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LETTERS FROM THE LEDGE
by: Lynda Meyers
“How do you become something you’re not?”
”What do you want to become?”
“What I’m not.”
“What are you now?”
– Life as a House
I haven’t learned much in the last seventeen years, but of this I’m fairly certain:
What you think you know doesn’t have much to do with reality.
I went back out on the ledge tonight. It’s a long way down. Of course, it’d be a long way up too, if you could fly. Madison Avenue looks pretty small from fifty-five floors up, but height does have its advantages. I’ve got a great view of all the other buildings on this block, but as far as I can tell, nobody else likes the ledge. I find that a little hard to believe, living in this soul-sucking crowd of eight million. Maybe that’s just me.
My parents are out tonight. They’re always out–even when they’re in. Last week I added a second piercing to my lip, but so far they haven’t noticed. I’ve stopped cutting temporarily–decided to try the ledge instead.
I guess I just want Newton to be wrong about gravity. I know the flying part doesn’t hurt. It’s the landing I’m worried about.
When I was a kid I used to dream about being a pilot. I had a bunch of model airplanes and I would fly them off our balcony, then ride the elevator down and try to find them. Of course they were never there, so I figured once they left the balcony they must have become real airplanes–Pinocchio style. I know better now, but there’s a part of me that still wants to believe in miracles. When you make the leap, can you really become what everyone else says you can’t?
My aunt is an emergency room nurse. They have all kinds of nicknames for people who come in with different problems. I overheard her tell my mom once that they have a special name for jumpers. It’s called: “Failure to Fly”.
“Prison life consists of routine, and then more routine.”
– The Shawshank Redemption
“Would you mind telling me exactly what it is you’re looking for out there?”
Paige ignored the comment. She sat with her knees pulled up along the metal grates, arms wrapped tightly around them, back against the cold brick.
Nate wandered over to the window and dipped his head under the open sill. “I mean, you’ve been out here for half an hour. Aren’t you freezing?”
Paige’s head bobbed mechanically. She stared off into the night and wouldn’t answer him. He touched the back of his hand to her bare arm and swore under his breath, ducking back inside to grab a blanket off the couch. He opened the window a little wider and spoke gently into her ear. “Here. Lean forward.”
She did as she was told, and he slipped the blanket around her shoulders, tucking it in around her. As he leaned past he caught scent of her hair and stopped momentarily to breathe her in. That breath was always accompanied by an ache he couldn’t name, but he let it in anyway. Then he stopped in front of her mouth and brushed her lips, willing her back. Suddenly her breath caught and she leaned forward, softening into his kiss.
Nate pulled back ever so slightly and watched her eyes open. “Hi there.”
She smiled. “Hi.”
“And you’re warm.” She slipped her hands out of the blanket and pushed them up his chest.
He wrapped her face in his hands and kissed her again, this time with intention. “Yes. Very.” His mouth curved up in a playful smile. “You want to come in now?”
“In a minute.”
Nate turned his head and looked out, while nonchalantly moving his hand slowly across her waist and then turning slightly north. “Are you trying to tell me that a bunch of cold concrete and metal is more interesting than this?”
Paige laughed, carefully removing his hand and threading her fingers through his. She kissed his fingers slowly, one by one. “No, but I am rather fascinated by the view.”
He smiled down, expecting to find her looking at him, but instead her eyes were focused elsewhere.
Paige looked up, but pointed her finger absently in the opposite direction.
“What are you pointing at?”
She shrugged innocently. “Them.”
Nate looked more than a little confused. “The… million or so people in our neighborhood ,or…?”
“No, silly–them!” Finally her face followed her finger and pointed more specifically in the direction of a lit balcony at the top of the building just across the way and slightly to the left of them. A young man stood at the edge with his arms spread out like an eagle.
Nate sucked in a full breath. “Holy sh-”
“Wait!” She put her finger over his lips as he leaned his head further out the open window. “He’s not alone.”
She focused his attention toward a window in a building to their right, where the silhouette of a young girl was backlit and visibly still. Focused, it seemed, on the same young ‘bird-to-be’.
“So you’re both watching the same kid? That’s great, you can compare stories! Are you crazy? I’m calling the police!” Nate started to push his body backwards through the window.
She turned her head to call after him but didn’t make a move to follow. “He’s been out here three nights in a row Nate. I don’t think he’s going to jump.”
