Matt & zoe, p.14
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       Matt & Zoe, p.14

           Charles Sheehan-Miles
 
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  “I do that sometimes.”

  He looks me in the eye with an expression that seems to say I understand. But I know he doesn’t. That’s the kind of lie that can lead to heartbreak. I’m not interested.

  I need to steer my state of mind anywhere else. This is crazy. What the hell is wrong with me that suddenly all I can think of is Iraq?

  “What’s the latest on the strike?” I ask. Inside, I’m pleading with Matt to take the bait and shift the conversation to safer ground.

  He takes it. “I think the school committee is going to cave. The downside is that the union is going to end up getting fined, for sure.”

  “Why? What kind of fine?”

  “Well, it isn’t legal for us to strike. Last time it happened in Massachusetts, the local teachers union got slapped with a hundred thousand dollar fine. But they won. I think we will too.”

  Jasmine says, “I want to go back to school. The strike is stupid.”

  “I want to go back too, Jasmine.”

  “Will you still come see us when school starts again?”

  I swear to God my heart stops beating. I don’t breathe, and I don’t think he does either for a second. Then he nods, eyes on me. “Yeah, if that’s okay with you and Zoe.”

  Chapter Eleven

  You're safe (Zoe)

  A heavy fog sits on South Hadley, the kind of thick white fog that hits when a foot of snow rests on the ground and the air gets warm. The kind of fog that keeps you from seeing more than twenty feet ahead of you. The kind of fog that suffocates.

  I’m outside in the fog in my nightgown, the one I haven’t worn since high school, and it is cold. Something is wrong. I don’t know what it is. I hear somebody crying. Whimpering really. It’s a forlorn sound, sad and lonely and full of so much grief it’s like touching a live wire.

  My feet are bare, and I’m walking down the middle of College Street. Abbey Chapel is to my left, its brown, Gothic stone rearing up high in the fog and darkness like a raging horse, oppressively dark. I walk a little faster, but my feet are blocks of ice, and I can actually feel pain shooting up my ankles and calves from the cold. I need to get home and I don’t know why my father hasn’t picked me up from the Village Common. I need to get home now.

  Something is behind me.

  Or someone.

  I begin to run. My feet slide a little on the ice, the road hasn’t been plowed very well, and the fog is getting thicker and whoever is out there is getting closer and closer. The college is now behind me, and I’m running down the hill, my feet slipping out from under me and on either side I can see prisoners, cowering beside the road in their rags, hands tied with zip ties, the stink of horse and sweat and fear overwhelming even in the cold and fear shoots through me.

  I have to get home.

  Ahead, I can see it. The house, on the right side of the road, and the house is dark, no lights on except one in the garage, in Dad’s workshop.

  I run for it. I can hear the grumbling from the prisoners, the shuffling of feet behind me, and I want to cry out in fear. Dad will be in his workshop, he’ll be in the garage tinkering on a puzzle and we’ll be warm and safe in there and I get to the garage and the door is locked. I can hear them behind me, whoever it is, and I start to scream.

  I bang on the door, hard, with the flat of my palm. The crying and whimpering is louder than ever. I curl my hands into a fist and bang on the glass. I can see the light inside, and there is Dad’s silhouette. The door is open and I cry out and run inside, wrapping my arms around him.

  Oh, dear God, I’m safe. He shuts the door behind me and curls his arms around me, and I can feel something wet running down my face as I push my face against his sweater, something wet and warm and I pull back and look.

  “You’re safe, Zoe,” he whispers, his voice sibilant. His face is split, lips and left cheek and cheekbone flayed open, eyeball half exposed, crazily rolling around in its socket, and a bubble of mixed spit and blood forms in the gap between his teeth.

  I shriek in terror and push away.

  ***

  It’s dark and I’m in my room. Sitting up, my heart is pounding and I wipe sweat off my neck. The whoosh of the blood pumping in the vessels of my ears barely drowns out my breathing.

  Dear God.

  I gasp for air. I’m in my room. It was a dream. It was a nightmare. I’m at home.

  Then I hear crying and for a second terror strikes through me again. It’s a high pitched moan, a mix of terror and incredible grief. I reach over and switch on my light.

