What we saw at night, p.15
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       What We Saw at Night, p.15

           Jacquelyn Mitchard
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  “You have that syndrome that chronically sick kids get, like overdeveloped conscience syndrome,” she announced.

  “You made that up.”

  Juliet laughed. “I did. You have it though. You always feel like you’re inconveniencing somebody.”

  “I am always inconveniencing somebody. I’m an inconvenient person.”

  “But you’re not. We didn’t ask to be born this way, Allie. The world owes you one. Not the other way around.”

  Bonnie came in and drew the curtain so that I could undress and shower. “Juliet, you need to leave. Jackie Kim’s orders.”

  “Allie doesn’t have anything I haven’t seen,” Juliet said.

  “I’m sure she wants her privacy,” Bonnie said.

  “Actually, I’m fine if she stays,” I said. “Tell my mom. It’s cool.”

  “She’s my best friend,” Juliet added. “I saw her boobs before she had boobs. Not that she really has boobs now.”

  I swallowed, watching Bonnie’s face soften as I remembered the first time Juliet and I got bras. It was one of the summers when she had a month or six weeks off from the hours and hours of gym work and indoor running that was necessary for ski jumping. My mother took both of us to the mall, at night. (We didn’t have to wear full gear, just sunglasses, ball caps and long-sleeved shirts, so we looked only like lepers instead of aliens). Juliet wanted a push-up bra that wouldn’t adapt to the style. “They’re too far apart,” Juliet had told my mother. “What’s going to happen to me if they don’t grow and they stay pointing different ways? I’m going to have to get one stick-on cup for each one.” We ended up buying every conceivable bra, training and otherwise, just to be safe.

  “I’ll give you twenty minutes,” Bonnie said.

  I slipped out of my clothes and tossed Juliet her ski mask, which had been stuffed into my back pocket since last night. I gratefully spent the next twenty minutes rinsing the grime from my hair and teeth and every cleft and crevice of my body, before dousing myself with the hospital lotion that reminded me of home, since my mother used vats of the stuff. For me, it was like Vicks. Nicola told me once that when her older brother went to college and got a cold, rubbing Vicks on his chest for a cough made him homesick.…

  I examined my scratched and blotchy face in the mirror. In my own home—in my own context—I never saw how truly pale people are who are never exposed to sunlight. My skin was perfect, but looked like the unblemished petal of a funeral-parlor lily. Blush might have helped, but there was no makeup called XP, for X-tra Pale. Searching that pale face, with its eyes in a state of perpetual alarm, I didn’t even recognize the real Allie. I didn’t know where she was. But the real Juliet was waiting outside. I pulled on my hospital pj’s.

  Afraid as she had been, how much could Juliet know now? Did she know that someone had screwed with Rob’s phone?

  I reentered the room, my burden of questions caged in the back of my throat, just as Rob waltzed in, waving a DVD. He wanted to make us whole again, or as whole as we three could be. I almost had to laugh. The DVD was “The Best of David Belle, Volumes I-III.”

  “Let’s commence the theater portion of the entertainment, ladies,” he said, cleaned up and looking normal except for the purple hollows under his eyes. “Allie, your doctor said we could hang for another couple of hours.…” He broke off, seeing Juliet’s tight lips.

  We were all on edge. Who wouldn’t be? My mother was right about a full decade’s tragic weirdness packed into less than a week. But also, we just weren’t used to being awake during the day. It made everything feel strange.

  “I have popcorn and ginger ale being delivered—although not beer, which my father frowned upon for some reason,” he said. “Cheesy popcorn for you, Juliet, if you share.”

  He paused. “Can I see your wound?”

  “That would involve seeing part of my ass, and that’s off limits to mere mortal eyes,” Juliet replied.

  “Not what I hear,” Rob said. “I’ve heard it’s a staple of cyber-assity.”

  “If you let me keep all the cheesy popcorn, I’ll show you,” Juliet said.

  “Juliet, I’d rather have the popcorn. I’ve seen your fabled ass covered and uncovered since you wore your big girl Huggies, and it’s not one of the seven wonders of the ass-ential world.”

