Matt & zoe, p.22
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       Matt & Zoe, p.22

           Charles Sheehan-Miles
 
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  “How does that make you feel?” Craig asked.

  “Sometimes I want to go back. Or at least get away from here. Honestly it was a little easier on the streets. Get something to eat, something to drink, you’re good to go. At least until winter comes. Now it’s all complicated. I hate that.”

  It takes me a minute to make sense of what he is saying. It was easier on the street. Was he homeless?

  Nicole, who dropped her verbal filter in the toilet years ago and never got it working again, leans her head back, eyes narrowing a little. “Wait a minute… I thought you looked familiar. You used to panhandle over near the Starbucks.” It wasn’t a question.

  Luke shrugs. “I played guitar some. Sang a little. I entertained people for a dime.”

  “I remember. I wondered what had happened to you.”

  “I guess I decided dorm life was better.”

  “That’s not a hard call to make,” Nicole says.

  I catch myself wondering what Luke looked like when he was still in the Army. Before he had the scraggly beard and long hair and cheap secondhand clothes.

  “How did you end up homeless?” I ask.

  “Wasn’t one thing. It was 109 of them.”

  Nicole shakes her head, and I get a sinking feeling, and it’s obvious that Terrell knows what he means. He mutters, “Shit.”

  Nicole is still struggling, so I let her off the hook. I lean over and touch her on the shoulder. “He’s saying he had 109 kills. He was a sniper.” The room goes grimly silent. Nicole croaks something.

  Luke says, “Not trying to kill the vibe guys. But you asked. I ended up homeless because I couldn’t work. I can’t work because I can’t sleep. And I’ve got a little bit of an anger problem. Fucking Army threw me out. They said I had a personality disorder. Yeah, I had a personality disorder. Who wouldn’t after shooting all those people?”

  Personality disorder? “What does that mean?”

  “Means they threw me out with the garbage. No veterans benefits. At least not until Craig helped me out. Anyway, I don’t want to talk about my bullshit anymore. What about you?” He looks at me as he asks the question. “You lost your parents?”

  He asks the question as if he thought I did it.

  “It was an accident. A stupid freaking accident. They were killed by an oven.”

  Nicole says, “You don’t have to —“

  Luke stares at me. His eyes are uncomfortable.

  Then he asks the craziest question I ever heard. “What kind of oven?” He has one eyebrow scrunched down as he asks the question.

  I shake my head just the barest of shakes. “I…it … it was a commercial oven. It hit my Dad’s car.” I realize how weird that sounds, and I wave my hands a little in confusion, then say, “It was flying. I mean… it… the truck turned over. The oven flew out…”

  Nicole looks horrified.

  Terrell has an expression more appropriate for a Marine—incredulous near—amusement. He leans forward, and says, “Your parents were killed by a flying commercial oven?”

  Luke nearly chokes himself. “That… is the craziest thing I’ve ever… what the hell?” He’s obviously struggling to suppress… laughter?

  Terrell mutters, “Oh my God.”

  That’s all it takes. I don’t think anybody outside of this room would understand what happens next. I don’t even understand. Luke lets out a choked cry and loses it, exploding into the most inappropriate laughter ever. Immediately he looks ashamed of himself and he clamps his hand over his mouth and squeezes his eyes shut. Then Terrell bursts into laughter.

  Nicole is going to set them both on fire.

  But then, before my best friend can rush to the rescue, I do something that appalls even me. I start laughing myself. I can’t stop. It rumbles up from my chest until I have to scream, and tears roll down my face as I both laugh and cry.

  Luke has sort of gotten ahold of himself by now. “Christ, I am so sorry,” he says. I shake my head urgently, unable to speak. Then I fall into mild hysterics again, but this time there is less laughter and far more tears.

  “Shit,” I mutter. Then I hiccup. I force down another burst of hysteria. Luke looks at me gravely and says “You don’t have enough laughter in your life.”

  This is too much for Nicole, who was already outraged. “Fuck off!”