Nate stuck his head back out the window. “Did you say three days?”
“Nights, actually. I’m not here during the day.”
Nate whipped his head in the direction of the lit balcony, agitated by his helplessness. “Well what’s he doing out there? Are you saying you don’t think he means to jump?”
“Seems to be the million-dollar question.”
“And this doesn’t… bother you.”
“Look Nate, all I know is, every night he comes out here about the same time and walks the ledge. Sometimes he sits. Sometimes he sticks his arms out like a bird–like that.” She pointed to his current posturing. “Sometimes it looks like he’s reading or maybe writing. Then he goes back inside. The next night? Same thing. At least so far.”
Paige was uncharacteristically calm, considering the circumstances, which concerned Nate almost more than anything else. He looked again to the right, but couldn’t find the window she’d pointed to before. “And the girl?”
“A mystery as well. She sits in her window and watches him. I think she journals a lot. Sometimes there’s a light on in her room, but mostly she’s in shadow. I noticed her first, actually. Kept trying to figure out what she was staring at, sitting so still for so long.”
“Maybe she’s a spy and she doesn’t want him to know she’s watching him.” Nate spoke in an exaggerated whisper, trying to lighten the mood, but Paige was buried in thought again. He watched her pull the blanket more tightly across her shoulders. The irony of her sitting on the fire escape was not lost on him.
She blinked a couple of times. “Maybe she just wants to hide.”
“And you can tell that by her silhouette?”
Paige just shrugged, her eyes focused on something far away. “Maybe she doesn’t know what she wants.”
“Are we still talking about her?”
Paige glared and waved him inside.
After Nate pulled his body back through the open window, she climbed in after him. “And you didn’t feel like calling the police, even the first time you saw him?”
Paige shook her head, shaking out the blanket and refolding it. “Oh, I was shocked initially, just like you. But if you watch him, it’s kind of fascinating, really. I don’t think he’s serious, but I can’t explain why. It’s just a feeling I get.”
Nate couldn’t argue that one. “It’s just…I gotta tell you, it’s a little morbid–you watching him like that. I mean, what if he jumps and you have to watch him die? Or worse–what would it be like reading tomorrow’s headlines and knowing you could have done something?”
Paige became increasingly irritated. “Something about what exactly? A guy who likes to spend time out on his balcony in New York City? What do I know? Maybe he’s a scientist, studying the effects of the wind on wispy thin bodies at high altitudes.”
“A little young to be a scientist, don’t you think?”
She laid the blanket across the back of the couch. “Look, it’s not my problem. And I’m not his mommy.”
Paige disappeared into the bathroom and left Nate standing by the window.
He peeked out through the curtains one more time and sure enough, the boy was still there. “No, you’re not his mommy. But where is she? And why isn’t she the one watching him?”
“My God, Brendan! What is that smell?” Ginny wrinkled her nose and swayed a bit, leaning up against the doorframe to steady herself.
“It’s called ‘Boy.’ Abercrombie just came out with it. Do you like it?”
She took short little sniffs, as if she was checking the milk carton for freshness, afraid to suck in a whole nauseating lung-full. “I’m not sure. Smells like a mixture of burnt grass and dirty gym socks to me.”
Brendan dipped his eyebrows up in genuine admiration. “Good guess.”
An abnormally long pause ensued. Brendan watched as she tried desperately to focus on his face. “Is there something I can do for you, mom?”
“I didn’t realize I needed an appointment to talk to my own son.”
“Well, we pretty much exhausted the whole ‘what’s that smell’ conversation so I figured maybe we should move on.”
Her eyes were so glazed that Brendan wondered if she hadn’t gotten a better whiff than he realized, but then she lurched forward unexpectedly and when he caught her arm the air filled with the smell of stale brandy–her crutch of choice.
Brendan’s head tilted as he tried to get a better look at her. “You ok?”
Ginny straightened. “Of course I’m ok.”
He was skeptical, but used to the routine. “If you say so.”
“I came in to tell you I bought you some new t-shirts. I’m getting tired of seeing you in black all the time. It’s starting to feel like a goddamned morgue around here.” Whenever she said “goddamned” her New Jersey accent came out from behind its carefully practiced masque of etiquette. She never seemed to notice and it never failed to amuse him.