  “Rob, you wound me even more!” Juliet cried. “If there were an Iron Harbor Parade of Asses, it would be on it, at position one or two.”

  “What about Caitlin Murray?” Rob asked.

  Together, Juliet and I said, “Seriously?”

  Juliet added, “That ass has all the stability of, like, Nerf.…”

  Then I ruined it. Maybe even on purpose. I wasn’t sure. But I couldn’t put on an act anymore. I said to Rob, “Did you get sunburned at all?”

  He shook his head. Without a word, Juliet started wheeling past him. We both watched her disappear into the hall.

  “Wait,” I whispered.

  I jumped after Juliet and clamped my hand down on her shoulder.

  “You’re together,” she said. “It was a dumb promise.” She smiled, not stopping, and waved one hand. “No, Allie-Bear. It was dumb. When you care about someone, and you’ve done it, you can’t just stop. It’s fine. It lets me off the hook.”

  “No, Juliet. That’s not it. It’s way more important that I talk to you than him.”

  I ran back to the room where Rob was now greeting his dad, displaying the DVD and assessing the bags of junk food. “Rob, I have to talk to her for a while,” I informed him. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Mr. Dorn. I mean, Dennis.”

  Rob nodded. “I get it. Come on, Dad. We’ll go to my room. The view’s better. My sun-block shade has graffiti.”

  The four of us laughed uncomfortably. Rob’s dad, looking far older than his fifty-something years, closed the door behind them.

  I turned to Juliet and sat on the bed. “We’re alone. We have two hours.”

  “I have to tell you things you don’t want to know,” Juliet said. Her ski mask still lay perched on her extended leg, seeming to mock me, us, the whole situation.

  “I already know more than you think I do. I know about my mom’s friend, Gina. And about the doctor, Lauren Wilenbrand.”

  Juliet’s eyes bored into mine. “You see how that works?”

  “What do you mean?”

  “Dr. Andrew is Gina’s boss. Dr. Andrew is Lauren Wilenbrand’s boss. Gina is training for a certificate as a nurse practitioner in genetic disease. Lauren wants to be chief resident. Garrett’s so good at this. He doesn’t have to just keep secrets. He’s the puppet master. He gets women to keep secrets for him. It’s all to their advantage. Me, too.” Juliet raised her own hospital scrubs, pointing to her tattoo on her belly. “I’m worried, Allie-Bear.”

  I nodded, suddenly thinking of Nicola again, suddenly angry. Afternoon sunshine threatened us from a tiny crack in the blackout shades. “In hospitals, this is the time most people die,” I finally muttered.

  “I thought they died just before morning,” said Juliet.

  “That’s all night is, just before morning,” I said. “People start dying right after dinner and they die all night.”

  “True enough,” Juliet agreed.

  “So you owe it to me to tell me everything. I’m not going to leave you. I just need to know. From the beginning.”

  Juliet wheeled herself over to the end of my bed and let out a deep breath. “First of all, those years when I was competing, they were years without rules,” she began. “So I went from a life that was only rules to total freedom. Or as much freedom as I could have. My mom couldn’t come with me every time. It cost too much. When she didn’t, well, like everyone else, of course, she trusted Garrett. Before he was a coach, Garrett trained to be a nurse. No big shocker, he’s a Tabor. But he’s also an RN. Did you know that? Who better to manage your daughter and be sure about her cares and precautions?”

  I couldn’t answer. I couldn’t even really focus on her specific wor
ds as she went on and on. She barreled right into their relationship. The first time they had sex, Juliet was fourteen and a half, in eighth grade. A year after we’d gone to buy our first bras, a year after she began having her periods. As she spoke, I wanted to give Penguin back and embrace them both. I wanted to hold her like the child she still was.

  “No one knew what we did,” she said. “Because of XP, I always had a private room, so that no one could jump up and open the drapes on some beautiful snow-blinding Utah slope. Garrett did a bed check every night. He was never intrusive, but nobody tried to stuff their beds with pillows and sneak out for beers. We were all too competitive.”

