What we saw at night, p.14
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       What We Saw at Night, p.14

           Jacquelyn Mitchard
 
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  Watching Rock is tall, thirty feet at its flat top, overlooking Lake Superior. The legend is that its name derives from a lonely woman who stood waiting for her absent husband, a merchant seaman off gallivanting in Canada. There are three outcrops, like tongues, that extend out at three different levels—one about six feet up, one about five feet above that, and one close to the summit.

  We laid a pile of narrow gym mats (again, courtesy of Rob’s father) around both the lower shelves, but there was nothing we could do to break our fall for the topmost. It jutted directly above a sloping, rocky incline.

  There was some kind of unspoken agreement with Juliet that these few days would come and go without question, so long as she didn’t leave us. It was a pantomime of our friendship. Still, Rob and I pretended to be only friends, and Juliet played her part as the wild girl who’d try anything. We all tried to “feel it,” and eventually, we did become transfixed. Rob began to talk about next summer and how we could check out the Precambrian volcanic outcroppings along the shore, and then drop fifteen or sixteen feet into water that had been a mastodon’s swimming pond.

  I let him talk. I just hoped there would be a next summer for the three of us. At the base of my mind was the solemn unspoken thought: tonight was our only tomorrow, and we would bet the limit on every hand.

  “Speaking of volcanoes,” Juliet said, “how about we light a fire?

  We decided to light a flame for Nicola, to honor her. You weren’t supposed to make a fire on public land without a permit, so maybe it was some sort of weird rebellion. Still, it helped me feel not quite so bad about missing out on Nicola’s funeral. When the little campfire was lit, we turned on some tunes and danced around it. Juliet was wearing some kind of big old velvet hat, and I’d pulled out my fake-rhinestone-beaded inside joke of a ski mask, an atrocity that my Grandma Mack knitted for me two Decembers ago. It was some kind of confused homage to the Dolce and Gabbana ski mask that was hand-studded with Swarovski crystals, the one that cost a few hundred bucks. (The idea was that I’d “sparkle” during the wintertime if I ever had to go out during the day.) Like all hand-knitted things, it was heavy and itchy and hot.

  Juliet must have seen me fidgeting. Before even putting it on, she tossed me her plain black ski mask, spun from the lightest, warmest stuff—which probably cost three times as much as mine, anyway.

  “I should have the gaudy one, Bear!” she said. “Remember, you’re the one who doesn’t approve of labels. I’m keeping this one. It matches me.”

  I had to laugh. For that brief fire-lit moment, Juliet was once again Juliet.

  “That’s my best friend,” I heard myself whisper to Rob.

  “I thought I was your best friend,” he whispered back.

  I felt a pang and squeezed his hand while Juliet pulled on my mask.

  BOULDERING IS JUST like Parkour, of course: it’s not you “against” an obstacle; it’s you in harmony with it. The challenge is linking destinations together in the most creative way possible, the tradition being that everyone waits for each member of the Tribe before moving on to the next challenge. The patience comes when you’re all hyped up and still have to summon the will to encourage the others.

  Juliet went first, scaling Watching Rock’s lowest outcropping with such speed and agility that anyone else would have thought she’d been an expert her whole life. We forgot to film her she was so beautiful, twirling in a victory dance, punching the air with her gloved fists. We prepared to follow. Having been so close to an open flame for so long, we were sweating hard. But the night was forgiving, warm and moon-bright, everything awash in silver that reminded me of old coins.

  “Shit, the camera,” Rob said. “Let me—”

  “Hey!” Juliet’s cry pierced the air. An instant later, she tumbled end-over-end to the ground. Her head, neck, and shoulders thudded on the bouldering mat. Her waist hit the bare earth. Around her thigh, I saw a thick darkness spread like wings across the dirt.

  “Juliet!” I sprung towards her, skidding on the pebble-strewn slope.

  The gash at the back of her leg was bleeding freely. What happened next seemed to pass in stop motion: Rob and I made a chair of our arms to carry her to his Jeep. I sat with her while he gathered up the mats and lowered the rear seats. I scrambled into the back with her. Tough as she was, Juliet cried and clung to my hand all the way to the hospital. Rob called her parents.