“They’re in the living room by the front door.” She stumbled out of the room before he could protest – much less say thank you.
Brendan chuckled softly, shaking his head as he pulled open the dresser drawer and lifted up the socks that covered the ashtray, then pulled out the snuffed joint and lit it again. “A very good guess, actually.”
“A real man admits his fears.”
“Paige? Have you seen my briefcase?” Nate walked out of the bathroom with his jacket slung over one arm, loosening his tie.
“Have you checked the West Wing?”
She shook her head, smiling. “You set it down by the door when you came in.”
“Oh. Right! Thanks.” Nate grabbed up the leather satchel and began unloading file folders and a laptop. “We just secured three new clients and all of them are interested in both web development and a marketing package–they want everything we have to offer.”
“Wow. That’s great!”
“You’re telling me. I’ve had my eye on someone I’d like to hire but I needed to make sure I could pay him first. Now it won’t be a problem.”
Her hesitation was slight, but pointed. “You do realize you possess a strange combination of business savvy and compassion that may very well break you some day.”
“Well, that’s why I hooked up with a five-star accountant, so she can keep me from hiring all the homeless guys down at Battery Park and going broke in the process.” He finished with a gallant sort of smirk.
She smiled indulgently but shook her head. “Laugh now. We’ll see what Peter says next time he cooks your books.”
“I know what I’m doing Paige. My company is doing just fine.” His voice scraped against the surface of the challenge.
“I know that, I just find it a little scary that we live in a studio apartment and you can still misplace your briefcase.”
Paige continued washing dishes at the tiny sink in their kitchen. A light breeze from the open window blew the pale yellow curtains toward the suds and then sucked them back against the screen. The night air beckoned. Still, it felt good to do something brainless after pouring over ledgers all day long. “God forbid we should ever move into a house.”
“Mmm. I like the way you think.” Nate came up behind her and threaded his arms through hers, pretending to help wash the dishes while kissing the back of her neck. “Want some coffee? I’ll make a pot.”
“I thought you had to work?”
“I do. Hence the offer of caffeine–or, whatever else you might have in mind.”
His lips brushed against the base of her neck, launching a shiver that landed somewhere south of her belly button. She shook her head clear. “You don’t play fair.”
He breathed in the scent of her hair and slid his hands down the outside of her arms. “I’m not trying to cheat. I just asked if you wanted some coffee.”
Paige smiled and looked back over her shoulder. “I’d better not. I’ve had way too much caffeine today. I’ll be lucky to sleep as it is.”
He slipped his soapy hands under her blouse. “I’m pretty sure I could help you with that.”
She stepped out from under him, reached for a towel and tossed it playfully at his face.
He tried to look shocked but his eyes were laughing. “What? I was just trying to help.”
Her kiss was perfunctory–a mere drive-by. “Why don’t you get your work done first? I’m going to sit outside.” She started to climb through the window but stopped short. “We’ll talk later.”
Nate hung the towel on the peg next to the fridge and proceeded to mash his nose against the windowpane like a third-grader. “You promise?”
Paige rested her forehead against the opposite side of the glass until they were face-to-face, grinning at his schoolboy antics. She could feel the heat from his body through the bottom of the partially open window. His warmth pulled her toward him and the sudden surge of feeling gave her a thrill that bordered on panic. For reasons she could hardly explain, times like this drew her deeper in love with him.
“Nate?” She stared, searching for the words buried in the last two years of rubble. He’d been infinitely tolerant of her sudden mood swings, patiently holding the lamp as she tried to dig her way back to ground zero. “Thanks.”
Nate looked from the floor to her face. “Hey–that’s what friends are for, right?”
“Yeah, but I don’t usually kiss my friends like I kiss you.”
His eyes were soft but full of life and light, dancing across the surface of the tension. “Thank God!” She smiled with a tenderness that betrayed her normal shell. It was a small victory, but he decided not to push his luck. He pointed at the glass and smirked playfully. “And don’t forget–we need to talk about the office party.”
She immediately rolled her eyes. “You mean the one where the guy who signs my pay checks that I have absolutely no feelings for had to give me a ride home because I drank too much but absolutely nothing happened? Sure, we can talk about that–right after you give me one of your world famous massages.”
A muscle twitched in Nate’s jaw as he backed away, shaking his finger at her. He nearly tripped over the coffee table in the process. “You’re good Paige. You’re very good.”