  He raises his hands as if he were being arrested, and says, “Of course, officer.” Then he turns to me, and says, “I’m sorry if I upset you.”

  I shake my head and hiccup again. I need to get it together. “It’s fine. You didn’t do anything.”

  “Except make fun of your parents who died,” Nicole says.

  “Sometimes you gotta laugh at death,” Terrell says. “Seriously. Fuck death. Fuck war.”

  Craig, who has been silent most of the last little while, says, “I can get behind that. Zoe, how is your sister adjusting? And how are you adjusting to being… her guardian?”

  I shift in my seat and find myself shrugging. “She’s slowly doing better. A lot of nightmares, and she started stammering. I think she’s got a lot of anxiety. Mono has helped, and so has… her…uh…uh… teacher.” I swallow, aware from the heat rushing up my face that I’m blushing a little.

  Mr. Deadeye Dick head across the table from me doesn’t fail to notice. He raises an eyebrow and smirks a little. “Mono?”

  “Jasmine’s horse. The thing is… I’m looking for a therapist for her… but I’m not sure how effective talk therapy is going to be for a kid her age. I don’t even know how effective it would be for me. Sometimes, when you see the way people heal when riding—it’s amazing.”

  All of them stare at me with quizzical looks on their faces. Except for Nicole, who nods.

  Luke asks, quietly, “Tell me more.”

  I shrug. “I can’t explain it. They’re like… thousand pound toddlers. Horses just do what they want. They’ll break things, get into things, eat anything in sight. Part of taking care of them is learning how to communicate with your whole being. With people you can spin a web of words and make that a lie. You can’t do it with horses… they take in far more information from your body language than anything else, so it kind of forces honesty. You basically have to love them.”

  Craig asks, “You’ve heard of horse therapy?”

  I shake my head. “What’s that?”

  “It sounds like what you are talking about. I haven’t heard a whole lot about it other than the fact that it exists, and that there are some people in the Valley specializing in it now. Maybe you should look into it?”

  Huh… that’s something that would’ve never crossed my mind. And did he mean, look into it because I need therapy? Or did he mean, look into it as a potential career option? Or for Jasmine?

  Or maybe all three. As the meeting breaks up and I say goodbye to Nicole and the others, then drive back to South Hadley in the minivan, my mind keeps turning over the thought. Maybe I should consider getting a degree in psychology. I’ve always wanted to help people—it’s one of the things I occasionally liked about being military police. If I were to go in that direction, I could stay right where I am on our land… Right where Jasmine needs to be… And not have to worry about some career dragging me away—it’s something I could do right here.

  Crazy to think that after all the times I resisted getting involved with horses, I might get back into them voluntarily.

  Chapter Eighteen

  How temporary? (Matt)

  “Matt, I’m sorry. I don’t have any good way to break the news. I don’t have any choice but to suspend you.”

  The words, delivered by Lauren Blunt, the principal and my boss, are like a blow to the head. I feel my cheeks heating up, my ears red, and my lips are like putty. Everything is slow, and details are painting themselves vividly in my mind. The slightly wilted flowers on her bookshelf. Her once-fashionable yellow suit.

  “You can’t.” Not the most effective argument I’ve ever made. I’m so stunned I have a hard time gathe
ring my thoughts enough to say anything.

  She frowns and shakes her head. “Matt, it’s not up to me. Just between you and me, this is … it’s wrong. But it’s out of my hands.”

  A wave of exhaustion sweeps over me. What is this about? Why?

  “I don’t understand,” I say. “You’re going to have to give me something here, Lauren.”

  She shakes her head. “There’s no good reason, Matt. What the superintendent’s office cited was… you were late three times this year. And they’re claiming you modified the curriculum without approval for Jasmine Welch. I’ve never heard of anything like this.”

  I shrug. “It’s because I represented the union.”

  She nods, her expression sad.

  “What am I supposed to do, Lauren?”

  “This is temporary,” she replied.

  “How temporary?” My tone is a little sharper than I’d intended.

  “If Barrington wants to push this, drag it out, it may be the whole semester.”

  I suck in a breath. “That’s crazy.”