  I can still hear the crying.

  Jasmine.

  I stumble out of bed, the blankets falling to the floor. I’m still disoriented, the terror of the nightmare thick in my throat. I open the door and walk down the hall, my feet causing the boards in the center to creak like crazy. Then I open Jasmine’s door.

  She’s laying face down, knees pulled up under her, and she’s sobbing and moaning.

  “Hey,” I whisper. I move toward her, dropping to my knees beside the bed. I reach out a hand and run it down her back. She cries harder.

  “Jasmine? Was it a dream? Are you okay?”

  She just wails louder. I reach out and lift her off the bed and she wraps her arms and legs around me, crying even louder than before, great gasps of air followed by loud wails.

  “What is it, baby?” I whisper. “It’s okay. It’s okay.” I pat her back as I say the words, knowing they aren’t even true.

  “It was Mom,” she sobs. “She was dead.”

  “Oh, Jasmine,” I say. Her, too. “I’m so sorry.”

  “Why don’t you come lie down with me,” I whisper.

  She nods urgently. “Can I?”

  “Yeah, come on.”

  I carry her into my room, laying her gently on the bed. I crawl in beside her and pull her to me. She cries for a little while longer, but slowly drifts off to sleep, her face nestled against my shoulder.

  Once she’s asleep I lay with my face toward the window. The red oak outside is waving a little in the wind, the shadow of the branch against the window like a hand. The colors will be changing soon. Dad’s workshop is still out there in the garage, untouched since he died.

  It takes me a long time to get back to sleep.

  Sure, I’ll come in (Matt)

  The banging on my door goes on for an unreasonable amount of time.

  My eye cracks open, and I see it’s four-thirty in the morning. I must be dreaming. I close my eyes and burrow under the covers, only to hear the thumping on the door again.

  What the hell?

  I sit up in bed, blinking my eyes. Then I hear the voice outside.

  “Matty! Wake up!”

  Shit. It’s Messalina. I stand up, stumble a moment, then I grab a pair of sweats and a t-shirt and put them on. She starts thumping on the door again, and I shout, “Hold on, damn it.”

  The thumping stops. I lurch to the apartment door and yank it open.

  My door opens to a wooden landing at the top of a long flight of stairs above the restaurant. My sister Messalina stands on the landing. Her hair, purple and pink, flows down her back, and her makeup almost hides the acne scars. She’s wearing a black leather jacket and black jeans and looks appallingly wide awake for this time of morning.

  “Don’t you know what time it is?” I demand.

  “Sure, I’ll come in. Thanks for asking.” She pushes her way past me, and the smell of her perfume instantly trips my consciousness right back in time to South Florida, melting blacktop, chalk and the creaking of the ropes. The feeling of falling, over and over again. The road and sweat.

  The smell of resentment is repulsive.

  I close the door and warily re-enter my apartment.

  She looks around, one eyebrow arched. “So this is your place.”

  I swallow. Having a family member here… it forces me to see things through her eyes. And I don’t like what I see. A pizza box sits half open on the coffee table next to an empty beer bottle. The walls a
re bare except one item, a copy of the cover of Life Magazine from March 1996. My parents grace the cover, side by side as they soar through the air to their catchers, smiles on their faces. I was just a kid, but I can still remember the excitement of that cover. A few books are scattered on the shelves, and a stack of worksheets sits on the small kitchen table I bought at Ikea.

  It doesn’t look like anyone lives here—more like a temporary bachelor pad.

  “Haven’t finished moving in yet?”

  So she’s going to be a bitch. Fine. “No. This is it. Welcome to my home. What are you doing here?”

  She walks into what passes for a kitchen and begins to fill the coffee pot with water. “Where’s your coffee? It’s late.”

  “No kidding.” I walk to the cabinet and open it up. She reaches past me and grabs the bag of coffee beans from Rao’s. It’s one of my few luxuries. I grab it back, and pour some into the grinder.

  “Seriously, Messalina. What’s going on? It’s great to see you and all, but it is four in the morning.”

  “You know, you could not be an ass for a change.”

  I grind the beans, the sound shattering the quiet, then pour them into the filter and start the coffee pot. “I could. But why? Besides, you’re the ass for showing up this early in the morning.”

