What we saw at night, p.9
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       What We Saw at Night, p.9

           Jacquelyn Mitchard
 
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  Besides, Tavish and I were in love. Together, with the help of YouTube, we tried to learn to tap dance. He wasn’t even a year old. But to Tessa’s delight, Tavish danced on top of my feet.

  The summer nights grew shorter. School was coming soon.

  One night Tessa said, “Did you know that somebody made a prank call to the police about this place? And they said there was a murderer in here?”

  I was changing Tavish, so I had a good excuse to look away. I had mastered the left-handed diaper change and was pretty proud of myself—especially since Tavish, now strong and solid, was a pretty squirmy challenge. I took a deep breath. “My best friend’s father is a police officer,” I said. “So yes, I heard about it. Small town. I didn’t know it was this very building though. Does that creep you out?”

  She nodded. “Kind of. You know what, Allie? I don’t want to creep you out, but I came out in the morning, and there was dirt, like, soil, all over my balcony. There was a plant knocked over up there. And I thought I saw a shoe print in the dirt. But the rain washed it away.” Tessa looked at Tavish and me and laughed. “It’s so out of the way and quiet here. You start seeing things.…”

  The shoe print? My jaw flickered. It couldn’t have been one of ours. We never got down that far.

  “Crazy stunts like that happen every summer, Tessa,” I replied. “Kids around here get bored. Believe me, I know.”

  “That’s exactly what my husband said. It’s the reason we ended up here, besides the fact that his company has a hub in Duluth. He says it’s an innocent place. But he’s never around!”

  I forced a laugh. “Maybe it was your own shoe. I do stuff like that all the time.”

  Tessa sighed. “You’re probably right. The only time I’m not spaced out is at work, now that I’m pregnant.…”

  Having finally managed to suit Tavish up in a new diaper, I lifted him and squeezed his little body against me. “You’re pregnant? Congratulations!”

  She rubbed her tired eyes and laughed. “Well, it wasn’t the plan, but thanks. I wanted to wait three or four years and get my Master’s to be a nurse practitioner. Babies happen, though.” She took Tavish from me and snuggled with him.

  Cautiously, I said, “You never see anyone around here who doesn’t belong here, do you?” I glanced out the floor-to-ceiling windows at the blackness of the lake.

  “How could I? I sleep half the time during the day, when my mom or James is here. I hope I get past the exhaustion stage of pregnancy pretty soon. The only person I ever saw was somebody that was James’s friend, the old doctor.…”

  “Stephen Tabor.”

  “He sent somebody to try to fix that old hole in the ground.”

  “What hole?”

  “Down there by the bluff. You know, where the parking lot drops off, the lawn by the lake? There used to be stairs that led down to this old boathouse that you can’t see from here. It was like a garage underground, in the wall of the bluff. It scared me because Tav’s walking now. But there’s this little door thing in the ground covered by the grass. You know how little kids are. Steve’s putting up a fence back here, next week, a big sturdy chain link fence. But if we’re staying here, particularly with two babies, we’re going to need a place that’s not crawling with traps.”

  My throat constricted. I forced myself to murmur something about being right, and something about being sensible, and that Tabor Oaks would end up being fine for a toddler with the right precautions.

  Tessa handed Tavish back to me. “You’re such a sweetie, Allie,” she said. “I don’t know what I’d do without you.”

  TWO MINUTES AFTER Tessa was gone, I’d wedged one of my shoes in the door to the apartment and one in the lobby door, just to keep both open and to be safe. (It would be like me to drop the keys and I didn’t want to take the chance that I might not be able to get back in). After that, I rocked Tavish to sleep. Once he was gently snoozing, I strapped him into his back carrier and headed down to the grassy area in back of Tabor Oaks, at the water’s edge.

  First, I just kicked around with my bare feet. Then, I sunk to my knees to get a closer look. All of a sudden Tavish awoke again and began to laugh. He pulled out strings of my hair while I scrabbled through the grass, hunting—

  There.