  “I know, Matt. I’m just preparing you for the worst.”

  “The worst,” I say, bitterly. “Barrington wants to make my life so miserable I quit, doesn’t he? That’s what this is all about.”

  She closes her eyes. “Matt. Please don’t make this any harder than it has to be. I’ll do my best to get you back as quick as I can. I promise.”

  I stand up. My head is heavy and I’m stiff with regret.

  “I guess I’ll see you around,” I mutter. I’ve gone to so much effort to keep my past hidden, afraid something like this would happen. It turns out I needn’t have bothered—my involvement with the Union screwed me up first. I don’t know what to say to her, so I turn away.

  She calls my name as I open the door, but I don’t answer. I walk out of the office, letting the door swing shut behind me.

  The afternoon passes in a fog. After the kids are gone, I walk to my classroom.

  On the back wall, two months worth of artwork are displayed in a riot of color. I easily spot Jasmine’s work, along with all of the others. I can’t understand this. It’s not just that I’m angry about the suspension. It’s not the job at all. It’s the kids.

  This is my third year teaching. And it’s only now, standing in this empty classroom, that I realize that I’ve fallen in love with this job. I’ve fallen in love with the crazy, whacky, silly kids. And having it taken away feels like losing Papa all over again.

  At that thought, I feel tension settle in my body. I jerk open the drawers of the desk and take out my personal items. Notebooks. Pens and pencils. Charger for my phone.

  I swallow. A photo of Zoe and Jasmine is in the drawer. I put my belongings in the box.

  I feel a buzzing in my pocket. The phone, silenced during the school day. It’s probably Zoe—I take the phone out of my pocket.

  Messalina.

  I flip the phone open. “Yeah?”

  “Matt.”

  “Hey, Lina. What’s up.”

  She sighs at the other end of the line. “I already know you’re going to say no. Mamma made me call.”

  “What is it?” I ask.

  “Gianni sprained his wrist. Bad one. He’s going to be out of practice for two weeks.”

  “Who is Gianni?”

  “He’s our catcher, Matt. You met him when you were in Boston?”

  “Ah, yeah. I remember.”

  Her tone is bitter. “I don’t normally set myself up for rejection. Mamma—Matt—she asked me to ask you if you would come practice with us. Just for the weekend, give him a chance to get it back together. We’re in New London this weekend.”

  New London is about ninety minutes south. I swallow. I don’t answer.

  “Matt? You there?”

  I tap my foot nervously. Before Dad … died—I used to love it. The thrill. The crowd. My entire body is shaking with rage.

  Suspended.

  My throat is dry. “I’ll do it.”

  “Matt, it’s only for a weekend, it won’t—what?”

  “I said, I’ll do it.”

  She coughs. “That’s what I thought you said. Are you sure?” She sounds concerned. Ironic, considering that she’s been hectoring me to come tour with the family during the summer.

  “Yeah,” I say. “A couple days away is what I need.”

  “I’ll come get you.”

  “You don’t need to, Lina. I promise I’ll come.”

  “No.” Her voice is firm. “I mean… it’s not because I don’t think you’ll come. I’m in Brattleboro, I’ll be driving by your place in a couple hours anyway. I’ll pick you up on the way.”

  “Okay,” I say. “See you then.”

  “Matt?”

  I don’t respond. She finally says, in a quiet tone, “Thanks.”

  There. Over there. (Zoe)

  “Listen, I’m sorry to do this again, but I won’t be able to meet tonight.”

  His voice sounds oddly stiff. “What’s wrong, Matt?” I ask.

  He breathes for a second, then says, “I’m sure you’ll hear about it from Jasmine. I’ve been fired. Suspended. At least temporarily. But that’s not—I need to go deal with some family stuff, okay? I just can’t make it tonight.”

  His voice is rough as he says the words, his tone heavy with sadness. My heart hurts for him.

