What we saw at night, p.10
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       What We Saw at Night, p.10

           Jacquelyn Mitchard
 
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  “Hey, Mr. Dorn,” I said, trying to sound normal. I did not say I was secretly hoping Rob would pick up, so I could pretend I was calling you. I kept my cool. I did not babble: Tell-me-about-Rob-and-does-he-talk-about-me-and-is-he-in-love-with-Juliet-for-real-now—“I have to ask you a favor.”

  Rob’s dad said the thing all salesmen say. “What can I do you for, Jules?”

  “It’s Allie,” I replied, ignoring the sting.

  He coughed. “I’m sorry, honey. But shoot, you’re practically twins.” I stifled an angry laugh. Even when we were inseparable, we’d never sounded alike. Juliet had a low, husky voice, like somebody who sang in a honky-tonk and bummed cigs from the bartender. Mine was plain, girly, more soprano than I wanted it to be. But I got the subtext: Juliet still called all the time. Mr. Dorn heard a girl and expected the usual. “What’s up, Allie? Long time, no hear.”

  “I need a horse.”

  “Quarter horse? Thoroughbred?”

  With all my might, I tried to force out the laugh I’d quashed. “Pommel horse, I think it’s called. You know, that gymnastics bar, the kind they use in the Olympics.…”

  “Wish it was weighted tires that football guys use for agility training. I got a surplus of those. Pommel horses are not really my area. But let me make a call.”

  Of course, the next night, while I babysat Tavish, he dropped one off at our house. He’d scored it from Coach Everhart, who taught all the gymnastics to the kids in Iron Harbor, little and big, boy and girl.

  I didn’t know if Iron Harbor would always be known only as the home of the Tabor Clinic. As David Belle said, there is no limit. The goal is not fixed. It’s fluid. You need to push yourself beyond what you mastered. Or else why go on? I decided that I would make my own life as a traceuse. A world-famous one. I would put Iron Harbor on the map in a way nobody could have ever foreseen. I would get down. I would get good. I would go places Juliet and Rob could only imagine.

  I would mean my amigos no harm. I would just get along without them.

  As soon as I saw the pommel horse waiting for me in the garage, I called to thank him. “Mr. Dorn! You’re like the go-to guy!”

  “Since when am I Mr. Dorn?” he replied with a chuckle. “That’s Dennis to you, young lady.”

  Suddenly, my throat clogged up. I used to have these fantasies of marrying Rob, with Mr. Dorn walking me down the aisle and giving me away, in a church lit by candles at midnight. The especially weird part about my fantasy was someone giving away his son and his son’s bride at the same time. Still, Mr. Dorn was about as close as it got, father-figure-wise, in my life.

  “You’ll be out there again soon, Allie,” he said. “Along with your friends.”

  I opened my mouth, and then closed it. I felt as if all the blood in my body was draining away, pooling at my feet. I heard myself ask, “Are they out there now?”

  “Probably,” he said. “Torch Mountain, maybe? Though I’d bet on Superior Sanctuary. It’s funny. My dad used to go up there when he was a kid. It was a WPA project. I’ll bet you don’t know what the WPA was.”

  I actually knew a good deal about the Works Projects Administration and the whole New Deal. (Since sixth grade, we’d never gotten any further in American History than the New Deal.) Rob’s dad went on to say that only a few of the buildings were finished but most of them were just rough storage … but I stopped listening. “I guess that’s why they’re so good for Parkour,” he finished.

  I tried to swallow. My eyes stung.

  “Allie? You there?”

  “Yes,” I finally managed. “Thanks again, Mr. Dor—Dennis. I’ll talk to you later. I have to go.”

  I slammed the phone down on the hook and ran to my computer. Sure enough, YouTube confirmed my worst fears. Someone whose handle I didn’t recognize had posted a new Dark Stars video. Rob and Juliet wore black jeans and black hoodies. (Did they have fans now? Or were they just mocking me by choosing a lame alias: “nightclimber”?) They looked like they were having the time of their lives at some Parkour paradise: barracks-type buildings with long, descending stairs and iron railings that turned at right angles every eight steps—and wooden towers with wires and cables strung between them.