She turned and sat with her back against the bricks. Nothing relaxed her more than sitting on the fire escape, listening to the sounds of New York. Being in a city that didn’t sleep had never bothered her. She didn’t sleep much either, and the perpetual lights made the finality of the darkness somewhat easier to bear. Besides, the unspoken presence of her fellow insomniacs was strangely comforting.
The city’s low-level electric hum was an undercurrent to every other sound. Its white noise kept all the other voices at bay. The spring breeze was unseasonably warm and inviting, bringing with it the stench of raw sewage. She shook her head with a smile. The address said uptown, but it still smelled like Queens.
And then there was bird-boy. She found herself thinking about him even when he wasn’t there, like a movie that ends without a decent plot resolution. Sometimes she made up beginnings, middles and endings to his story. She imagined him as a young rock star with more money than sense, or a tortured Emo poet. But mostly just a messed-up kid.
The way he massaged the ledge seemed to convey more angst than death wish. Back and forth he went, carefully putting one foot in front of the other, looking more like a circus performer than a boy on a wide brick balcony. Then again, maybe he just wanted to fly away. Sometimes he would sit, then lay down on the ledge, his arm dangling haphazardly over the side, so still he might as well be dead already. Lack of movement will do that for you, she realized with some gravity–make you feel like you’re as good as dead.
Somehow she understood him without knowing him. If life was a circus then she’d spent the last two years on the high wire, walking the line between reality and insanity. This was all very normal, she’d been told. But none of the words meant anything when the thick black water rushed in over her head and the drowning began. Sometimes she thought about just taking that last big breath of thick, muddy water and letting it all end, but her end would be in a different, much scarier place than the morgue.
In general, there was no excuse for voyeurism, but she watched people all the same. It was her way–a habit born of shyness, fueled by betrayal, and necessitated by life in a city like New York. Some people watched soap operas, she just watched people. It was pure escape, like losing yourself in the characters in a book and wondering what makes them tick even after you put it down for the night. That’s what the boy on the ledge had become for her–a story other than her own to concentrate on.
After a minute or two, she pulled her blouse the rest of the way out of her pants, finishing the job Nate had started. When she stole a glance back through the window, he was lying casually on their Murphy bed in a t-shirt and boxers, going over some papers. He spied her watching and patted the spot next to him without looking up. That goofy smile of his was already becoming her undoing. The trembling that seemed to start somewhere deep within was only ever quiet in his arms.
She ducked back through the window, inhaling one last breath before closing it the rest of the way. Suddenly Nate was behind her again. His thin t-shirt would have been a scant barrier had he not removed it in his travels between the bed and the window. He grabbed the hem of her blouse and began lifting it over her head as she shut the curtains.
“I knew you’d come around,” he whispered into her hair.
She turned into his kiss. “Thanks for waiting.”
“What you think you know doesn’t have much to do with reality.
I hope I’m not the first one to tell you this.”
– Life as a House
Sarah took a deep breath and thought about fish. It was the only thing that worked. If she closed her eyes she could almost smell the cannery instead of the sewers. Some people might argue they were equally bad, but to Sarah the smell of fish brought peace and tranquility unlike anything else the city had to offer.
“Hey! Sarah–wait up!”
She turned quickly. Jillian was sitting on the wall outside the school. Apparently she’d blown right by her. Jillian’s jet-black hair was perfectly styled and unmoving, despite the breeze.
“What’s up?” Sarah kept walking, causing Jillian to scramble for her books and catch up.
Jillian looked miffed. “I have to have a reason to walk with you?”
“No. I’m just in a hurry.”
“Where’s the fire?”
Sarah shrugged. “No fire. I just have a bunch of stuff to do.”
“You always have a bunch of stuff to do, but you never actually do anything.”
It was true, but Sarah didn’t need Jillian to tell her that. She was just anxious to get home.
“Let’s do homework together tonight.” Jillian suggested. “Maybe I could come over after dinner?”
Sarah smiled, thankful for Jillian’s friendship, which often pulled her head out of the sand long enough to take a few necessary breaths. “Ok. Sure. Sounds good.”
Jillian’s eyes narrowed. “Are you alright?”
“I don’t know. You just seem kind of pre-occupied lately.”
“Just looking forward to summer I guess.”
“Sarah? It’s only April sweetie.”
