What we saw at night, p.4
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       What We Saw at Night, p.4

           Jacquelyn Mitchard
 
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  We crouched together.

  “Let’s see if there’s a fire escape,” Rob said. “And get the hell out of here.”

  We looked back toward the town. Another blast of lightning blotted out what few lights there were above Oxford Street. To my shock, I realized I was high enough up to spot my house on Trinity. If the thunder woke my mother, she would be up roaming and accelerating into hysterics after realizing I wasn’t there.

  I leaned over the balcony, looking for a way down that didn’t involve becoming a human lightning rod, when the lights in the penthouse came on.

  Rob pulled me back. Juliet scrambled into the shadows beside us.

  All I could see was white. One massive room: white walls, white carpeting, white woodwork. Except … right in the middle of the floor, next to the sliding doors, a young woman with dark hair—probably not much older than we were—was on her back. She wore only a bra. A man with his back turned to us was leaning over her. He seemed to be kissing her, then slapping her, then trying to pull her up.

  Rob swore, softly, under his breath.

  We stared for an instance in horrified silence as the man lowered his face to hers. He had short-cropped dark hair, darker than Rob’s, with a wide white streak of platinum blond down the back in what appeared to be a dyed slash of a lightning bolt.

  Rob pointed to the fire escape: a sleek ladder that descended straight from the far side of the balcony. The glass doors were floor to ceiling but he pointed and guided me toward it. We dropped to the balcony floor and crawled past a potted pine to get to the edge of it. I was already ten steps down when I heard Rob say, “Juliet! Juliet! Come on.”

  The rain began to fall, hard, cold drops on my hot face.

  Rob said again, “Juliet! He’ll see you!”

  Juliet didn’t seem to care who saw her. She descended languidly, almost like a ballet dancer, and leaped the last few feet to the ground. The rain began pounding. The inside of my eyeballs were wet.

  After a fevered sprint, Rob and I threw ourselves into the car. Juliet ran around in the dark, picking up her tripod. When she jumped into the back, I turned to her. She was messing with the camera, dripping wet though not breathing as hard as either Rob or me.

  “I think this stuff is okay,” she gasped. “I was scared it blew into the lake!”

  I couldn’t seem to catch my breath. “Was that girl … what was wrong with her?”

  Juliet lifted her shoulders. “She looked like she was passed out. And he was trying to wake her up.”

  Rob didn’t even seem to be listening to our conversation. “We triggered some alarm when we landed on the balcony—which is why the lights came on … right?”

  I said, “That girl looked dead.”

  “Dead drunk maybe,” Juliet dismissed, drying her camera with her shirt.

  “He was doing, like CPR, right?” I asked, mostly to myself.

  “Good date gone bad,” Juliet replied. Her voice was flat. “It scared the hell out of me, though, when that light went on.”

  The lightning crashed again. We heard a hollow boom—a tree or a light pole down. It happened all the time.

  Then Rob said, “Who has a date in a room with no furniture?”

  We all turned to the apartment. It was dark.

  I woke up screaming, my sheets drenched with sweat.

  At least Angie and Mom weren’t there.

  You try to breathe through things like that. Out with the bad air. In with the good air. Out with the bad mind pictures, in with the good mind pictures. That girl’s face was slack and rubbery. She was a young person with an old person’s skin. A dead person’s skin. I felt my throat constricting.

  My little sister has allergies. So we probably occupied the only house in Iron Harbor except the hospital and the assisted-living facility that had air conditioning. I rolled out of bed in my T-shirt and underpants and tugged at the window—panicking when it would not open, forgetting I had to slide the latch—then finally laid my face against the blackout screen and sucked in as much piney air as my lungs could hold. In the distance, I heard birds chirping. Back in bed, I began to text Rob.

  Then I realized it was noon on a Saturday. Rob and Juliet were asleep.

  As I should be. My mind raced, wondering why I didn’t have alternative, non-lethal pursuits and alternative non-criminal friends. Maybe I could stay away from Juliet for a little while. There was still Nicola. True, school was out for the summer, but she’d be on yearbook committee with me next fall, right? We could plan ahead. We could even do some non-yearbook stuff. We’d gone to the movies precisely six times in my life. Once I’d stayed over at her house, too. Plus her dad collected all these old pinball machines, all with horror themes, that were definitely fun. He also had the first edition of every single Stephen King book, signed. That was sort of cool.

