What we saw at night, p.3
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       What We Saw at Night, p.3

           Jacquelyn Mitchard
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  “Allie!” she said again. My mom’s natural voice is a less-than-soothing bellow that makes neighborhood dogs howl. “Did you hear me?”

  “I’m sorry, Jack-Jack,” I told her. My mom’s name is Jacqueline.

  “Don’t call me that,” she said.

  “Okay, Jack-Jack,” I said.

  “Someone has to take this seriously, Allie Kim!”

  “Jackie, calm down,” Gina chimed in. “Allie is a very serious girl.”

  “And I’m an adolescent. I’m supposed to feel immortal.”

  Mom shook her head. “You have bruises all over you. If Rob Dorn is—”

  “He has bruises all over him, too, Mom. We’re doing this … mountain thing.”

  “In the dark?”

  “How do you think they climb Mount Everest?” I replied. “Fog and storms. No oxygen. You can’t see. It gives you character.”

  Gina laughed.

  “I’ll give you character,” Mom finally muttered. “And I see everything.”

  “That you do,” I agreed.

  She hit the shower. Gina bit her lip to keep from smiling back at me.

  I JUMPED OUT of the car while Mom was in mid-resumed eruption. She would have to circle around for twenty minutes and (maybe?) park illegally and get a ticket that someone would fix for her because she worked there. By then, she’d have calmed down.

  The Tabor Clinic is part of Divine Savior Hospital, which is huge, completely huge, with, like, three hundred doctors. But there were only three Tabors. At the Clinic, they call me Chinese Ginger. Gina is to blame, because she knows I am half-Chinese. But Dad must have been crossed with some hot European way back to leave me with straight auburn hair and weird amber-colored eyes. My mother is fair and Irish, although she kept the name “Kim” after they got divorced, for no reason that I could ever discern—given that I don’t look Asian and she surely doesn’t, either. Maybe it was to pave the way for Angela, my adopted sister from China. I hoped she would last after I was gone so my mother wouldn’t be childless.

  Whenever I hinted at something like that, at the inevitability of Angie’s outliving me, it drove my mother savage. It either made her think I hated Angela or that I was “giving up.” Maybe sometimes I was, but only for the moment.

  Anyhow: red hair is recessive and so is XP. Both parents have to be carriers—not of the disease, but of the gene. The kind that seems to occur mostly with Asian people, especially the Japanese, was not the kind I had. This was a mercy, again, if you can say a thing like that about a thing like XP, because other strains leave you with an IQ of 50 by the time you’re ten years old. The weirdest part is that the doctors can’t explain why this happens. Sun damage should have no effect on neurology. That’s why the Tabor family is convinced that there is a partner gene involved.

  Gina was already waiting for me in the lobby. I wasn’t surprised she’d beat us there. She hadn’t bothered to shower. “Ready to give up a ton of blood and skin?”

  “I live for it,” I said.

  “Good. Don’t spend that ten bucks all in one place.”

  I GAVE UP all my samples and then went to the neurology lab. They did a bunch of peering into my nose and eyes and making tones I had to raise my finger if I heard. Then I went in to wait for Dr. Andrew.

  I liked him. For an older graying guy, grandpa-aged, he always smells good and he’s super-fit, like all guy doctors (although not most nurses, I’ve observed). I would sometimes see him jogging when I got up at night before dinner.

  He gave me a hug, per usual. “You lost weight,” he said.

  “Nah, just buffing up,” I told him. I had lost a few pounds from Parkour, and although I was five-six with big shoulders and strong legs, it showed.

  “Nothing else? No problems?”

  “Well, I have this chronic problem with sunlight. I can’t get a base tan.”

  Dr. Andrew snickered. “And how’s that career in stand-up comedy coming along?” He flashed a big fake smile that would have looked dumb on anyone else his age, but on him it was just sweet and goofy.

  The drill took an eternity of two hours, like it always does. But I was grateful, as I always am, not to have to endure a full checkup every month.

  Nothing about me had changed. That was good news.

  Once I was home, I only had four or five hours to sleep—not enough. I was also freaking out, because hang-dropping your way down a ladder or the monkey bars is one thing, but trespassing on private property is another. Juliet kept insisting they were the same.