  She lifts herself up onto the counter, then reaches into her pocket, an exercise in frustration because her jeans are so tight. She has to almost contort her body to get her hands in there. Finally, her hand reemerges, clutching a silvery piece of foil wrapped around a stick of gum. She peels it, pops the gum into her mouth, then balls up the wrapper and throws it at the trash can.

  The wrapper bounces off the edge and lands on my floor.

  I don’t take the bait. We stare at each other in silence for a few minutes, then she says, “Mamma’s hurt you know. She doesn’t say it—she’d never do that. But I can see it. She’s hurt.”

  I open my mouth to say something, but no words come out. Then I close it. I don’t actually have to say anything. Even so, I try again. I mumble the words, “I talked with her last week.”

  “And when was the last time you saw her? When was the last time you saw any of us, Matty? You go away to college and just leave your whole family behind?”

  I flinch. “I’ve been busy. You know I represent the union here? I’ve got kids to teach. A lot going on.”

  “Bullshit. You get summers off. Hell, you could come fly with us.”

  I snort. “Right, Lina. That’s never going to happen.”

  “Come on, Matt. You know it wasn’t your fault. Everyone knows that.”

  I flinch.

  Hands slipping from mine. Eyes wide, screams from the stands.

  “Fuck off.”

  She sighs and shakes her head. “We miss you, little brother.”

  The coffee pot’s only halfway done, but I pull a mug down and pour, letting the mug catch the coffee coming from the filter as I try to hide the shaking in my hands. I hand her the cup and pour myself one.

  “So what brings you to town so early, anyway? The circus won’t be through until November.”

  She shrugs. “We’re in Albany this weekend. You should come out. It’s not far, and Mom would love to see you.”

  “You guys are going to be busy if you’ve got shows.”

  “Come on, Matt.”

  Christ. Her eyes are watering. I take a breath. “All right. We’ll get together. If not in Albany, then when you’re in Boston or Springfield.”

  She seems to sag a little. “Fine. What’s so damned important that you can’t do it this weekend?”

  I grimace. Her gaze is a little too intense for my comfort. “It’s complicated.”

  She chuckles. “What’s complicated?”

  “I don’t have plans for Saturday… yet. But there’s this woman….”

  “Oh?” she says, raising her eyebrows.

  I nod. “Yeah. Yeah. And … anyway… um...”

  “Are you always this articulate?”

  Smartass. “Yeah. I’m planning to ask her to dinner and drinks Saturday. All right? It’s the right time, and I don’t want to screw this up.”

  She grins. “Well, you go, brother.”

  Chapter Twelve

  Spit it out (Matt)

  After Messalina leaves, I go back to sleep. She had been driving from Albany to Boston, so coming here was merely a twenty-minute detour. Unfortunately, I’m jarred by her visit, coming as it did early in the morning and unexpected.

  I toss and turn for two hours, finally getting up and crawling out of bed. I shower and shave, make a pot of coffee, then open up my laptop to read the New York Times, then move on to my email. I pace. Finally I get out of the apartment, walking over to the coffee shop to get some breakfast. I can’t call before ten.

  The time ticks by excruciatingly slowly. It’s not fair.

  After breakfast, I stop in the bookstore, scanning for something decent to read. Something decent and easy to read, because my attention span is lacking this morning. I settle on a science fiction novel, pay cash for it, then wander outside and sit on one of the benches on the common.

  I check my watch. It’s 45 minutes before I can call.

  I start reading the book. I’m a page in before I realize that I haven’t understood a single word.

  Not. One. Word.

  Uggh.

  I settle in on the bench and look up at the sky.

  At precisely ten am, I dial Zoe’s number.

  It rings… once… twice… three times.

  When she answers, “Hello?” I sit up straighter, though she can’t see me.

  “Hey, Zoe. It’s Matt.”

  “What’s up, Matt?”

  “Listen um… I know I’ve been coming by to keep Jasmine company and all, and I’ve enjoyed that.”

  “Uh huh…” Her tone sounds wary.

  “What I’m calling about … is … um… what I mean to say is…”

  “Spit it out, Matt.”