Jillian opened her mouth to say something else but her phone went off and she unfolded the screen, firing back a text in a blur of finger movements. She flipped it closed just as quickly, only to find Sarah staring at her. “Fastest fingers on the east coast!” she winked. “I gotta go. I’ll be over around seven. Maybe seven thirty.”
Jillian blew away just as quickly as she had appeared. A cold wind followed and Sarah popped her collar up, waving as she rounded the corner, but the toe of her shoe hit something solid and she stumbled, spewing books in every direction.
When she looked back a guy about her age was sitting on the ground looking up at her through glassy eyes. He seemed generally amused by the physical comedy of it all. His smile caught her slightly off guard. Nice teeth. Must have cost a pretty penny.
The rest of the picture was incongruent as well. Printed olive drab t-shirt over a long-sleeved thermal, Tommy jeans and a pair of beat-up, orange Converse All-Stars with rips up and down the sides. His dark mass of curls was a mess and he was obviously stoned, partially propped up against the wall with his legs sprawled out on the sidewalk like some vagrant. The brown sack beside him could have held any number of things and she wasn’t about to start guessing.
As she stooped to pick up her books he didn’t move a muscle. He just kept staring at her and trying not to laugh. Her anger sparked and suddenly she didn’t care if he had a knife or a gun or a pound of heroin in that bag.
“You think it’s funny? What, you just lay here and wait for people to trip over you so you can laugh at them? Nice manners, bozo.”
His smile faded. “What did you just call me?”
Her heart started to beat against her chest.
“Bozo, was it?”
She was silent, unwilling to make a scene. There were still a lot of people around, so she felt relatively safe, but he straightened, then stood up. He had her by at least six inches. Her feet froze to the concrete.
“Like the clown, right?”
She nodded and he stuck out his hand and flashed a smile. “Then Bozo it is. Nice to meet you…”
He was obviously waiting for her name in return. When he started to sway she caught his hand reflexively to steady him. Why she had even touched him she had no clue. “It’s Sarah. And there’s a coffee shop right over there. You might want to grab a cup before you go home.”
She let go of his hand and walked away. He was talking to himself as she left, chuckling out loud. “Coffee shop…Ha…”
She clutched her books tightly to her chest as she walked, astounded that she had even talked to someone like him. At least he was a jolly drunk. Stoner. Whatever he was. Around the next block she ducked into a Starbucks, ordered a shot in the dark and sat down. She had just started going over her notes when stoner-boy walked in and plopped down next to her.
“Are you following me?”
“You told me to get a cup of coffee. So I am.”
The pounding started in her chest again. It was all she could do to keep her breathing at an even pace. He watched her with that same amused sort of disinterest.
“So, what’d you get on the exam last week?”
She whipped her head around. “What? What did you just say?”
He stood up and started for the order line. “The test in AP Bio. What’d you get?”
Her mind was racing and sweat started trickling down the middle of her back. She had to get out of there. What kind of a psycho stalker–
He was standing in the line with his back to her, then turned around and let his blue eyes pierce hers, as if he knew exactly what she was thinking. “I sit three rows behind you.”
All the breath came out of her lungs at once. She swallowed hard and he turned back around. She tried to force herself to relax and steady her breathing. Her mind searched the AP Bio seating chart, but it was no use. She spent most of her school day in a daze. She wouldn’t have recognized anyone in that class except maybe her lab partner and a few of the other kids who sat around her.
He came back with a drip coffee, black, and sat down next to her again. Her arm moved away from him almost instinctively. His eyebrows twitched slightly, but somehow his eyes looked clearer than they had before. “Are you always this jumpy?” Again with the infuriating amusement at her obvious discomfort.
“Only around crazy people. Are you always stoned?”
He smiled, softer this time. “Only on Tuesdays and Thursdays.” He was gauging her reaction. Willing her to look him in the eye. He was being almost…charming.
She was still flustered, confused by his opposing personalities. “Tell me again why you’re bothering me?”
“Well, I didn’t want you to think I go by Bozo. And I wanted to apologize. For putting my legs in the path of your escape.”
“Escape? What are you talking about?”
He dropped his head and stared into his cup for a minute, then lifted it back up and held out his hand. “I’m Brendan, by the way.”
“Yeah. I got that part already.”