  Come to think of it, I would probably have been better friends with Nicola if Juliet hadn’t taken up so much real estate in my friendship pasture. But how could I call Nicola out of the blue? I hadn’t seen her for months. (Hi, Nicola! I just saw a girl who was possibly dying and I’m totally creeped out, so I don’t want to hang with my best friend.…) My thoughts wandered back to the penthouse.

  The dead-looking girl probably was dead drunk.

  Why wasn’t there any furniture in the apartment?

  The guy was probably a construction worker. Maybe he’d snuck in there with his girlfriend and they’d gotten wasted.

  Why was he trying to revive her?

  They were just two innocent people looking for some privacy.

  Why was her face bone gray like that?

  Not for the first, fifteenth, or fortieth time, my friendship with Juliet disturbed my sleep—though I was sure, not hers.

  I had knockout pills I could take. I only needed them once a month, when I had cramps. Some XP kids had to take them routinely because they could never get used to the reversed biorhythmic schedule.

  I rummaged in the drawer and took two of them. Then I prepared to do my whole sleep ritual, which I had neglected the night before. I made my Goodnight tea with honey. I put fresh sheets on the bed. I jumped in and out of a dangerously hot shower, smeared myself with my one vanity—expensive cream that smelled of the Caribbean Islands I would never see—and pulled and pegged my blackout shades so the room was utterly lightless. Then I got out my big sleep mask, the one that was ten inches long and lay across my face like a soft log filled with flaxseed and lavender … and after all that, I still could not banish the lurid image: the guy with the platinum streak down the back of his head, jerking that girl’s limp body up off the white carpet.

  But that’s what you did to revive someone. It wasn’t gentle.

  Right?

  And if he really was a guy who was working on that new apartment and in there with his wasted girlfriend, the last thing he’d want is for her to barf all over a pristine sea of total whiteness. Of course she wasn’t dead. If she was dead, there’d be blood. And gunk. Bodily fluids. I’d spent half my life in a hospital; I knew. That place was spotless. Still … living-but-passed-out people shouldn’t be that pale.

  On the other hand, what was I basing this on? The number of passed-out-drunk people I’d seen in my life numbered zero.

  I lay back on the bed. The best way to put yourself to sleep is to listen for a sound that’s almost outside your ability to hear. I closed my eyes and searched for the loon and finally found it, a sound as familiar to me as my own music after all these years, yet still, even during the day, lonesome and eerie. My legs began to tingle. Please, let the pills kick in, I thought. Please.

  I woke up at eleven that night and quickly grabbed my phone.

  Rob had texted: Sleeping in.

  Juliet had texted nothing.

  THREE DAYS PASSED. Then three more. I didn’t hear from Juliet once. She didn’t answer any texts or calls. Here we go again, I thought. Another vanishing act. Rob became oddly withdrawn too, claiming he wasn’t feeling well. I couldn’t argu
e with sickness. The nights seemed to grow longer, even though summer shortened them. This was supposed to be our time together.

  I devoted myself to not thinking about Rob or Juliet. Not thinking about best friends is almost a discipline in itself. I tried to start a journal. Unfortunately, I’m no writer, and the entries kept coming back to Rob in ways that were at best embarrassing and at worst excruciating. I wondered if he was as shaken by what we’d seen as I was.

  Of course he was. That’s why he was ignoring me.

  On day seven, I decided to capitalize on our shaken-ness.

  Spending as much time in a hospital as we do, you learn a few things—namely that certain ER admittances must be recorded by the police, and while names are never given, you can deduce an identity from certain details: age, ethnicity, and reason for showing up in the first place. Juliet taught me how to access the police records the night we pushed Henry LeBecque into that open grave. (Male Caucasian, 17 yrs old, intoxicated, admitted to Tabor Clinic ER for panic attack, 12:17 A.M., November 1. Released 3:45 A.M. after exam.) I scoured the records for any sign of the woman with the gray skin. But there were no matches. In fact, not a single woman had been admitted to the ER the night or morning of our little stunt. So if that guy with the blond lightning bolt had been trying to revive her, he must have succeeded.