  I close my eyes. I suck in a deep breath. Then I speak. “Zoe, would you like to have dinner with me? Saturday night maybe? Or drinks?”

  Her response is matter-of-fact, and I can’t tell if she’s intentionally misunderstanding. “Saturday.. yeah… we’d have to do it early though, I’ve been trying to get Jasmine to bed by eight, but we’d love to.”

  I swallow. I’m sweating. “No, I think you misunderstood. You would need maybe a babysitter. I’m asking you to dinner.”

  “I don’t understand.”

  “A date.”

  I can hear her breathing at the other end of the line, a thousand miles away. Or four blocks. Whatever. A long thirty seconds pass. I close my eyes and brace myself.

  “I’ve got the number for a girl at Mount Holyoke who offers babysitting. I’ll call her.”

  Did she just say yes?

  “You’ll come?”

  “Yes, I’d like that.”

  I exhale. Then I smile broadly, my cheeks stretching. I probably look like an idiot, but I don’t care. “All right then.”

  “You’re still coming by to ride with Jasmine?”

  “This afternoon, just like we planned.”

  “I’ll see you then.”

  Maybe it’s just in my head, but her voice sounds lighter as she says goodbye.

  I think I like you (Zoe)

  “I don’t understand why I have to stay home.” Jasmine’s voice is plaintive. She’s propped up against the doorjamb of the bathroom. I’m leaning forward, looking in the mirror carefully as I apply mascara.

  “I told you, it’s a date.”

  “With Mister P?” Her face screws up with a funny expression. “That’s weird.”

  My makeup is all wrong. So is my hair. I brush it again. I’m wearing a sleeveless dress, light blue, almost the exact shade of my eyes. I start to fuss with my makeup again—no. Time to give it a rest.

  I walk downstairs, Jasmine trailing behind me. “I c—c—can get pizza?”

  “
Yep,” I say. Her stuttering worries me and frustrates her.

  The doorbell rings.

  I walk toward it, my heels clicking on the wood floors as I walk. I rarely wear heels of any kind, but I couldn’t resist. I open the door. It’s a young woman. Round faced, wide smile. “Hi, I’m Megan,” she says.

  “Come on in,” I reply. I step back and let her in the house. We spoke on the phone at some length the day before yesterday, after Matt invited me to dinner. For a date. I found Megan through an ad she had posted at the Village Common. An early childhood education major at Mount Holyoke, she seems to be sane and responsible, so that’s all good news.

  “Jasmine… meet Megan.”

  “Hi, Jasmine,” Megan says in a sweet tone.

  Jasmine rolls her eyes. That’s a great start.

  “Megan, here’s twenty dollars if you want to order pizza. There’s ice cream in the freezer, but I told Jasmine she had to eat dinner first. Bedtime at eight.”

  “I kn—kn—know all that, Zoe.” Jasmine looks severely annoyed.

  I smile at her. “Yes, but Megan doesn’t. While I’m gone, she’s in charge. Make sure you listen.”

  “I don’t listen to you.”

  I sigh.

  The sound of a car rolling on gravel catches my attention. I bend forward and kiss Jasmine on the forehead. “Behave while I’m gone.”

  Jasmine crosses her eyes and purses her lips. Then she waggles her fingers at me for good measure.

  “I can tell we’re going to get along,” Megan says to Jasmine, laughing.

  A knock on the door grabs my attention. I open it.

  Oh.

  Usually I see Matt dressed in jeans and polo or button down shirts. Tonight he’s wearing black pants, with a black shirt that emphasizes his shoulders and upper arms. He smells good. Cologne? It’s there, but I can’t quite tell what it is.

  His eyes widen as he sees me, and they drop, scanning me all the way down to my shoes and back up. It’s quick—like he doesn’t want me to see it. But unmistakable.

  “You look stunning, Zoe.”

  My face and neck grow hot.

  “Thank you,” I say, suddenly awkward.

  He says, “I’m ready if you are. I’d like to say hi to Jasmine, though.”

  I turn and look. Jasmine is standing in the doorway to the dining room, a sour expression on her face. Matt walks over to her and crouches down so they are eye to eye.

 
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