  It didn’t matter who’d posted the video. The message was clear. They’d left me behind and moved on. Two dark stars: together.

  The same week that I got my cast removed, we also started school.

  For other people, that would have been: Gah! We’re seniors! We rule! For the Tabor Clinic Few & Proud, it meant that we received a syllabus from the school district and a bunch of books in a box. I made paper covers for them for the last time in my high-school life. A letter with the names of my new tutors was also enclosed. Then an email popped into my inbox—from Nicola Burns. The first yearbook meeting would be at her house. A ray of hope flashed through the darkness of my brain. Nicola! Why hadn’t I thought of her? When I wrote back, I asked her if we could do something first, hang out and catch up. She didn’t respond right away. Finally she replied: OK. No exclamation points or smiley-faces. But that was all right. At this point, I’d take what I could get.

  THAT SAME NIGHT, Rob finally texted me. I get if you don’t want to be with me, that way, but why r u not talking to me or J? I miss u. I really do.

  I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or scream or start crying again. How long had it been? Two months? Rob had never been so brick-thick before. True, he was the only guy I knew well. (Let’s face it: at all.) And having learned almost everything about the guy species from Jack-Jack, I figured there was a certain level with a guy, even an evolved guy like Rob, of not being able to grasp subtlety unless he wanted to (or unless he could punch it or eat it). But even so, by now I wasn’t sad so much as furious.

  Suppressing the urge to call him right then, and spill everything, I lurched out to the swing set. It was nearly eleven o’clock. I had a feeling I would practice until dawn. I placed my hands on the crossbar when I saw my mother watching me through the screen door.

  “I didn’t know you were awake,” I said.

  “You never stopped,” she answered, stepping outside to join me.

  “I did it while I was healing. I did what the doctor told me to do.”

  “What you’re doing, it’s beautiful,” my mom said.

  “Thanks. It makes you strong, and helps you be alert in an emergency, too. And it’s really fun.”

  She said, “Well, be as safe as you can.”

  I said, “You knew all along.”

  “Sure.”

  “Before I got hurt.”

  “Yes.”

  “And you let me.”

  “What was I going to do, stop you? It’s your life, Allie. I just want you to contain the risk.”

  “That’s part of the goal, Mom. The motto of some Tribes is train swiftly; train safely. I got hurt through my own stupidity.”

  And someone trying to kill me.

  “What else is going on?” she asked. Not upset, just curious.

  “I … I …” Before I knew it, I was sobbing again. I shook my head angrily. “Rob.”

  “You love him.” The words were gentle.

  I shrugged, unable to speak.

  “That’s lucky for him. Not so much for you. Allie, sweetheart. I wish I could say he’s not worth it.”

  “He isn’t worth it!”

  “He is worth it,” my mother said. “Have you …?” She didn’t finish.

  “No, but I want to.” There was no point in hiding anything at this point. Besides, she knew what I wanted, anyway.

  “I don’t blame you,” she said. “Nothing better for the hormones and worse for the heart than the right boy at the right time.”

  She could always surprise me. “What do you mean, the right time?”

  “Well, you let yourself cry in front of me for the first time in a while. So it’s clearly the right time for you. He drives past here ten times a night like a stalker. So something’s going on with him, too. But something’s
not working or we wouldn’t be here having this conversation.”

  I wiped my cheeks. “Don’t you want me to wait?”

  “No,” Jack-Jack said, without hesitation. “I don’t want you to wait until the idea of being in love gets all snagged and dirtied with obligations and promises and other people’s expectations.”

  My jaw fell open. “You want me to have meaningless sex at sixteen?”

  Mom shook her head and headed back towards the house. “No, I don’t,” she said over her shoulder. “Who said anything about meaningless?”

  I DECIDED TO wait to call Rob. I wanted to first prove I could do Parkour on my own. The next night, I returned to the roof over the cobblestone alley between the Smile Doctors and Gitchee Pizza. Gideon was not too bad off that night so I alerted him in advance. He came out to watch. True to his personality, Gideon was not at all alarmed at the sight of my leaping from the dentist’s roof to his roof, although the insurance liability would have made any other adult lose his lunch and dinner. He raised his fists and cheered for me.