  Twenty minutes later, we screeched up to the ER.

  Officer Sirocco met us there, along with a familiar nurse who helped Juliet lie facedown on a gurney. “You guys are keeping this place in business,” the nurse muttered to me. I was grateful. The good nurses never panic about anything. If I had been carrying Juliet’s severed leg in my hands, she would have made some joke about people who can’t keep it together. From my perspective, it looked as if Juliet was gushing blood like an oil well, but the nurse asked if Juliet felt cold or was sleepy, and Juliet screamed “NO!”

  The nurse grinned. “Good girl.”

  And then they were gone. Rob and I waited in the lounge, mindlessly consuming a bag of taco chips. After a while, my breathing evened. Rob took my hand and held it gently, and when I looked down, I perceived how we must have looked to the rest of the people in the room. We were filthy, caked with dust and streaked with dirt and blood (and taco chips)—and, oh, right wearing ski masks like terrorists or bank robbers. In that instant, we both pulled our ski masks off our heads, in unison, as if we were synchronized swimmers. I was going to suggest we either leave or wash up, when the same nurse appeared and told us that Juliet had been given some light sedation. A surgeon was about to stitch her leg.

  “She asked for you, Allie,” the nurse said.

  I glanced at Rob. He shrugged. “Go ahead. I’ll wait for you.”

  I followed the nurse down that familiar mint-green corridor. Juliet lay flat on her belly in an emergency cubicle, her father at her side, with layers of blankets over her arms and back. Only a grim section of her leg was exposed, a crooked nasty gash running from just above the back of her knee to her left butt cheek. I kneeled down by the foot of the table and patted her grimy sleeve.

  “Leave for a minute, Dad, okay?” she whispered.

  “I should wait for your mother, anyway,” Officer Sirocco replied in a toneless voice. He shot me a stare that I couldn’t read, and then pulled the curtain shut behind him and the nurse.

  “I won’t do it anymore,” Juliet hissed at me between clenched teeth. “I promise, Allie. I’m afraid, and I won’t do it anymore.”

  “Do what?”

  “Any of it. I promise. Just be my friend and stay with me, no matter what.”

  I nodded. “I’ll always do that, Juliet.”

  “No matter how it seems.”

  “Forever, Juliet.” I swallowed. I felt sick. I wondered how I could have ever been scared of her. For the first time ever, I saw her as the victim she was.

  “WE’RE PARANOID,” ROB said as he drove me home. “No one could have put anything down that could have hurt her. Not while we were actually climbing. No one could have known she would fall.”

  I nodded. “That’s true. I just feel weird. And I feel like our weirdness is spreading all over everything.”

  Rob drummed the steering wheel. “Do you want me to take you home?”

  “No,” I said. “I want to stay out. And up. With you.”

  We ended up back at Watching Rock. All we found on the rock where Juliet was cut was a sharp tab from a soda can, wedged into a crevice. We couldn’t be sure anyone had put it there on purpose. That, and the mat we’d forgotten in the mad dash to get her to the hospital.

  I’m still not sure what came over me. I mashed my lips against his almost as soon as we were out of the Jeep. He pressed against me. Seconds later we’d collapsed on top of the mat, and I caught a glimpse of the starry October night as I shut my eyes.

  The first time we’d been together, there had been a rush, an urgency, a fumbling sort of frantic-ne
ss that blotted out most of the memory of the actual event. Honestly, I didn’t remember much except the pounding of my own heart and a vague hope that the contraception had worked. But tonight, after the initial hungry attack (mostly on my part) there was sweetness and slowness and tenderness that I knew I would remember as long as I had a memory. I had a fleeting thought that I finally understood the term “making love” because that’s what it was: love in the purest sense, wishing someone else well, wanting him to have the best, your best and every best.

  Afterward, I was conscious only of his heart pounding: a gentle drumbeat. I lay against his bare chest. Wrapped in the darkness and the filthy blankets, exhausted by the night’s weird drama but still consumed by the closeness of Rob, this boy, my dream realized and tangled up in me in every way, my lids grew heavy. The last thing I remember was him mumbling something about setting his phone for four, so that we’d beat the early hikers and the sunrise.