  On day eight, I found myself crying.

  Why wouldn’t Juliet and Rob return my calls or texts? What had I done? Was I going to spend the entire summer—or worse, the rest of my life—without the two people who knew and understood me better than anyone in the world? That night, I even tried to sleep, which was a very weird feeling, trying to fall asleep without all the daytime sounds of Iron Harbor to provide my bedtime lullaby. I clung to the belief that Juliet and Rob were going through some variation of what I was going through, that both of them had to be missing me, but both of them were scared to talk about what we’d seen.

  By that morning, crying felt like a job.

  The word clicked in my brain.

  It was summer. School was out. I should do what normal kids my age did. I decided to get a real job.

  THE FUNNY THING: my own mother didn’t even need a job. We could have paid off our house and bought new clothes every season and gone to Italy in August on what my father sent. But for the very first time, I understood why my mother needed to work. She needed a goal, a distraction, a purpose.

  Still, what could I do?

  Literally, I had no talents. I could type people’s papers. I couldn’t work at Gitchee; Gideon lit the place like a hockey rink. I could be a server in a dark restaurant, like that one in California where the waiters were blind. None were dark enough here. I could clean houses at night. I was good at harassing my little sister.… A-ha.

  I decided I was a babysitter. I made advertisements.

  REST EASY!

  EXPERIENCED BIG SISTER

  CAN BABYSIT AND CLEAN 4 U NIGHTS.

  AMAZING REFERENCES

  Okay. “Amazing” was pushing it. Not counting my mom, I had two: Gina and Dr. Andrew. I could add Juliet’s dad. He was a cop, although he’d never seen me do anything that required talent except paint my nails while eating popcorn.

  I pressed send. Then I waited.

  I GOT TWO calls that day: two more than I expected. There isn’t a lot of demand for sitters who only work the graveyard shift. One came from a single dad who was clearly drunk when he left the message. I didn’t call back and neither did he. The other came from a young woman, Tessa—a nurse at Divine Savior, no less, who worked midnights—with an infant named Tavish. (I had to ask twice if I was pronouncing it right. TA-vish.) She’d just moved to Iron Harbor into a building on Lakeshore Road. Although it couldn’t be the same building, as in that building (could it?) I decided to go and talk to her anyhow. We made a date for the following Tuesday.

  And almost as soon as I hung up—at least that’s how it felt—Juliet called.

  She sounded as chirpy as though we’d just spent the previous night on an online body-butter-buying binge.

  “Rob and I went to Duluth to scout,” she said all in one breath. “We found some good stuff for us.”

  I blinked. My throat caught. “May you be happy always,” I replied.

  “It’s a long drive though,” I heard Rob chime in from the background. “You take an hour or more to get there, you don’t have much time.”

  “But once you find spaces for traces, you have places to go to,” Juliet added. “You don’t have to search. You just sing.”

  “And you have the soul of the poet!” I managed. “What about me?”

  “We didn’t think you’d be into it,” Juliet said.

  Right, but you were into each other.

  “So do you want to be into it?” Juliet said.

  “Well, let’s see,” I said. “I’m busy. Cheer practice is Monday and Wednesday.…” Then I exploded: “It’s been ten days since we did that building but who’s counting and neither one of you bothered to do so much as text me more than five times, and that was only Rob! Why should I want to do anything with you?”

  “We love you,” Juliet said.

  I hung up.

  THAT NIGHT, I found myself in the Jeep with Rob and Juliet. We weren’t going to do Parkour. We were going swimming.

  Normally we’d borrow a boat from the snazzy side of Ghost Lake. But no one owned a boat that fit our needs: conveniently located and not very well tied up. We ended up in the bass boat owned by the gym teacher, Mr. Callahan—one of the few boats we used with the owner’s permission.