  I repeated Juliet’s original leap with the twist in the air.

  After I clattered down the fire escape, he gave me a large with peppers and anchovies on the house. As I scarfed down the pizza, I debated whether or not to head up to Superior Sanctuary and trace the living crap out of what I’d seen Rob and Juliet do and trace it WAY better than they could ever have possibly imagined—

  But then I looked at my watch. It was only 10:11. I was feeling brave already, pumped with adrenaline, so I decided to capitalize on it. I dialed Nicola.

  “Allie?” she said, as though my call came from beyond the grave.

  My heart immediately started thumping. It was ridiculous. I was more nervous about calling her than I’d been about risking my life only minutes ago. “Yeah … I’m sorry. Is this too late?”

  “No … it’s just.… Wow. Hi. What’s up?”

  “Nothing. Well, not nothing. I said I was going to call.”

  She laughed lightly. “Yeah. But I didn’t think you would.” What an asshole I was. “So, do you want to do something?”

  “Okay,” she said.

  “Nicola, let me tell you, I’m so sorry for not calling you for so long.” I paused.

  “This sounds so weird. I know.”

  “Are you with Juliet right now?” she asked.

  “No,” I said. “Why do you ask?”

  “What happened with you two?”

  “Well, I broke my arm.”

  “You broke your arm? So you’re not friends anymore?” When somebody said it like that, it sounded about as absurd as it actually was.

  “It’s more than that,” I said. “I … we just have different things going on.” Now, Nicola would think I was going to the bench for a relief pitcher. “This has nothing to do with Juliet, actually. I just called to see if you wanted to hang out.”

  “Okay,” she said. “Do you want to go to the Fire Festival?”

  “Absolutely.”

  “Great. I’m psyched. Bye, Allie.”

  I hung up and let out a deep breath. Gideon smiled at me drunkenly. Maybe that’s why he drank so much: he understood that basic social interaction was sometimes a lot harder than risking your life.

  FRIDAY NIGHT, POLITELY after dark, Nicola showed up in her mother’s convertible: a purple Mercedes. Nicola’s mom was a pretty famous travel writer whose stories ran in The New Yorker and other big-name magazines. I’d never ridden in a convertible. They’re sort of the anti-XP car, if you think about it.

  “She lets you use this?” I asked as I buckled up.

  “It’ll be mine next year,” said Nicola.

  “Seriously? Get out of here!”

  “For college. I’m going to the University of Texas at Austin. It’s a long way from home.”

  “I’ll drive with you if you go overnight and let me help you drive.”

  She smirked. “Deal. If you drive the whole way.”

  The Fire Festival is a generally touristy extravaganza held up at Timbers, the big ski resort on Torch Mountain. It’s the town’s last excuse for a party before the cold weather really kicks in. It’s supposed to celebrate art and food and culture, but I imagine it feels pretty much like any big fair held in any other Nowhere County. There’s some fake legend about Native Americans (I’m sure Gideon would scream): Ojibwa deciding to determine who got the first dibs at the caribou by a flame-throwing contest; the Iron Harbor version was more like juggling flaming clubs. There were teams that practiced all year and had the scars to show for it.

  I personally would not want to throw and catch a club with an oil-soaked rag on fire. But then again, I imagine they’d think that using buildings and stairwells and any other man-made structure as a perpetual means of death-defiance wasn’t too far removed, either. When Nicola and I hopped out of her car, for the first time in a long time, all I could think about was having a good time. I thought about the burnt ears of sweet corn I used to eat out of the husks, salting them with tin saltshakers that hung from tree branches by strings. I thought about fry bread, and these little walleye filet sandwiches.

  Then I saw Juliet.

  Nicola and I had paid our ten bucks and were passing through the banner-festooned archway. In the gaudy light of the food tents, Juliet was standing a few feet from a long line of hungry people. Our eyes met. She didn’t smile. She shook her head and sort of wiggled her finger at me, like she was warning me not to approach.

  “There’s Juliet,” Nicola said, and began pulling me toward her.