  WHEN MY EYELIDS first fluttered open, I thought that I was dreaming. The glare was intense. I half sat up, and was hauled back down by the blankets swaddling Rob and me.

  “Rob, help! Oh shit! It’s morning!”

  Panic opened a vein of adrenaline in my lower belly. It was past sunrise: after seven, easily. Fingers trembling, I moved quickly to pull on my black turtleneck and pants and haul one of the blankets over my head, while Rob did the same. The times we’d been caught out unprotected in daytime were times we could count on one hand. The light itself was crackling, trippy; for a Daytimer, I imagine it would be like waking up underwater. We lowered ourselves to the ground, Rob grabbing his sunglasses out of his backpack. His disembodied voice struggled to keep me calm, insisting we would come back later for the mats; the important thing was to get into the car and home because our parents would have the cavalry out by now.

  “Why didn’t your phone work?” I gasped, crawling quickly toward the Jeep.

  “Who knows? Don’t worry about it. Get in and we’ll get the blankets up on the windows.” His exposed fingers slithered up to the door handle. The car was locked, the keys visible in the ignition, my backpack with my own phone visible on the seat.

  “Did you lock it?” he hissed, feverish.

  “No! Obviously. No way.”

  “Get under the car,” he commanded. “Just lie still.”

  Before I could protest, he shoved me under the car and scrambled under after me. Fortunately, the Jeep had a high carriage and plenty of room. He snatched up his phone and scowled. “Well, that explains it. The battery’s dead. We just have to wait.”

  “Jesus.” I fought to keep from squirming. Joggers or hikers would probably come by. It was a beautiful October morning in a popular park.

  “Holy shit,” Rob said.

  “What?”

  “My battery isn’t dead, it’s gone. Somebody must have messed with it at the hospital, or … maybe while we were sleeping? You didn’t—”

  “I fell asleep!” I rolled over so I was facing him. In the shadows, his red-rimmed eyes looked as frightened as mine must have. “Who came last night? Who saw us?”

  “Allie, you have to tell me everything. I know you and Juliet made some kind of pact, but something happened while we were asleep.”

  I couldn’t keep it bottled up inside any longer. It wasn’t fair to Rob, either. And so I told him everything. I started with the trap door in the lawn outside Tabor Oaks, and the text I received. I told him how I called the police. I told him about Juliet’s tattoo, and the hair-twin Tabor cousins, and how I suspected Nicola’s death wasn’t an accident after all … and now this.

  Helpless, we lay under the Jeep, holding hands and praying. It seemed as if hours passed, but maybe it was only minutes until we heard a sound. Voices approached, scuffling footsteps—and a tiny face suddenly appeared behind Rob’s head.

  A puzzled little girl, younger than Angela, said, “You are not supposed to play under the car.” Then she stood.

  Another pair of feet joined her, parallel to her tiny hiking books. “Dad, those big kids are playing under the car.”

  “Go over by Mom and Lacey,” a man’s voice stated. “Right now.”

  Rob loudly cleared his throat. “Sir, please,” he called. “Please. I apologize, but I need your help. Just dial this number.” Slowly, Rob recited his father’s cell phone, one digit at a time. “My dad will answer. He will tell you that everything I’m going to say is true. My friend and I are under this car for a good reason. We have Xeroderma Pigmentosum. XP. It’s a rare genetic—”

  “Yes,” the pair of hiking boots interrupted. “My name is Marty Brent. We’re from Chicago. I’m here with my wife and kids. We’re cycling, and I seem to have found your son.” The man paused. The shoes shifted slightly from their shoulder-width stance. “Are you Rob Dorn?” he called down.

  “Yes, I’m Rob and this is Alexis Kim. We can’t come out from under here.”

  I stole a lightning fast peek, anyway. I saw the lady with the little girl and the baby, and the bikes, and the molded plastic helmets, and restraining devices with rounded aluminum tubes, and thick mesh straps, and the saddle bags and backpacks and bottles. I remembered that I used to think that parents were selfish when they did things like this: stuffing kids into snowsuits to go sledding, or bundling them up in life jackets to go rafting, or saddling them up on mountain bikes. I thought they did it just to prove that even though they had kids, they didn’t have to give up doing the things they loved.

