s no Santa Claus, but saying so ruins the fun.”
“I follow that, but what does that have to do with my parents?”
October opened her eyes, looking up at Casey. “They believe stuff about you that isn’t true.”
“I am ugly.”
“A man four times my age with a schoolboy crush on me is ugly. War is ugly. Bigotry is ugly. Knocking kids to the street and kicking them is ugly. You, Casey, are not ugly, but that’s not what I meant. They believe that you’re telling stories that they are responsible for your accident.”
“Where’d you get that idea?”
“Your mom said as much.”
“I got lost about halfway through. I’ve never seen them like that.”
“You’re a liar, she said. That’s when I jumped in with my lightning story.”
“I never told you anything like that.”
She shrugged. “You don’t blame them, but maybe you should.”
“Our parents are responsible to safeguard us. When something bad happens to us, it is their fault, no matter the details. Your parents failed to protect you and every day they look at you, they’re reminded of it.”
“It was just an accident.”
“An eighteen-month-old baby gets behind the furniture long enough to gnaw through an electrical cord? Someone failed to watch that baby.”
“My grandmother dozed off watching TV.”
“So you were told.”
“Your grandmother was babysitting because your mom was working.”
“Your mom just said so.”
“She did, yes.”
“Your parents are mad and they think they’re mad at you, it being your fault.”
“That I had the accident.”
“More than that. It’s your fault the effects of the accident ripple over their entire lives, even what the people down the bar think.”
“If not for me –”
“None of it’s true, Case. It’s all bullshit. Like Santa Claus, it’s a story everyone agrees to and believes with a wink and a nod. I don’t have a magic wand I can wave and get you to see from my window, but I trust in time you will.”
Casey nodded, looking back in the direction of his house. “Great,” he bit sarcastically.
“Hey, Igor! I heard you had a friend.”
October stood, offering a hand. “October Ferguson. Casey didn’t say he had an older brother.”
He took the hand. “You’re fucking adorable. I’m Bob.”
“Watch your language, will you?” Casey warned.
“Sor-ry, Igor,” he retorted, releasing October.
October narrowed her eyes. “Igor isn’t funny, if you mean it to be. It’s hurtful.”
“Oh, boo hoo. Let me call the whambulance. If you’re going to hang with Igor, you better get used to some name calling.”
October smiled softly. “I understand your pain, growing up in the shadow of Casey.”
“What? You’re not Bob. You’re that freak’s brother. That’s got to sting. You want to be like them, be with them, so you call your brother Igor. Maybe you stand with them, point and laugh?”
A tear etched down the pale flesh of October’s cheek. “No, Casey. You aren’t ugly. This is what ugly looks like, and it breaks my heart.”
Bob’s open hand came across October’s cheek, smearing the tear.
She reeled only slightly, putting an arm across Casey. “Nice meeting you, Bob.” She turned her back and Casey, linking arms. “Please walk me home.”
“You are fucking adorable,” Bob yelled, running back the way he came.
As they walked, arm-in-arm, Casey stewed. “I should have nailed him.”
“That’s obvious. He hit you.”
“Then, it should have been me hitting him back?”
“To defend your honor?”
“My honor was intact.”
“To protect you from harm?”
“I was not harmed.”
“I think I get it. That’s like the Bible. God says to turn the other cheek. Is that it?”
For the first time in her life, October made the clear declaration, “There is no god.”
“God is Santa Claus for adults.”
Randi Sconce hurried from her balcony, down the three flights of stairs and across the small entry court when the airport shuttle appeared on River Drive.
Melody Lark, four years younger, shorter than Sconce by half a head, stout as compared to Sconce’s lanky, hair dancing in tan curls around her head popped from the side door, taking Sconce’s cheeks and kissing her deeply.
“Hey, you could have told me you were gay,” a man called from inside the shuttle.
Still holding Sconce’s face, Lark turned, saying, “I told you I was married. Isn’t that enough?”
The other passengers laughed.
Lark accepted the bag from the driver, putting a ten in his hand. “Glad to be back in Jersey.”
“Jersey’s glad to have you back.”
Upstairs, stripped to her underwear, Lark sipped wine, stretching on the balcony. “I’ve missed our stars.”
From the chair behind her, Sconce said, “Same stars.”
“Not for a second.” She waved to an elderly man peeking over his railing two levels up. “Enjoy the show.”
“You could have given me a report over the phone or by email.”
“I’d rather spend our cyber time flirting.”
“What’s the verdict?”
“Here’s the overview: Paul Markus was reprimanded unofficially three times for overt questionable attention toward children.”
Lark turned, nodding. “Check out one-eighteen, nineteen and twenty.”