  I texted her: 2 Tired.

  She texted me: 2 Chicken.

  I texted her: Bring it.

  She wrote back: Live once!

  Rob picked me up around nine, after I was finished with what little school work I was going to do. It was June and junior year was a week away from becoming a memory. The gloves I’d bought for traction were already getting worn, but the light, grip-soled shoes were still good.

  “Are we both insane?” I asked him, when I got into the front seat of the Jeep.

  He smirked.

  Without XP, Rob would have been able to run Iron County High. There would have been minions and maids hanging off him. Instead, he was a shadow presence, like the rumor of a spectacular guy. He supposedly had “friends.” We all supposedly had “friends.” I was on the yearbook committee. Once a month they met at my house. Nobody knew what to say to me. Melanoma yet, Allie? Or—did you hear that Kayla and Jeremy broke up? She was out for two weeks … she’s on antidepressants. Random gossip about strangers unknown to me.

  They tried, at least the nice ones. When Juliet was still skiing, I’d mostly hung with Nicola Burns. I really liked Nicola, and we still did things sometimes—rarely, but enough that we could say we were “friends,” with quotes. The key: she never pitied me.

  Regrettably, in eighth grade, I’d also briefly hung out with Caitlin Murray, who went through this brief period of trying to be a saint. I don’t know what inspired it. She’d been a horrible, spoiled child, a cosmetic surgeon’s daughter, and had matured into a horrible, spoiled teenager. But then her parents got divorced; her mom was briefly single before marrying a guy who had been a singer in some ancient band. Maybe for a while, Caitlin felt the cold wind blowing through the cracks of the universe and briefly identified with the doomed and the lost.

  Then she did something to Juliet, and I never spoke to her again.

  It was Homecoming Dance of freshman year, although technically we were never really “freshmen” or “sophomores.” Because we had tutors and because we did everything fast to get it over with, we were a year ahead of everyone else. There’s so much happy bullshit and plain old babysitting in school that it would otherwise take us two and a half years to get through all four. At least that’s my understanding.

  Anyhow, our parents wanted us to try to have normal friends to the degree we could. We didn’t blame them. They had normal friends in high school.

  We tried to do what normal friends do. Go to the dance. Stand by the wall. Watch the Daytimers e-lab-or-ate-ly pretend to not notice you, until one of them bursts into tears because, Oh! She just feels so bad for you, and all her girlfriends have to run to the bathroom to comfort her! Meanwhile, most guys stand there and do boob-feeling pantomimes like some kind of idiot puppets. I have to admit, these guys don’t bother me, because they don’t pity us, either. Then there are the guys who unwittingly pretend to be robots whose batteries have died; they stare into space with no emotion in an effort to convey a mysterious, hidden, deep soul that doesn’t exist. I’m not a violent person, but it would have been bad for me to have an automatic weapon just then.

  This particular night also happened to occur during Juliet’s first year away from skiing.

  She was miserable and restless, and was packing more attitude than usual. She said that the people on her ski team used to call her “The Great and Terrible.” I believed it. After that last winter, she’d returned home with a tiny tattoo just above her navel ri
ng: the initials G.T. I don’t think that even Rob ever noticed it, although we’d all gone skinny-dipping many times. It was dark blue and hard to see in the dark, especially if you were distracted by the wink of the little piercing ring in the moonlight, which he would have been. But I saw why she’d earned the nickname that night.

  The band started to play an old song from the distant past, with a chorus that repeated “more and more of you.” It must have struck a chord in Juliet, because she just got out there. We’d scoured our parents’ discarded jewelry (in lieu of being able to shop during business hours) and Juliet had picked out eight impossibly slender silver rings her mom, Ginny, used to wear as a kid. Juliet called them her “ringlethingles.” That night, she wore one ring on every finger.

  Having balance like no one else, insanely agile in five-inch heels, she danced.


  The whole gym froze. It was as if someone had pressed a giant pause button. But the music played, even though the guys in the band stumbled over a few notes. No one came out to try to dance with her or even beside her. It was art: her hips in a perfect grind of a figure eight, her hands down at her thighs tickling an invisible piano, gradually working their way up to all that hair, her eyes closed in invisible ecstasy.