  I tensed. She must be here with Rob, I thought, panicking. “No, just leave her for now.” I said. I shook free of Nicola’s grasp. “I think she’s with a guy.”

  “A guy who doesn’t let her talk to her friends?” Nicola said with a laugh.

  I didn’t answer. I couldn’t.

  The guy approached her then. He wasn’t Rob. If time slowed to molasses whenever I saw Juliet do something outrageously life-threatening, time became solid amber in that instant: frozen and horrible.

  Blondie.

  He placed his arm around Juliet’s shoulder, his back to Nicola and me, revealing the lightning bolt on the back of his head. Juliet laughed, for him, but rolled her eyes at me, frivolously, as if to say: Men! Can’t live with them; can’t live without them.

  “Let’s go,” I said to Nicola.

  “What?” she asked. “But we just got here.”

  “I’m sick. We have to go. I have to get home. Or to a gas station. Whichever comes first. I’m really sorry.”

  We ran for the parking lot.

  Why did I look back? Juliet was far from me by then, at least two hundred yards, but what did I expect? Fear? A mad laughter? Instead, her face opened to me like a prayer, and I got it, in that moment, that Juliet was longing for me, too, just as I was longing for her.

  As for Blondie, he followed Juliet’s backward gaze, too. But there was no surprise or alarm. He looked at me the way the opossum had looked at Angie and me that night many years ago, not at all threatening, just communicating what he knew. He had to survive, and if he had to pretend to be something else to survive, he would.

  SHORT STRANDS OF questions and suppositions snapped and rolled like a cheap Mardi Gras bead string in my mind. Memory collapsed back and back, to our beginning Parkour, to the cat leap and the descent of that very building on that very night. Was it all planned? In that instant, I remembered the way he pressed against the sliding door on the night we saw the dead girl. That was the first time I had seen his face. Except it wasn’t. Not even then. I thought hard now, and it seemed that I recognized him, from somewhere, long ago. Had I seen him before?

  I barely heard Nicola when she said, “What’s wrong? Is Juliet contagious?”

  “It’s complicated,” I said.

  “It always is,” Nicola said. “You can tell, if you want.”

  “I know.” Finally I allowed myself to relax. We were sitting in Nicola’s convertible. We were safe. “But I don
’t even know what to say. I don’t even completely get why I don’t want to talk to her.”

  “Is it that guy? The older guy? Are you crushing him, too?”

  I shivered. “No. But I do know him, though. From someplace.…”

  “Allie, are you okay?” Nicola asked pointedly.

  I shook my head, “I don’t know,” I said, faking a wan look. “I might have a fever. I’ve had a headache and I’ve been shivering all day.”

  She stuck the key into the ignition. “I’ll take you home.”

  “But I was going to stay over at your house.”

  “I know,” Nicola said as the engine roared to life. “You’re white as paper, though. Next Saturday, we’ll do something. I have extra shitty AP History and English this semester anyhow, and I have to read two books that are, like, eight hundred pages. You know?”

  I knew. They were the same ones I’d already read.

  “Next Saturday,” I agreed, gratefully. “How’s yearbook going?”

  “Now that is uber-complicated,” she said. “In addition to you, we have a stoner, a girl who won’t speak, and a guy who shall remain nameless who constantly hits on me. You’re the least complicated member of our little team, Allie.” She let out a little sigh and laughed. “And there’s other stuff. That will take a whole sleepover.”

  I mustered a smile. “You know me. I’m up all night.”

  It was weird. I wanted to hug her, and not just because I was freaked out about Blondie. I’d never felt such affection for a virtual stranger before, at least aside from health care professionals. She could never be to me what Juliet and Rob were, but she was funny and smart and big-hearted and she never ever looked at me as if I was a freak.

  But could she be just a normal friend? The way I was with her? Was this how Daytimers operated? Did they have normal friends with zero baggage? It seemed as if she wanted exactly that from me—no more, no less. I should have spent more time with her. I should have, in some way, taken better care of her. Yet even then, I doubted I would ever stay over at her house.

  Still, when she hugged me goodbye before she dropped me off, I had no clue that it would be the last time I saw her alive.

 
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