Sconce cycled through images on the Canon Rebel. “So that’s what nymphs look like.”
“Having seen those three girls, I bet I could pick your October out of a lineup.”
“You met them?”
“Yes. Not extraordinary, pretty average, one’s even a dim bulb. The only thing they have in common is their appearance.”
“Did he cross the line?”
“Depends on where we draw the line. He didn’t molest any of these girls, that I could discover, if that’s what you mean. The last girl, well, he was pretty much stalking her. Scared the hell out of her and the parents, too.”
“White man in a white man’s club.”
“Why’s he here?”
“As I understand it, Markus was given a choice. Fold up his tent and get out of town, or be driven out to the desert and get a bullet put in the back of his head.”
“Is that a metaphor?”
“A good ol’ boy used those exact words with a wink. I think he was being literal.”
Sconce nodded. “We don’t have any deserts nearby.”
Lark stared across the river. “We have the Pine Barons.”
“What do you have on the record?”
“Not much. Not enough to file charges. I think I can get an investigation started, maybe an official we’ll keep an eye on you.”
“Maybe I’ll have a candid off-the-record conversation with him.”
“Don’t be in the room alone. He has two unofficial reprimands for hitting women.”
“I could bait him, get him to hit me. That’ll get him out of the school.”
“That could work, but just pass off the problem to someone else. Markus needs help.”
“Markus needs prison.”
“I just learned this week that my mother was never married,” October said, three blocks from her house.
“How could you not know that?”
She shrugged. “No big deal, topic never came up. Mom’s never said anything about Dad until recently. I kind of thought Dad was dead or something.”
October paused. “He’s a famous guy, she said. Renown and notable. She met him when she was working down Atlantic City. Love at first sight, she said, a whole soul-knowing thing, like you and me.”
October hesitated. When Casey didn’t scream and run off, she continued. “They spent a week together. The best week of her entire life, she calls it. Circumstances, she said, don’t allow them to be together. But, she got pregnant that week, with me.” October glanced around. “She says Dad is never far away”
“Would you know him if you see him?”
“I like to think I would, like I knew you.”
“Didn’t you get that feeling?”
“I did, yes.”
Nearing her house, October pulled Casey to a stop, facing him, reaching up, taking his face, pulling him to her, going forehead-to-forehead. “You’re my happy ever after,” she whispered, putting her lips on his.
He kissed her back, wrapping her up. “In this moment, I can say this is the first time in my life I’ve felt happiness.”
“Ever after,” she said, pulling away, wiping tears from her face.
Arms around each other, they paused on the sidewalk in front of October’s house. “It’s way early. Want to come in?”
“Not really. I’ve had enough of parents for one day. I want to go home and kick the shit out of Bob.”
“I hope you’re kidding.”
“I am. I get it. You’ve showed me, and them, what a better human being is. I’ve been looking out my window. I never stopped to think, no, I never realized how my existence and the accident affected others.”
“That’s a good beginning.”
“It is.” He narrowed his eyes. “Isn’t that Principal Markus? Don’t look.”
“Oh, you know I have to look.” She turned. Across the street and three houses up, “The blue car?”
She squinted. “Looks like him. He thinks he’s my boyfriend.”
“I think he has a crush on me. I’d be flattered if he were forty years younger.”
Resolve. “I’ll go have a talk with him.”
“Not a good idea.”
Casey walked off anyway. Halfway to the car in question, the engine came to life and the driver u-turned, speeding off.
“Did you get a good look?” October asked.
“It was him,” Casey answered through his teeth.
October unfolded the newspaper on the kitchen table, rubbing the print between her figures, breathing in the stale scent. Casually scanning headlines, not actually interested in reading the paper, she looked for the charm, the experience. A list of nominees for Educator of the Year caught her eye. She surveyed the list for any of her teachers.
“There must be more to Paul Markus than I’ve seen,” October said aloud, placing her pencil on the paper, circling the name appearing in the list of thirty-six. The article offered a heading and a list, nothing more. “Newton Poppy,” October again said aloud. “What a wonderful name.” She wrote the name in margin, running her thumb over the scribble.
“Hmm.” Licking her thumb, she pushed over Markus’ name, the print and penciled circle smearing to unreadable. She narrowed her eyes, the impermanence unsettling.
She understood why George Howell liked his newspaper and why Paul Markus used a pencil.
“What are you doing up so early,” Carol asked, looking for coffee.
“Reading the newspaper.”
The buzz from on the table drew October’s attention. She checked her phone. “Mom. I need a ride, now.”
“What is it?”
“A 9-11 from Abby. Doesn’t say.”
“I don’t need to call her. I need a ride. Don’t bother getting dressed. If you don’t want to give me a ride, I’ll start running.”