  Once we were out in deep water, Rob and I jumped in. We gasped as we splashed. It’s never warm. It’s so cold in fall that you could die, like the people on the Titanic. In summer, it’s cold enough to be a shock. The water always smells of pocket change, like old nickels and dimes, because of all the minerals in it. Minerals are why there are beaches on Lake Superior that have inches of black sand on them, and agates and garnets and gold that old people are always finding because this was all once a volcano. There was also a lot of glacier action and earthquakes and such that, for me, it was God’s way of saying, This is not land meant for habitation, people! Move to the Twin Cities … but what do I know?

  “I want to try Tabor Oaks again,” said Juliet, rocking back in forth on the boat’s little bench. Rob and I treaded water, teeth chattering, avoiding each other’s eyes. “They’ve put floors down now on the other building, to climb up.…”

  “Forget to call me that night,” I said. “Like you have the last two weeks.”

  “Fine,” Juliet said. “We’ll do it. It’s a good course.”

  “Who’s we?” I spat, enraged. “Am I not part of ‘we’?”

  “It’s good in a semi-sick way,” Rob said, ignoring me. “The course.”

  “Somebody lives in that place now,” Juliet said. “It was probably just, like, the mover, or the new owner’s brother or something and his girlfriend.”

  “How do you know?” I demanded.

  She shrugged.

  Again, later, long after, I would close my eyes in the dark, and see Juliet’s legs, the spokes of a starry-silvery-blue wheel, glowing in the dark that first night above Gitchee Pizza, and wonder, how-did-she-know-how-did-she-know?

  “Maybe it was some crazy drifter who dragged some random girl into an empty apartment on a stormy night,” Rob said.

  “How would he get in there?” Juliet answered, seriously.

  “I was kidding,” Rob muttered.

  Juliet shook her head. “Rape is a crime of opportunity.”

  “It isn’t usually, in fact,” Rob said. “You should know better, Juliet. Your dad being a cop and all. Some rapists plan very carefully. The smart ones do. They stalk people for weeks and months. If they’re really crazy, they work up this whole thing where the girl is coming out of her house—”

  “You read too many books, boy detective,” Juliet interrupted.

  “It’s a fact,” Rob said. Their eyes met.
They both smiled. “I deal just in facts, ma’am.”

  He ducked under the surface. Part of me hoped he would stay there.

  THE NEXT NIGHT, I had my job interview. I needed my mom’s car. It was eight o’clock, and there was still plenty of light left in the sky, so I wore a ball cap with my ponytail poking through the gap, and a long-sleeved shirt.

  The speed limit in Iron Harbor is 30. My mother’s car is a six-seat Toyota mini-van. Very used. But very sturdy.

  “Be careful,” Mom warned. “No speeding.”

  “Not even any drag racing,” I said.

  “Be back by—”

  “Morning. Yes, Mother. Do you know how many other mothers are saying, now, ‘Miss, I don’t want you out one minute after sunrise!’?”

  “Don’t change the subject Do you think you should put gloves on? I can still see everything. It’s light out.”

  “I already look like some old lady in an English mystery novel, Mom.”

  She started laughing. “You do. You look like that woman on an old TV show who was always solving mysteries by herself. I used to think, it was this little town in Maine and people were dying there like flies. How could there be a murder every week in a town that small?”

  How, indeed?

  I dumped my dinner plate in the sink, hugged Angie until her feet were off the floor and she was literally unable to breathe, and left my mother ranting at the beef stroganoff.

  Out on Island Road, I turned off at Red Beach, just to look at the water, since I was too early for my appointment at 9 P.M. The young mom had a certifying class, and it ended late. I’d learned I was going to meet Tessa’s mother, too, also a nurse—and of course, Tavish, the baby boy. I stopped for a while and just breathed. I rarely do this, but Island Road is a little strip that leads to the natural turn onto Lakeshore Road. That night, the lake was too breathtakingly beautiful to miss. Any scrap of daylight counts if you’re protected.

  Some of the beaches are black sand. Others, besides being black, have particles of red in them. The other half of the people who work in Iron Harbor—those who don’t work at the clinic—are on the boats, the ones that carry iron ore all over the world. The town tries to cover up the pit mines with fast-growing trees now, birch and maple. My mother says this once was a paradise with everything a person could want (especially if the person wanted mosquitoes). In any other country, Lake Superior would not be considered a lake, but an inland sea.

 
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