  When the song ended, Juliet walked out of the spotlight and jerked her head at me. I had to snap out of my own trance. Passing Caitlin Murray and some of her coven, I heard a purr: “You know, there are ways you can make your living at night. On a pole.”

  Juliet just kept walking. “Daytimers,” she said under her breath.

  Rob was outside already. He hadn’t even witnessed the Juliet-Caitlin exchange. But he said something right, something I never could, even though I saw the same sea of parked cars. “Do you notice the irony in our society?” he joked. “Wannabe size-zeros in a crowd of beached whales. America is this obscenely fat society of self-deniers. It’s fried mayonnaise balls or death, and everyone buys into the hypocrisy. It’s sad. These moms need to get out of their cars and dance. Look how unhappy they are!”

  Juliet beamed.

  That night I knew Juliet had somehow united us in an unspoken belief: we had it over the Daytimers. We were smarter and funnier. And when Juliet whirled in a dizzying constellation over Gitchee Pizza, I knew this to be truer than ever. We could do things they could never do, but at night. Even most of the jocks with heads the size of fire hydrants couldn’t do Parkour. It was hard. Harder than hard. Demanding of body, in flexibility and strength. Demanding of spirit, in creativity and fearlessness.

  Most of all, it demanded constant improvisation.

  AS WE DROVE to Juliet’s house, I asked Rob, “Do you think she’s already tried this?”

  “I wouldn’t be surprised at all, Allie-stair,” he said.

  For Rob, it was “Allie-stair;” for Juliet, “Allie-Bear.” I could never figure out why neither of them had nicknames. It made me feel like a stuffed animal they tossed back and forth, like the little penguin on skis Juliet still slept with.

  “Well, if she did, I’m glad,” I said.


  “Because she’s still alive and that means it’s doable,” I said.

  Before we even reached her house, Juliet was dashing out the front door with a sack that could have been Santa’s. Inside was a tripod plus a lot of power food, like bars and dried chili, as if we couldn’t have set everything up and then driven to the Gitchee for a meatball sandwich. We set up a camp in the little private beach park area about a quarter of a mile down the road from Tabor Oaks … and ended up eating a whole lot more than we needed.

  “Stupid,” Juliet muttered after we’d finished, standing up and burping. She could make a burp both graceful and adorable. “Now what do we do? My stomach’s about to explode. It’s going to take hours to digest.”

  “We have to wait hours anyway,” said Rob. “Why are we out here at ten o’clock? What the hell are we going to do except offer ourselves as a sacrifice to mosquitoes until everybody is nighty-night?”

  With the mention of the word nighty-night, the combination of two power bars and bowl of mush hit me like a cloud of pixie dust. “I’m … just so … tired.…”

  Juliet laughed. “Go ahead, Allie-Bear. We’ll wake you at the stroke of midnight.”

  I WAS CURLED up in the back of the Jeep when Rob roughly shook my shoulder.

  Apparently I’d been asleep for two hours. The first thing I noticed when I stumbled out of the door was that the wind had kicked up.

  “That weather crap has nothing to do with us,” Juliet said. “Unless it’s pouring.”

  I scowled at the waves. Mist tickled my cheeks. “Why didn’t you guys wake me up and tell me this was off?” I asked. “There’s no way we can trace now.”

  “Of course we can.” Juliet laughed. “It’s fine. And we just got back. We went to Gitchee for pizza and hung around talking to Gideon. He’s getting married again, by the way. This makes five times, a Northern Minnesota record.”

  I ignored her. You would never try anything on a wet surface or if you were sick or out of whack, even a little. David Belle—the son of Parkour’s creator and really the person who pioneered the sport—is no show-off. He says bare feet are the best shoes. And everything he did, he did with grace and safety. But I also knew I could calm those waves easier than I could stop Juliet going up that building.

  A tall rock wall already had been built around the construction site, probably meant to shelter any cars there if the lake was feeling frisky. We could have walked around to the front entrance. Instead, Juliet sprinted to the wall, grasped the top, pulling up to a standing position, and dropped onto a vast concrete slab that would eventually become the parking garage. I glanced at Rob. He took off after her. I had no choice but to follow.