  Jesus. The door was hardly hidden. You couldn’t miss it, unless you were looking towards the lake from the parking lot, where Blondie had disappeared on me. But where the lawn sloped down near the bluff, it was plain to see: a clever mat of dry grass and weeds pegged to the ground by a tent stake and sealed with a thick lock. Tavish began to fuss, and though I hated to give him a pacifier, I found the one attached by a shoestring to his carrier and stuck it in his mouth.

  His lips bobbed angrily, but soon he surrendered and his eyes fluttered closed.

  What was down there? Boating equipment? A bundle of sailcloth? Something else? Suddenly, it seemed urgent to get the hell back into the apartment. Maybe I was paranoid. I didn’t really care. If someone wasn’t actually watching me, it felt as though someone should be. I thought of that old line from sophomore AP English, “By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes.” Standing up, I hurried back toward the apartment building. My phone vibrated in my pocket.

  Rob? I wondered, or hoped. I grabbed my sandal from the lobby door and took the elevator up. The phone stopped buzzing. I froze in the hallway on the fourth floor.

  The apartment door was closed.

  My sandal hung from the doorknob.

  Maybe Tessa’s mom was here. Or maybe her husband had come back early. It would be nice, as I’d finally get to meet him.…

  This was all fine. I was tired. If Rob had called, I wanted to use this as an excuse to reconnect. I wanted to tell him about what I’d discovered out there on the grass. Reaching back to pat Tavish’s sleeping head, I knocked him with my cast. No one answered. I rang the buzzer. Still no response. I fished in my pocket for the keys, but when I put the key in the lock, the knob turned easily.

  The door was open.

  Someone had closed the door but not locked it.

  “Tessa?” I shouted, my pulse racing again. “Teresa? James?”

  I’d left the living room lights on; now they were off.

  I stopped breathing. With both hands, I reached back to Tavish. He squeaked in his sleep. No one, not even a monster, would hurt a baby.

  My legs turned to jelly as I hurried back into the elevator and pushed the button to make sure the door stayed closed. The elevator alarm blared. Everyone in the county would wake up. Good. Fingers trembling, I dialed 911.

  A COUPLE OF minutes later, I heard the lonely sound of a single cop car’s siren. I could finally breathe when it screeched into the parking lot. Juliet’s dad was on a fishing trip; the next in charge, Mike Beaufort, was a man I barely knew. He was young and slim and built, kind of like a younger version of Will Smith, Northwoods style. He completely understood my panic after all that business a few weeks before. Better to take no chances, especially with the sleeping baby still on my back.

  There was no one in the apartment.

  I followed Officer Mike from room to room as he searched everything, even dresser drawers. He asked me some casual questions; they blended into yes, yes, yes. I agreed that there had been vestiges of light in the sky when I’d gone out with Tavish. I agreed that I might easily have turned the lights off. I agreed, lying through my teeth, that discussing all that freaky stuff about the murderer must have scared me—and I agreed that it made me curious about the hole in the ground. I agreed that it was stupid to investigate in the first place, but thought it was a boathouse. Yes, yes, yes.

  Officer Mike called Tessa at the hospital and asked her to come home. I wasn’t sure if I was ashamed or relieved. Probably both.

  After that, Officer Mike escorted Tavish and me back down to the door in the lawn. He said he had no idea what the door was—an old boathouse seemed about right, as far as he could tell—and he called his boss on his ce
ll. I could hear Juliet’s dad laugh on the other end. Yes, yes, yes: the door opened to a boathouse no longer in use. Just like we’d all suspected. A derelict stairwell down to the lakeshore was all that remained of the structure, and Dr. Stephen would get rid of it when he built the fence next week.

  That was that.

  I had to hand it to Officer Mike: the whole time, he didn’t once treat me as if I’d done the wrong thing or overreacted. Back in the safety of the Cryer apartment, I finally summoned the courage to ask: “So, who hung my sandal on the door? I left it wedged in the door in case I dropped my keys.”

  “That wasn’t very wise, to leave a door open,” he replied.

