Watch for me by moonligh.., p.15
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       Watch for Me by Moonlight, p.15
 

           Jacquelyn Mitchard
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  “She has to see,” Mallory had told Drew when she caught up with him that day after lunch. “Here’s what I think. The school has all those basketball and football pictures in those little wooden frames going back to before my dad went to Ridgeline. If he really is from here, and he really ran cross-country, he’ll be in one of them.”

  “I don’t want to know about it,” Drew had told Mally the previous night.

  “And then she’ll have to face it.”

  “What do you not get about the phrase ‘I don’t want to know’? I’m not interested in trying to convince your sister her boyfriend is dead.”

  “They only meet at night.”

  “Maybe he’s undead,” Drew suggested.

  “Oh, you’re making this sound ridiculous! Everybody knows there are no ... undead dead people. That’s an entirely different thing from ghosts, Drew!”

  “Pardon my mortal error. I’m only human. And this would be why I don’t want to know any more about it, Mall-or-y.”

  “You never call me Mallory. You always call me Brynn.”

  “I’m trying to get your attention.”

  Mally said he never cooperated with her. But later, she texted an apology. It occurred to her what Drew had to put up with—what he had, in a sense, always had to put up with, from her. In a rush, the thought of Drew going away, and that it would be before another leaf on the ridge turned scarlet and fell, took root in Mallory and grew. It grew larger and it grew real. Suddenly, Mallory didn’t want to give up a second with the guy she’d seen every day of her life but had learned to love, it seemed, only yesterday. He was always there for her. And soon, he wouldn’t be. Who would pull her hair and call her Brynn?

  “What are we doing?” Merry asked as she came up beside Drew and Mallory in the hall outside the locker rooms and gyms. “Why did you wait for me? I’ll have to tell Neely. She’s outside.”

  “I told her. She already left. So you could ride home with us,” Mallory said. “Merry, look. There’s something you have to see.”

  Slowly, following Mallory’s finger, Merry began to scan the walls where the team pictures hung, gradually leading Meredith to the right place. Even in the seventies, the track outfits looked bizarre compared to now. The only uniforms that hadn’t changed were the wrestlers, and they looked bizarre anyhow.

  There.

  There was the section devoted to cross-country. The grave said 1969, the year he died. Unless he died in school, in a car accident or something, he would have graduated at seventeen or eighteen that year. Mallory searched for 1968. There he was, his curly blond hair falling forward, down on one knee in front.

  Ben Highland.

  “’Ster,” said Mallory. “Look.”

  Meredith stood on her toes. She grabbed the edge of the frame and pulled herself closer.

  Then she whirled and took one running step before Mallory caught her.

  “It’s his uncle or something,” Merry said.

  “No it isn’t his uncle or something!” Mally said.

  “But Ben was there too! How could he be there if it was him being buried? Well, prayed over anyhow? Merry’s fury mounted. “Why are you spying on him and me? Maybe the old Highlands are his grandparents. They’re old, old-old. Probably older than Grandma and Grandpa Brynn,” Merry stopped. “He does look just like him. But you have to admit it’s possible. Fathers and sons and nephews and cousins can look a lot alike when they’re young. And I would know, Mallory. I’ve seen ... you know what. And he isn’t one of them.”

  “This is where I go get a juice,” said Drew.

  “Okay. Okay,” Mallory agreed. “But that’s not what’s in my dreams. It’s the Ben you know. It’s his jacket, the one you described to me. I’ve seen him in that and in those old-fashioned tight jeans.” Meredith seemed to shrink right before her twin’s eyes into a small, crumpled being.

  “Mallory, don’t. That could be his dad’s jacket. Handed down.”

  “It could be,” Mally said. “But you know it isn’t.”

  “So okay, say I do know. What if I want to be with him just until there is no more time?”

  “Shhhh,” Mallory said. “I’m thinking. If he lied about his age and got in the Army ... people used to do that. Let me think.”

  “I’m sick of your thinking. Listen to what I’m feeling, Mally. You always assume I’m nuts.”