  Maybe it takes actual sunlight (mixed in with a corresponding dose of panic) to have a true a-ha moment. But only then did I truly get Jack-Jack. Parents—the good ones, anyway, never did anything for themselves if their kids were involved—no matter how weird or unfathomable. Jack-Jack stayed up knitting even though all she wanted was to sleep; Dennis Dorn, Rob’s dad, collected NBA jackets for his son in every imaginable size and design; Tommy Sirocco kept Nothing Town safe in its Nothingness. But on top of that, they only wanted to be merchants of nostalgia, for their kids’ benefit. Right now, Marty from Chicago was lamenting this strange turn of events. He was happy to help us, but he was pissed. He wouldn’t be able to provide a fun experience his kids would look back on, even only in a photo, as a bright pin on the psychological map of devotion.

  That was what it must mean to be a parent: the never-ending celebration of a bond, no matter how tenuous and fleeting. It was the sole reason parents made such a huge deal out of documenting everything and anything. And there was a paper doll chain of all those parents, from Rob’s parents to Juliet’s parents to my mother to Marty, joined together: a magic circle of protection around their kids, anybody’s kids. But the circle wasn’t magic. Nothing could protect their kids from the world. Besides, we kids couldn’t wait to bust through that paper-doll chain, ripping it to shreds on our way out.

  “Your dad’s coming,” Marty said. “But he sent an ambulance. Don’t object, I know. You probably think it’s dumb. But he’s worried, and I would be worried. They called the hospital and apparently your friend was already in there, and naturally your parents thought you were hurt when you didn’t come home, before sunrise?”

  “It’s how you live, when you have XP,” Rob said.

  “I’m sorry,” the guy said. “That’s a bummer.”

  “Don’t be sorry. We should be thanking you. We just got caught by the sunrise. We came out here to make a video for a friend,” Rob finished awkwardly. “She had it way worse than we do.”

  Nicola.

  Right. In theory, we’d come out here for her. I tried to justify how sick and ashamed I was by desperately thinking that my recent epiphany explained everything: No, we weren’t creating this video tribute (that never happened) for you, Nicola; we were creating it for YOU, Mrs. Burns, who tried to take your own life after learning you would never see your daughter again … but that line of thinking only made me want to vomit. There was only one reason we were trapped under Rob’s car right now. We’d only come out here for ourselves.

  Ro
b shifted on his side in the gravel and rolled over so he was facing me again. A faint, sad grin played on his lips. “Allie, when we’re older, we should open a night water park, completely lit with solar fixtures from below.”

  “Instant millions,” I said. “In Las Vegas.”

  The sound of sirens whooped, at first far away. Then, there they were, the paramedics around the Jeep, debating what to do, at least for the two minutes it took Jackie to arrive in her all-terrain minivan.

  “Why are you standing there?” Mom barked at the multitude of booted feet.

  “We’re assessing effective transport,” a firefighter said.

  “Use some of those tarps to make a canopy and give them both Hazmat equipment to put on while you get them to the hospital. That sun is lethal.”

  “We aren’t carrying biohazard suits, ma’am.”

  “Give them turnout gear, then, ordinary fire suits and helmets.”

  My mother squatted down next to me and lifted the edge of the blanket “What the hell are you idiots thinking?”

  “You’re all heart, Jack-Jack.”

  “Is it the full moon? First, your poor friend Nicola, and now Juliet’s in the hospital. There’s been about a full decade of weirdness packed into these past few days. How do I explain this?”

  “You mean, what will people say?”

  “No, Allie. It’s just you live almost seventeen years with a person and, suddenly, in one night, her best friend is in the hospital and she’s trapped under a car with her boyfriend.”

  “Adolescence?” I offered.

  Mom’s face twisted into a grimace and disappeared. I felt Rob’s fingers intertwine with mine. Then I closed my eyes and let the paramedics take over.

  I was lying on a bed waiting for the okay to shower when Juliet appeared. She wheeled into my room, her leg extended on a padded board, a pole with an IV at her side.

 
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