  “I know. But still, when I got back, my sandal was hanging from the door knob.”

  “If I had to venture a guess, I’d say someone came along, saw the open door, and closed the door for you. I’d say it was a kind neighbor who’s trying to avoid this misunderstanding, and I wouldn’t blame him or her.” He sighed, but his tone was not unkind. “It had to be one of the other building residents. Let’s go knock on some doors and we’ll find out which one.”

  Let’s not, I thought. Let’s not increase the percentage of people in Iron Harbor who think I’m nuts.

  “I’m fine now,” I said. “I guess you’re right. You don’t have to knock on any doors. Seriously.”

  Officer Mike sat with me, waiting for Tessa to return home. I laid Tavish in his crib and suddenly remembered that I hadn’t even looked at the text I’d received. I dug my phone from my jeans pocket.

  It wasn’t from Rob.

  It was from BLOCKED.

  Have fun but don’t get hurt.

  Instinct usually doesn’t lie. Human beings are the only animals who ignore instinct, but, like Rob once said, we’re trained out of it. Parkour was a way to rediscover instinct and tap into that buried ability to survive, no matter what the cost. That crawling sensation I’d felt by the lake, the same sensation I felt right now, amounted to a pure reflexive reaction: a warning that someone knew what I was looking for.

  Who would have known that?

  Only someone who was watching me.

  The next day, out of the blue, Juliet left a big bouquet of daisies on my porch, along with a handwritten note.

  Is the cold war over? Can I come and see you tomorrow night? Even for a movie? I’ll bring enchiladas.

  I texted her back: There’s never been any war.

  A moment later my phone rang. Juliet was a gush of “How are you?” and “I’m so sorry I haven’t stopped by!” and other crap that sounded as if it were coming from some random XP staffer at the hospital, not the best friend I thought I’d known my whole life. But I played along. I told Juliet that I was okay. Just recovering and babysitting. She was probably right that I had been hallucinating dead girls and demon drivers. For now, I was just laying low and getting better. Was that cool with her?

  “I guess it’s cool?” she said. If it sounded like a question, it probably was, for the both of us.

  How could I say what I felt? That she should have been with me the whole summer? Bringing me magazines and lip gloss, staying over, driving me around, taking me to the movies, French-braiding my hair, filling a bucket with soapy water and giving Angela pedicures, regaling me with her last triumph of running into Caitlin buying size 9 pants at the used boutique, then verbally slaying her?

  Nothing is more pitiful than asking for what you know you can never have.

  Along those lines, Rob wasn’t there, either.

  Sure, there had been the kiss. And the accident. Was he really that tortured over it? I’d forgiven him! I’d have dropped the rope if Blondie had been gunning toward me. I’d hid behind the fountain like a coward, hadn’t I? By now, Rob should have still been able to be one of my best friends if he couldn’t be my boyfriend. But the longer we went without communicating, the harder it became for me to make the first move. We should have been able to overcome any awkwardness. Rob should have been sending me crazy YouTube videos of Parkour, or just random stuff to make me laugh, or texting me dumb jokes with excruciating puns. (Don’t speak, my love. Just be mime.) He should have been buying me gross desserts too greasy and fattening for any girl to eat and ordering pizza from Gitchee with four kinds of meat—one that Gideon insisted was venison, but which made us want to count the dogs in town.

  Yes, with Juliet, there had always been that little crackle of caution, that inner voice: Be slow, take care, nothing is what it seems. Instinct. I knew to trust that now better than ever. But I’d never felt it with Rob. Something had changed though, as sure as you wake up after a night so hot you sweated through your sheets, and suddenly, it’s the fall. We couldn’t have stayed the same forever, even if none of this had ever happened. The tres compadres could only last so long. Somewhere deep inside, we all knew it.

  On the other hand, this was such a one-eighty that it seemed almost otherworldly. I was guilty; I hadn’t reached out. But that poisonous jealous notion kept snaking its way back into my brain, too. Maybe Juliet and Rob have finally hooked up. If that were true, they’d be ashamed, given what had happened between Rob and me before the accident. Still, they owed me, if not their loyalty, then an explanation. Right? They couldn’t be that selfish and spineless.