“Why don’t you just call her to see what it’s all about?”
“Mom. It’s our fucking Bat Signal. This is the first time it’s been used, ever. Someone’s dead or dying. Mom. Ride. Now.”
Carol scrambled for her keys.
October entered the house without knocking, Carol on her heels.
Amaretto, Candice and Maynard sat around the large oak dining room table, looking toward October as she entered.
“Where’s Brig?” October asked.
“What are we doing?”
“I’m sitting here trying not to cry,” Candice said.
October rounded the table, taking Candice’s face, going forehead-to-forehead, pulling back tears.
“What do you know,” Carol asked the room.
“Around seven o’clock last night, Brig left her house to come here,” Maynard said. “She never got here.”
Amaretto raised her hand. “I tried to report Brig missing, but the cops told me she’d have to be missing twenty-four hours and that I had no standing.”
“Seems you have to be a guardian to report a minor missing.”
Carol blinked repeatedly. “Mr. Grant? Mrs. Grant?”
Again, Amaretto answered. “Mrs. Grant said she doesn’t know where Brig is, and pretty much dismissed me.”
Maynard nodded. “I couldn’t get ahold of any of her brothers.”
“You all need to just calm down and relax. Everything’s going to be all right.”
“Carol,” Amaretto began, cut off by October.
October broke from Candice, facing her mother across the table. “You don’t fucking know that, Mom. Wishes like that are meaningless. Maybe we should all kneel in a circle and pray? Sure. We can petition god for Brig’s safety.”
“October! You need to step back and take a breath!” Carol answered.
Candice sobbed, holding October’s arm. “You do, Ockie. Take a breath. Attacking people in the room isn’t going to help, either.”
October held her mother’s eyes.
“In this moment, October, I see your father in you, and it scares me.”
October blinked, closing her eyes, her thoughts racing over everything her mother said about her father the other morning. “You lied to me?” Her eyes popped open. “I’ll deal with that another time. Mom, thanks for the ride. I’ll call you when I know something.”
Amaretto came around the table, corralling October’s mother from the room. “I’ll walk you out, Carol.”
“I can help, Apple.”
“No, Carol, you can’t. Brig’s missing, has been all night. If she could have called, she would have.” She glanced back into the house. “Right now, all we need is October. She’ll prepare us for the worst as only she can.” Amaretto narrowed her eyes. “You really have no idea, do you?”
A tear cut down Carol’s cheek. “I have some idea.”
Amaretto closed the door.
“Feeling better?” Amaretto asked, returning.
“No. I should go after her. I said fuck to her twice in a half hour.”
Amaretto rolled her eyes. “That’s my word. Doesn’t sound right coming out of your mouth.”
“Felt right at the time.”
“I suggest we go hang around the pool and get wasted. My treat. I have plenty.”
“I love you, Apple, you know that,” Candice said.
“Nard does, too, but he’ll never put it like that, afraid you’ll take it wrong.”
“I beg your pardon? Apple, you know I love you, right?”
Amaretto smiled. “Sure. You have me in the bank.”
“What’s the bank?” October asked.
“There’s a reason me and Nard say no.”
“I’ve got this,” Maynard jumped in. “Dad was an asshole but not inherently.”
Amaretto narrowed her eyes.
“He wasn’t a natural asshole.”
“Only when you add alcohol,” Candice said. “Instant asshole.”
“Dr. Jekyll, Mr. Hyde,” Maynard went on. “Mom was actually relieved when he wrecked his car, but for the details.”
“Details?” October asked.
Silence moved the moment, then Candice breathed, “He killed a woman and her child.”
“We’re not supposed to know, only that Dad ran off the road, died in the accident.”
Amaretto repeated, “In the age of Google, ignorance is a choice.”
October’s lip quivered, her eyes tearing up. “My heart hurts.”
“That’s why Candice and I avoid getting high and drinking. One beer, I’m sick in the morning. Our hearts hurt, too. Maybe not like yours, Ockie.”
October nodded, her eyes closed.
“I understand,” Amaretto said. “I do see the damage dope can do ripping through people’s lives, first hand, up close and personal. When I can stomach myself, I take a good long look in the mirror. The only thing that keeps me from splattering my brains on the opposite wall is the thought of how much Ockie loves me.”
“Just Ockie?” Maynard asked.
“Ockie’s love is my cake. Abby and Brig’s love is the icing.”
“How about me?”
“You, Nard, are a luxury.”
At the sound of the front door, all went quiet, attention on the entryway. Brigantine, dirty and bruised, appeared. “Hey, gang. Why’s everyone here? I came as soon as I found the 9-11.” She waved her phone.