  “Oh, please. I don’t assume that anymore than you assume precisely the same thing about me, half the time when anything like this happens. Okay ... introduce me to him. Call Ben. Text him,” Mally challenged her twin.

  Merry slid down the wall and sat on the floor. When Drew came back with two glass bottles of juice, she gratefully accepted one and took a long drink. Her thoughts were drumming, and what she needed to admit was the last thing she wanted to say. Finally, she said, “I can’t.”

  “Why?”

  Mallory knelt down next to her sister. As much as she wanted to clue her twin into the reality of her obsession, she could still feel the nearly physical pain that Meredith gave off, like a heat or a scent. It affected Mallory, too, deep in her stomach, where she felt something tender like a bruise. How can I go on with this? she thought. They were still only in school—the nauseous yellow walls and absurd bright-green scuffed lockers, the smell and press of love and fear and anxiety and socks. Why should Merry have to feel anything beyond the general horribleness of adolescence, which was already a rollercoaster of highs and lows, even for Mallory herself, who didn’t have Merry’s penchant for extremes?

  “Why, Mer?” Mally asked again, more gently.

  “He doesn’t have a cell phone.”

  “What does he do all day?”

  “I don’t know.”

  “Merry ... this is what I mean. What seventeen-year-old guy doesn’t have a cell phone?”

  Meredith couldn’t answer. At the movies the other night, before they went to the church, she noticed how people didn’t stare at Ben, cute as he was. They looked right through him. There was something strange. It wasn’t like the girl in the attic or the man with the accent. But it was “off.” Merry didn’t want to push him by asking why. He was already miserable. Was it really because she didn’t want to hurt him? Or because she didn’t want to know? If this was denial, she wanted to live there.

  When she was with him, everything seemed to fall into place. It was entirely right and true and meant to be. When she wasn’t with him, doubts whirled around her stomach as though she were locked in a carnival ride and strapped in darkness. Love was supposed to make you joyous. But look at Romeo and Juliet ... one day of happiness.

  But finally she said, “Mallory, Ben doesn’t seem to want to hang around with my friends. He avoids people I know. But I have to tell you that it wouldn’t matter to me what he is or isn’t. Did you hate Eden after you found out that she had a double life? She was your best friend. Did you reject her?”

  “That’s different, Mer. Eden was there. Eden was a part of my life and your life. There was a chance to save her. You can’t save somebody who’s already gone.”

  “Ben isn’t gone!”

  “He might already be gone, but maybe he doesn’t know it, Meredith. Does that happen with ghosts? Do they forget to cross over or whatever?”

  “I guess,” Meredith said. “I never met one who hadn’t crossed over. Mostly they come back to do what they were doing when they died. At least I think that.”

  “Maybe that’s why he feels real to you. Maybe he doesn’t know how to pass over. How does it feel to kiss him?”

  “We never have,” Meredith said softly. “He’s never even held my hand.” Mallory reached out and hugged her twin.

  “I’m so sorry,” she said. “Do you believe me?”

  “Yes. But it doesn’t change anything. Mally, you have me confused with you. I might still want to be with him. No matter what he is.” They stood for a moment as the light in the hall darkened with the spring twilight.

  Mallory said, “No. That’s enough,
Merry.”

  Merry said, “Don’t push me.” Mallory stepped back, her eyes widening. Nothing that her twin had ever said had so fully excluded her, so entirely stepped outside the boundaries of their two-ness. It frightened Mallory into silence. Finally, Meredith said, “I know who would know. And I’m going to find out. By myself.”

  Mallory didn’t say a word.

  By the time Drew dropped them off, it was completely dark outside, and every light was on in the kitchen. The porch lights and even the leftover Christmas lights were blazing.

  Her mother was waiting for Merry inside.

  She was blazing too.

  A MATTER OF TRUST

  Campbell said, “I’m not even going to discuss it. In other words, you don’t have a side in this. You’re grounded for four weeks. No, I’m going too far. For two weeks. But Meredith Arness Brynn, I want to know right now, this second, if you were out all night with a boy.”