  It began with the massages he gave Juliet to keep her from cramping up. They simply grew longer and more intimate. Garrett made sure his suite always adjoined hers. What hotel wouldn’t want to provide for the little wonder girl who gutted her way through the hills in the sky despite her grave skin disease? To the Juliet she was then, this was a love affair, the best way to break out of the prison built by our genes. What she was describing to me now was in fact the rape of a little girl. She didn’t articulate it as such because he still had hooks in her. Juliet said that there was nothing between them sexually anymore, and there hadn’t been for years. But he enticed her with freedom.

  Later that fall, in November, Garrett Tabor planned to take a break from coaching and join Stephen and Andrew on a research mission in Bolivia. Now that Dr. Andrew’s sons were both on staff, he could take a break for research, too, which was his real passion. Dr. Andrew was insanely certain that using retroviruses to implant normal DNA into our lousy DNA would basically get our genes to repair themselves. That’s making a very long story very short. The most famous retrovirus is HIV, the one that causes AIDS. AIDS used to go so fast and just gallop through people and kill them because how quickly retroviruses mutate. You’d be treating one thing and the cells would change and you’d be facing another strain of virus. That’s why something awful can turn out to be so useful. The retroviruses can cause cells to mutate back to the way they were before they changed into the light-sensitive mutation that causes XP. And then, all the new cells after that would be normal, at least theoretically. They could even do it on unborn babies.

  They can do this with animal cells in the lab now, easy as peanut butter and jelly. Vets use this kind of treatment all the time for horses who rip ligaments racing or jumping. So the work Dr. Andrew and his brother and his son were doing with XP could someday, many generations from now, lead to a world with no sickle cell and no Huntington’s disease and no cystic fibrosis, the killers of the young. When I thought of it in that way, I felt not like an experimental animal, but proud: a pioneer, like Juliet had made me with Parkour.

  “Even if they can do that, and say they can, what about cancer?” Juliet said.

  “You’re going to get squamous cell cancer sometime in your life. That’s the nature of the beast. Big deal,” I said. Squamous cell skin cancer is gross and it leaves a scar where they remove the superficial skin, but it’s not usually a lethal type of skin cancer. Some XP people have them all over. I’ve never had one. Rob had one, on his shoulder, despite his face getting all those huge blisters when he was a baby.

  “I mean melanoma that goes all the way.”

  “If they get it early, like Rob, it’s completely curable.”

  “But you’ll get it again, somewhere else on your body.”

  “Juliet, you have to die of something!”

  “Whatever.” She turned her back to me and continued in her detached monotone. According to her, even Dr. Andrew wouldn’t reveal the specifics of some genetic mutation among the children of certain families of one “tribe” in Bolivia. But it meant that, although they suffered the same symptoms of harm from sunlight as every other XP kid, they didn’t develop melanoma. Finding a way to make XP a chronic illness was one giant leap in eradicating it. If people with XP could live the same way as people with diabetes or high blood pressure, they could have real lives.

  Hearing all this, my heart thumped with excitement. But it also thumped with fear, because something else was clearly on her mind. That was when she dropped the bombshell: last October, Garrett had promised to take Juliet with him when he joined the research team. He promised to make her first among equals in the study—although, by virtue of being Dr. Andrew’s patient, she’d have been in the first pool, anyhow.

  That was how they reconnected.

  “But weren’t you going out with Henry LeBecque?” I asked.

  That was a front, she explained. Besides, Garrett’s father and his uncle would be there, safeguarding her.

  I stared at her, not sure what to believe, not sure how much she believed. “You considered it? What about your parents?”

  Juliet scoffed. “No! What works with them is: I don’t bring anything up until the last minute. Then, they won’t stop me. With this, I could say it’s for credit, for college, or something. Besides, I can’t tell anyone. Which means you can’t tell anyone, either.”

  I chewed a nail. I wasn’t sure how to respond to any of this. But she kept going.