“Well, I have been up all night, and I could use a long, hot shower, and I haven’t eaten,” Brigantine said, holding Candice, Candice crying, her head on Brigantine’s chest. “Looking back, I guess I should have called the second I got my hands on my phone.”
October put her phone to her ear. “Brig’s fine, Mom.”
“What happened?” Carol asked.
“Don’t know, and in this moment, I don’t really care.” October turned her phone off, slipping it in her pocket.
Amaretto leaned back in her chair, hands behind her head, watching Brigantine and Candice. “You guys are really cute together. I envy your closeness. Okay. There. I said it.”
“Hey, Apple,” Brigantine objected. “You’re my best friend.”
“Don’t get me wrong. I’m happy to just be in the same room with you guys, warming my hands on the glow.”
“You scared us,” October said, rolling her eyes. “I have to apologize to my mother.”
“For?” Brigantine asked.
“We’re tweens,” Amaretto said. “I think that’s our responsibility.”
Maynard returned from the kitchen, a plate of scrambled eggs, toast and coffee for Brigantine. Candice let Brigantine go, Brigantine sitting at her breakfast, Candice, Amaretto and October taking chairs.
“Thanks, Nard,” Brigantine said. “I need the room.”
“Leave, Nard,” October said. “Please.”
“I told Casey there’s an inner circle. I told him.”
October shrugged. “I didn’t think it was a secret.”
“Sorry, Nard,” Brigantine said. “This is really personal and really, really embarrassing.”
“I need to know whose ass to kick.”
“There will be no ass kicking.”
Maynard left, grumbling.
October, Candice and Amaretto watched Brigantine eat for an insufferable few minutes.
“I apologize again for not calling right away when I could. It’s been a long night.”
“So, what happened?” Candice asked.
“I live with assholes.”
“I thought you already knew that.”
“I suspected, now I’m sure. My father and brothers bagged me, threw me in a van and drove me out into the middle of the Pine Barons.”
“I didn’t know it was them until after the sun came up. All night, I thought strangers kidnapped me. They spent the whole night yelling and kicking me.”
“Why?” Candice asked.
“Because they’re assholes,” Brigantine answered.
Amaretto twisted her face. “Initiation? Right of passage?”
“Right! Right!” Brigantine pointed at Amaretto. “He said some nonsense, a long blah-blah after I was cut out of the bag. I have to think on it. Nothing he said made sense.”
“Nard! Go away!” Amaretto called.
“Okay!” Maynard answered from out of sight, footfalls Dopplering off.
“This past year, we’ve all had our silent initiation into the women’s club. Maybe getting our periods would be more fun if menstruating women would take us out in the woods and scream with us.”
“And kick us all night,” Brigantine suggested.
“Well, we get enough discomfort without having to add more.”
October narrowed her eyes. “Apple, you’re saying this ritual they go through is because they want to be women?”
Amaretto shrugged. “No. Maybe they envy women and want something like we go through.”
“They did kill a rabbit.”
“Really?” Candice asked.
Amaretto narrowed her eyes. “I’d not think any of them capable of catching a rabbit.”
“It was in a brand new cage. I think they bought it at the pet store.”
Amaretto closed her eyes, offering the police-stop palm. “Oh, let me fucking guess. You’re sitting there dazed from no food, water or sleep, your brothers circled around you, Hank holds up the rabbit. Already dead?”
Brigantine nodded. “With a rock, I think.”
“Sure. Your dad has that knife from over your fireplace?”
“How’d you know?”
“I always thought that a little weird, a mounted hunting knife. He cut the rabbit open and as the blood runs, he gives a blah-blah about connectedness, bloodline and how the blood escapes the body, spilled onto the earth, renewing life?”
“Apple, how the fuck do you know this?”
She shrugged. “It’s the speech we should get, but rarely do.”
October reached across the table, taking Amaretto’s hand. “Give the speech, tell the story.”
“How do you even know this?” Candice asked.
“In the age of Google –”
“Ignorance is a choice,” Brigantine, Candice and October finished.
“Matthew threw up?” Amaretto asked.
“Fuck, Apple! How do you know that?”
Again, a shrug. “He’s a sensitive one. He’s going to greatly disappoint your father, even more so than you do, you being a girl.”
Brigantine stared at Amaretto for a long moment.
Again, another shrug. “Ockie. I want to know what Carol lied about.”
“Later. Tell us a story. Tell us, Apple, why our blood spills out onto the earth.”
Amaretto crooked a smile. “Only in death, can there be life.”
“Fuck! Apple! Dad said that exact thing!”
“The difference is, Brig, Hank didn’t understand what he was saying, as you will soon realize.” Amaretto extended her arms. “Let’s hold hands for this, my family.”
They held hands as Amaretto told the story of creation.