  Campbell went back to folding laundry, but Merry could see her mother covertly glance at her out of the corner of her eye. Abruptly, Campbell set the second laundry basket in front of Merry and nodded at it. Merry began to search for the mates of at least forty pairs of athletic socks.

  “I’m waiting,” Campbell said.

  “I thought you didn’t want me to discuss it,” Meredith said. “I thought I didn’t have a side in this.”

  Deliberately, she folded a dozen of Adam’s socks, all of which were marked with an “A” in permanent marker, now that Adam’s feet were as large as the twins’. The silence lengthened.

  “I’ll tell you when I don’t want you to discuss it,” Campbell said, flustered. “So were you?”

  “Yes.”

  “What do I have to worry about here? Other than my daughter’s dishonesty and deceit?”

  “You don’t even have to worry about that, Mom,” Merry said. “We didn’t do anything wrong except for my being out after curfew.”

  “Meredith, dawn is hardly after curfew. Ten is curfew on a school night.”

  “Okay. And there was a reason for that that has nothing to do with the way I feel about him. Have you ever known me to do anything without a good reason?”

  “You’re kidding, right?” Campbell said. “Merry heart, I love you. But when it comes to level heads, yours is a sphere!”

  Well, yeah. Merry had to agree this line of reasoning wasn’t going to work.

  “Well, I was wrong. But I have nothing to lie about. I was wrong, but I wasn’t bad. I’m sorry that I worried you. But I’m not at all sorry I did it.”

  Visibly shocked, Campbell sat down hard in her rocking chair. This was clearly not the reaction she was expecting. She had been thinking Merry would fly into a storm of tears and contrition. Campbell finally got up and stood looking out over the backyard up at the ridge where the Brynn family camp was, a collection of old cabins where they’d spent several weeks together each summer. “It should be against my better judgment to believe you,” she said. “But I know my daughter. You may not have the best common sense I’ve ever encountered, but you’re not a liar. You’re looking me straight in the eye. I don’t have any choice but to believe you.”

  Merry began to cry—not sobbing, but with tears rolling silently down her cheeks. I wish you knew how much I have to lie. I wish you knew.

  “Mom, I want to tell you. Don’t ask me more. I promise it’s not a horrible thing that’s going to ruin my future. It’s not a secret. It’s just private. For now. And I don’t think it will be for ... very long.”

  “Is this boy going away?”

  “I don’t know. I think yes, he is.”

  “Just like Eden and her brother. What’s with you two?”

  “Unlucky in love, I guess,” said Merry. “At least you don’t have to worry about us getting engaged in high school like Kari Walter did.” She added, “Mom, I don’t feel well. I don’t feel like eating dinner. Let me go upstairs. You can chain me to a post later on.”

  “Meredith, I just don’t know what to say,” Campbell told her.

  Merry lifted her hand in a limp wave and headed for the stairs. She had had headaches before, but the way she felt now was as though a brute hand was fitted over her head like a cap, squeezing every nerve ending. She rummaged for aspirin and fell crossways on her bed.

  With dreams, without pictures, Merry slept until morning. When she woke, even the dawn hurt her eyes.

  Her first thought was, I will find out the truth, as soon as I can.

  Her second thought was, Where is Ben? And how can I live for two weeks without seeing him?

  FOR LOVE OF BEN

  It took two weeks for the tests to come back from the hospital in New York. They were negative for everything. Owen was, for all intents and purposes, a healthy baby boy. None of the specialists had any idea what had caused the episodes of vomiting. The pediatric allergist Tim Brynn spoke to said to be glad the incidents were over for now and to watch Owen closely. Funny things sometimes happened to kids in infancy, and for no good reason anyone could ever tell, they just outgrew them. If there were any other events, the doctor said, it would be time to call in a specialist in gastroenterology, who would examine Owen’s digestion.

  Meredith was home from school after practice almost every day of the two weeks, as her mother dictated. But on the day when her parents went to New York with Owen to discuss the results with the allergist, she could contain her curiosity no longer.

  Mallory and Drew were out with Adam. Merry was alone.