  “It’s okay,” I whisper. The words come hard. I want to know what’s going on. I want to know why he’s so evasive. But I’ve been telling myself for days that a huge part of relationships is trust. It’s not just that I want to trust Matt—it’s that I have to if we’re going to make it as a couple. So I continue speaking. “Do what you’ve got to do, then you can tell me about it later.”

  As I finish saying the words, I wonder if I mean them.

  We hang up. Stood up again. And the babysitter will be here in twenty minutes. I stand there in the kitchen, arms crossed, mentally paralyzed somehow. Then I pick up the phone and dial Nicole’s cell phone.

  “Yeah,” she answers.

  “My plans just got cancelled. How about dinner? Drinks?”

  “You betcha,” she said. “Where?”

  Matt and I were planning to eat in Amherst. I hesitate, then say, “How about Yarde Tavern.”

  I like the food at Yarde. I do. I’m not suggesting there because Matt lives in the apartment above the restaurant. Seriously, I’m not.

  “Okay,” she says. “Are we drinking?”

  I know she takes the question seriously. Yarde is walking distance to my house. “Yeah,” I say. “You can crash here.”

  “I’ll see you in half an hour,” she says.

  “Perfect.”

  It would be in character for me to worry about what was happening with Matt. To question myself; question him. My normal modus operandi is to assume that I’ve done something wrong, and also to assume that Matt is hiding something.

  It doesn’t help that he obviously is hiding some things—things about his past. It bothers me, often. I’ve told myself that I need to let him tell me in his own time.

  In the meantime, I have things to do. If Nicole will be here in half an hour, and the babysitter in 20 minutes, I have to get busy. The horses have already been fed and lead in for the night. Jasmine is watching television—I pass her as I head up the stairs.

  When I was in high school, preparing for a date sometimes took hours. It still takes a while, but one thing the Army taught me was how to get myself together quickly. In fifteen minutes I showered and dried my hair, and I’m just finishing getting dressed when the doorbell rings. That will be Megan, who sat for Jasmine a couple of times before.

  I’m just finishing putting on my mascara when I hear the front door open and close with a near slam. That would be Nicole.

  I head downstairs and see that Jasmine and Megan are already playing a game of Uno. Nicole has joined them for a hand, which hopefully won’t be long. I’m ready to go.

  Megan looks up at me, brushing her p
ink hair out of her face. “Not going out with Matt tonight?”

  She’ll probably never admit it, but Megan blushes every time she says Matt’s name. I shake my head. “He’s busy with some family stuff.”

  Of course, I know nothing at all about his family.

  “Maybe we can see him tomorrow,” Jasmine says.

  “I hope so.” There’s little else I can say.

  I lean against the door frame and watch the game proceed. Jasmine has three cards left. Megan and Nicole each have a fairly sizable handful. They aren’t letting her off easy—Jasmine is just very good at that game. Megan has a frown on her face as she stares at the yellow nine at the top of the deck. With a wince, she drops a yellow Skip card on top. Jasmine shakes her head and smiles, and lays down a yellow +2.

  I step out of the room as Jasmine says, “Uno,” and walk into the kitchen. For a second I think about calling Matt. I’m worried about him. If I call him, am I too clingy? Too needy?

  Too distrustful?

  I close my eyes, take a breath, and put the phone away. As I do so, I hear loud groans from the other room. I walk back in—it’s clear that Jasmine won the game.

  “Ready?” Nicole asks.

  I nod. I turn to Jasmine. “I’ll be home late. You’ll behave for Megan?”

  Jasmine rolls her eyes. “Well, of course.”

  I shake my head, a smile on my face, and lean down and hug my little sister. “Sweet dreams,” I say. Then Nicole and I head out the front door.

  It’s chilly outside. Not cold, not yet. I can feel the first hint of winter. I tighten my coat around me, and begin walking. It’s about a third of a mile from my house to the restaurant. Walking means we don’t have to worry about finding parking, or about driving. It’s dark, however. As we walk up the slope toward Mount Holyoke College, I’m uncomfortably reminded of the dream I had a few weeks ago. The dream of being chased. The dream of my father.

  I must’ve betrayed something, because Nicole asks, “You okay?”

 
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