  In the past, Juliet’s disappearances, her sabbaticals, her so-called “periods of reflection” had all been stolen time she spent holed up with Garrett. Sometimes, she even used the all-purpose, fail-safe excuse; she said that she was with me. I felt sicker and sicker. Was I suddenly her therapist? It was a job I didn’t want. But I listened anyway: to tales of Juliet and Garrett Tabor traveling to Minneapolis, sleeping in blackout rooms where waiters brought them caviar and champagne at midnight. These hotels, Juliet said, were frequented by foreign businessmen; the staff had a policy to avert its eyes from unusual couples. Tabor told the desk that Juliet was his daughter (Juliet was always swathed in expensive scarves and huge sunglasses); no one could have believed that a father shared a bed with his college-age child. So he was careful to get a double-king room. Even then, the relationship had been much more than sex: One Thousand and One Arabian Nights in reverse, with a harem of one. Garrett told Juliet of cities, like Las Vegas (which might as well be Jupiter to Juliet and me) where lives were lived on the reverse clock, like our own lives. They could be happy there, together—

  “What about the women his own age?” I finally shouted. “What about the Daytimers? Like Dr. Wilenbrand. Like Gina—”

  “I know about them,” she interrupted. “They’re a front for the sake of his family. Like Henry was for me. Don’t you see that? We had to keep up appearances.”

  “What about your dad?” I said. “How could he not know?”

  “He sees what he wants to see. When it comes to me, he’s no detective. He sees you. He sees Rob. He sees how you have my back. He sees our cozy little world of three, doing crazy stunts at night, but never getting into any real trouble.”

  My jaw clenched. Jack-Jack was right again. People do see what they want to see.

  “I haven’t been with him that way in a long time, I swear. But I can’t give him up. I told you the truth.” She sighed, that defeated adult-stranger sigh I’d gotten used to hearing. “He’s Garrett Tabor. And I was a kid. He treated me like an adult. He treated me like an equal. Also, it was like being with a genie. You made a wish for an escape, and there it was.”

  “What about what we saw at Tabor Oaks?” I demanded.

  “We only saw him once, Allie-Bear. I’m not sure what you saw that other night. And I’ve been over it with him. He made a bad choice. He picked up some woman in Duluth and brought her back to his dad’s apartment. He was lonely. He was confused. He swore it was a one-time thing.… But still, you’re right. There’s too much. I mean … Nicola Burns. No one will ever forget that. It changes everything, forever. It made me start to think about my life, and my mother, and what I’ve done to them that they don’t even know about. I was only fourteen, Allie.”

  “But now you’re almost seventeen.”

  “And then maybe I can be with him. You know, legally. I mean, it happens. People used to ge
t married when they were thirteen.”

  “Listen to yourself right now,” I said.

  We were silent.

  “My leg hurts,” Juliet said.

  “I’ll go find a nurse.”

  My head felt as if it were about to explode. I was grateful for the chance to bolt out the door, to stretch and jump and run in place, to punch the flat of my hand with my fist because I couldn’t take a bat to the walls and the windows. Tabor. Tabor. Tabor.… The name was everywhere I looked. This hospital was called Divine Savior, but our wing was The Tabor Clinic. Our savior was Dr. Tabor, the founder.

  “My friend Juliet is in pain,” I told a nurse who was unfamiliar to me.

  “Are you Jackie Kim’s girl?”

  “Yes. I’m Allie. And I don’t know if you can give me some Tylenol? I don’t know if it’s in my orders. But I have such a headache, I’m afraid it’s going to make me sick.…” Which it did. All of a sudden.

  I ran to the nearest washroom.

  Garrett Tabor had killed Nicola. I knew it as sure as if he’d pointed a gun at her and fired. Only he knew where that poor dark-haired girl was now, the girl he left stripped on the floor like a broken doll. He would have been happy to explain to Juliet how killing Rob and me would have been an accident.

  I never got another chance to speak to Juliet alone that night. As it happened, I ended up getting a shot for my first migraine—orders from Dr. Lauren Wilenbrand—along with an order to lie with cold packs over my eyes for the rest of the afternoon.

  When I got home from the hospital, I found my early admission acceptance letter from John Jay. Because of my bad genes and my good grades, I had even received a tiny scholarship: $4,000 per semester if I maintained a 3.0 GPA or higher. Apparently, mine was also the first letter they sent out. They really seemed to be chomping at the bit to accept me. I’d be starting in September, eleven months from now—but there was the option of starting in January, too. I decided, why not? All my classes were AP anyhow. I wrote to my advisor, Dr. Barry Yashida, to ask his advice.

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