  Maybe we weren’t ever the tres compadres.

  In fact, although we’d always been friends, the true “forever” for Juliet and Rob and me—when we were inseparable—had been only the last three years, since Juliet stopped skiing.

  What had I done all the years before that?

  Not much. In fact, pretty much what I was doing now. Reading. Hanging with my mom. Watching the tube. I’d always been a little too omnivorous with TV, able to recite whole episodes from shows other kids never heard of, from The Twilight Zone to The X Files … although there was one difference now. I spent more time with Angie when we both were younger. I guess I really did have some babysitting experience.

  By the time she was about six, Angie could recite whole episodes from The Twilight Zone and The X Files, too. Sometimes, after a marathon of old reruns (and when Mom’s heroic efforts to keep her eyelids aloft were finally met with defeat) Angie and I would even sneak out into the backyard late at night. We would lie on our backs and I would show her things other kids don’t see during the day. If you could lie still, a black porcupine would walk right past you, or a spectral opossum, carrying her grotesquely beautiful babies on her ridged back. During those days, I thought often of deaf people, how some make a choice to depart from the world of the hearing. It just doesn’t have much to do with them, as the Daytimers’ world increasingly had less to do with me.

  A hard truth: even those days were lost to me now. Angie was worried about me, yes. But she no longer relied on me to explain why certain creatures only came out at night.

  Three nights after Juliet and I spoke on the phone, I could have sworn Rob passed my house after dark and slowed down. The night after that, I was sure of it. The sound of his Jeep was unmistakable; I didn’t even have to part my blinds. The next night, he stopped. I lay still in my bed, listening. A door slammed, but the Jeep sped off into the night. He couldn’t bring himself to see me. Why? One part of me longed for him. The other part seemed to be closing up, like moonflowers do at night, and hiding the most private self away.

  I’d been too naked, too honest with him that night in Duluth. Maybe he felt the same, as though he’d ripped some part of his soul and left it behind in my hands. Neither of us could pretend it was just a moment that happened because he was a boy and I was a girl. If it had been like that, if we hadn’t been best friends beforehand, there would have been two possible answers. Both started with “no.” That’s what girls did when guys wanted to have sex with them, wasn’t it? No, I don’t think I’m ready. Or: No, not now, it’s a big step. I’d done the opposite. I’d said, right here, right now. Or, if not, then whenever you say, with you.

  How could we go back to before?

  AS SOON AS the do
ctor gave me an okay to be active again, I was able to channel my anger and confusion. I poured it straight back into Parkour. I tested my weight on my little sister’s old swing set, which she never used anymore, and found that it was stable. Slowly, I began to swing, forcing myself to rely on and work my bad arm.

  They say a broken bone heals stronger than before, and I had no reason to believe otherwise. But at first, using it hurt so much it made me want to give up, or at least to throw up. I asked for Vicodin. If you’re presumed to be a short-timer in the world of the living, doctors usually give you almost anything you want. (Although I learned from the absurd amount of TV I’d watched recently that this is not true for those on Death Row.) I doped up but kept going. When the pain consumed my whole being and not just my arm, I wrapped it in cold packs and took my knockout pills.

  I used weights and my own weight. I grunted and sweated through progressively greater numbers of pushups and finally pushups only on my right arm. Sometimes I exercised for two or three hours, despite the torment of the mosquitoes. When I started to do jumps, I first had to re-master my balance. I worked until standing on the top crossbar of my sister’s old swing set became as natural as standing on the ground, and I never missed landing my back flip.

  The nights grew longer and colder; the mosquitoes began to fade. The air emboldened me. Too much time had passed. If I really was a lone Dark Star, what could be braver than making the first move? Finally, one night, I picked up and put the phone down ten times—and then managed to call Rob’s landline. Worst case scenario: I wasn’t calling him, I was calling his dad.

 
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