  Juliet and I wore La Sportive Fireblades because they fit narrower feet. Rob had K-Swiss. That kind of shoe costs over a hundred, easy. Rob’s dad got the shoes for us for practically nothing, because of his job. He’d also bought us rock-climber gloves, with “sticky” pads on the fingertips and palms.

  In less than a minute, we were up the side of the skeleton of that new building, though we’d agreed we wouldn’t make this a speed course. We adjusted our headlamps. Faces in the dark are always silvery, but Rob’s was lighter, almost glowing. The waves were slapping down now. I could see whitecaps in the black abyss. When I was really little, and we moved to the north shore, the waves used to keep me awake—until my mother told me that they were saying, “Shush. Shush.”

  Years later, long after the time they had put me to sleep, I thought of them as saying, “Now? Now?”

  My pulse pounded as we stood silently on one of the construction workers’ platforms and studied the roof next door. It looked further than twelve feet away, the distance Juliet had assured us. (Later, I would find out it was twenty feet.) To me the roof appeared tiny, distant—as though we were going to try to jump from a mountaintop onto a dinner plate. Rob said, randomly, that the building was much nicer than the taller one upon which we were perched. Juliet sniffed. Of course the building was nicer: It was old, with thick walls, and the apartments were huge. Each took up half of one of the floors. Except the top floor. That was all one even huger apartment.…

  “So we’re going to land on top of some rich person’s roof like a bunch of giant raccoons,” I said.

  “Yeah, but one at a time,” Juliet said. “Remember, you drop and roll. No one will care. It’s two in the morning. And anyhow, the bedrooms are in the front bit, not back here.”

  Only later did I wonder: How did she know?

  “I’ll go first,” Rob said.

  Before either of us could speak, he backed up and hurtled himself over the gap and down. We heard him land, but for a second, both of us were afraid to look. Then we heard a yell: “It’s good! The wind’s behind you and the drop helps.”

  The waves were thrashing the shore now. His voice was almost lost.

  Juliet turned to me. “I do
n’t want to leave you alone,” she whispered.

  I could barely hear her over my thumping heart. What the hell were we doing?

  “I know you think that I don’t give a damn if I live or die,” she added. “And maybe I don’t. But I would never, not ever, willingly hurt you.” She hugged me briefly. “So you go ahead, Bear.”

  The moon burst from behind a mound of cloud and I didn’t give myself time to think. It’s just a jump, I said to myself. Then I was in the air, my back arched, my body poised to drop and barrel-roll. As I did, I expelled the air from my lungs.

  My eyes bulged as Juliet landed, softly as a gull, several feet past me.

  Parkour is not competitive. I would have been jealous otherwise. On the other hand, Juliet had saved me and bested me. I was jealous.

  “Down,” she said.

  We lined up at the edge. I could feel my heart pounding again. We would need to drop and hang from the edge of the roof and then swing, building up enough momentum to let go with one arm and grab the rail of the balcony below, about five feet to the right. After that, we’d grab the railing with our other hand and “muscle up” onto the balcony before the next drop—to another balcony, about five feet to the left.

  The balcony of the penthouse apartment was long, with room to spare for the three of us.

  Rob swung down first. But he shook his head in the shadows.

  “It’s harder than it looks,” he hissed. “I can give you a hand.” Obviously, Juliet wouldn’t allow that. Her biceps were like little apples under her jersey. She copied his exact moves and scrambled up the railing onto the balcony beside him. When my turn came, I gave myself a boost by taking a few steps and swinging myself two-handed. I’d planned to grab the railing of the balcony with my free hand and pull up, but I ended up hurtling myself over the rail and into my friends’ arms.

  At that moment, the sky above the lake split open.

  Two crippled fingers of lightning reached down for the black water. Only a few seconds passed before a deafening thunderclap. The air sizzled with the smell of sulfur. I winced. That stink is probably why the ancients believed lightning and thunder were harbingers of all things demonic. Why not? My idea of Hell could easily include being exposed on a balcony as a Lake Superior tsunami kicks in.

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