  Her parents wouldn’t be home until evening.

  She would do it. She would take a walk with her thoughts. Throwing on her jean jacket and stuffing her hat and single glove into her pocket, she began to walk.

  Merry walked all the way to Pumpkin Hollow Road, through the mellow afternoon settling down, past Aunt Kate’s house, past the Aldridges‘, down to the last house on the street. The Highland house. The house where the woman had screamed at Meredith for riding her bike over the corner of the lawn. Why had Mrs. Highland shouted, back those five years ago? The lawn was a mess, just patches of dry brown grass with a few tufts of green scattered throughout. The house was a nice old Victorian, built just like Uncle Kevin and Aunt Kate’s, but somehow, it seemed to sag, from the jagged gap in the porch gingerbread edging to the raw board nailed over a hole in one of the steps. The clapboard had been gray and the shutters dark green, but wind and sun and snow and more wind seemed to have erased its charm. Merry could see a shutter that had come loose and hung at an angle like a broken wing. Underneath was the bold gray-blue color that all the boards had once been. The whole place, from the tangled, overgrown wild rosebushes and weedy thickets with long woody arms of buds to the faded cream curtains in the windows, felt like a house out of breath.

  Holding her own breath, Meredith walked up the four steps and knocked on the door.

  No one answered.

  To her shock, Merry was relieved.

  She waited for a long time and then knocked again.

  No one came.

  Meredith hadn’t brought her backpack. She had no pen or anything to write on, no way to leave a message. And what message would she leave anyhow? What could she possibly say in writing? She wasn’t sure she could say anything in person, much less on a scribbled note. In fact, it seemed like a good idea to use the four quarters in her pocket to grab the bus and go home, this having been more of an impulse than a plan.

  Then she looked up.

  The door was open. But it was only a dark square. No one was there.

  “Hello?” Meredith called. She jumped when a tall, straight-backed man—a sterner version of her own grandfather—stepped from behind the open inner door. “You’re Mr. Highland,” she said.

  He said gruffly, “We’re not buying anything.”

  “I’m not selling anything,” Meredith said. “I’m just looking for someone.”

  “Most kids who come, it’s for the band or athletics,” said the man, with the smallest whisper of a smile. “How c
an I help you then?” He seemed to relax. Merry saw that he wore the same kind of cardigan her grandpa seemed to have in every color. Mr. Highland’s was butter yellow as he stepped forward from the gloom behind him.

  “I’m looking for Ben,” Merry said, biting her lip, knowing that what she said must sound either cruel or insane.

  “What?”

  “I’m looking for Ben Highland. I’m a friend of his. Please tell him that Meredith Brynn is here.”

  “What kind of nonsense is this?” Mr. Highland said. He took a step back, looking into the invisible space behind him and half-closing the door. “My wife is a sick woman. We just buried our son. Is this some kind of prank?”

  Meredith cringed and turned away, turning up her collar against a breeze that suddenly felt cold. She wanted to turn and run down the steps, but she forced herself to speak up. “It’s not a prank. Ben. Your son or ... your grandson. Ben. He lives here....”

  “Who put you up to this? I saw you at our son’s memorial service two weeks ago. You were the girl who fainted.”

  “Yes, I’m that girl, Mr. Highland. You won’t believe me, but I know Ben. I just thought, since I didn’t have his phone number ... I have to know the truth about him. I can explain.”

  There was a creaking sound and a glimpse of white behind the man. A soft, sweet voice, like a low piping, asked a question Merry couldn’t understand.

  “It’s okay darling,” the man said to someone behind him. “No, it’s too early for Sasha. It’s no one.” The man pulled the door closed behind him and leaned out. “My only son is David. He lives in California.”

  “I mean Ben. Your son Ben. I know him.”

  “My son Ben is dead.”

  Merry’s mind shrieked and then settled, like a bird from a long flight, into a mournful peace.

  She said, “I know Ben, Mr. Highland. He’s blond with long hair in front, and he wears a leather jacket. A bomber jacket. He wears tight jeans with cowboy boots.”

 
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