He leaned closer and her heart sped up. His voice was lower and she was forced to lean his direction to hear what he had to say. “Listen you may not know this, but you were followed here.”
Underneath the lingering smell of pot stuck to his clothing he actually smelled nice, like a combination of soap and shampoo and shaving cream, but how he shaved around those piercings at his lip line was a mystery. Her heart wouldn’t stop thundering in her ears long enough to register what he was actually saying.
“Uh, no–I’m pretty sure I get that. I mean, you’re sitting right next to me.”
His eyes were serious. “Not by me.”
“Listen, I don’t need your help to get freaked out by this city, so just stop it, ok? Besides, why would anyone follow me? I don’t even know anyone.”
“Exactly. But don’t worry. He didn’t come in.”
“He?” She looked down at Brendan’s hand gripped around his cup and instead saw the hairy man-hand from her childhood instead. She gasped audibly.
“Oh, that?” He lifted the sleeve of his thermal just slightly above the scar that was showing to reveal it more fully. “Sorry. Does that freak you out?”
“No. It wasn’t that. But what is that from?”
He shook his head. “Never mind. Anyway, when you walked away all hunched over your books like that, there was this guy–you walked right by him. You didn’t see him but he sure saw you. He got up and started following you. So I followed him.”
“Why would you do that?”
He thought about that for a minute. “Because I wouldn’t want my being in your way to have resulted in something bad happening. And besides, you were in your own little world. You were worse than stoned–you were oblivious. And oblivious will get you hurt.”
“I don’t know whether to be mad or grateful or if I should even believe you.” She sat back, exasperated and looked out toward the window. “So where is he now?”
“I don’t know. When you came in here he kept walking.”
“So how do you know he was following me? He could have just been walking the same direction for a while. And how do I know you’re not just totally making this up to hit on me?”
“Well, first of all, you’re just going to have to trust me. And second…you’re just going to have to trust me.”
She shook her head in disbelief. “Why should I trust a total stranger?”
“I’m not a total stranger. We have a class together, remember?”
He was smiling again, and it was hard to resist feeling comfortable around him. She lightened visibly, unable to keep a straight face. “Or so you say.”
He sat back, tapping his fingers on his cup. “The thing is, this is New York, and like it or not, the weak ones get picked off. You can’t look scared and expect to survive.”
She looked him straight in the eye. “Well what if I am scared?”
His hesitation stopped her short. She realized what she’d revealed and wished she could pull the words back into her mouth, but there they were, hanging in the air between them, ready to vanish as soon as the next sentence pushed them out of the way.
“Then I would have to say you’re not alone.” His eyebrows twitched and he swallowed funny. “But you still can’t let it show.”
“Where I come from that’s considered being two-faced. Not exactly the best plan if you want to make friends.”
“Yeah, well–not everybody’s looking for new friends.” Brendan sat back against the chair.
She closed her book and set it on the table in front of her. “On the test. I got a seventy-nine. I’m barely passing that class.”
He took a long sip of coffee and smiled. “Well, you sure look studious.”
“How about you?”
“No dice, Bozo. What’d you get on the test?”
Her eyes registered the shock. “Shut up!” He raised his eyebrows and shrugged like a little boy wearing a silly smirk. God he was cute. She swallowed again and took a sip of her coffee. “Geez. That makes me feel just great! Maybe I should try getting stoned more often.”
“More often than what? Never? Don’t be ridiculous. And you don’t have to impress me.”
“In what universe is getting stoned an impressive quality?”
He looked hurt by that comment and again she found herself wishing she could erase the words from the atmosphere. “I gotta go, but uh…if you need help, let me know.” He stood and started for the door.
She shook her head. She’d done it again–let her mouth speak before her mind could consider the impact. It was ending badly–again–but she didn’t know how to make it right.
He pulled the bottom out away from his stomach to look at it, as if he had to remind himself which one he put on. “You like eagles?”
“I’ve never met one, but I like what they stand for.”
She shook her head. “Freedom.”
His eyes locked on hers for a brief moment and then he was gone. She sat for a while, wondering if what he’d said was true, dreading the walk home. There was one good thing about New York, though. If you traveled by day the streets were almost always crowded and that meant plenty of witnesses. She ducked out of the coffee shop and practically ran home.
“So tell me, what’s so special about this summer?” Jillian was lying across Sarah’s bed with her head and arms hung over the edge, limp like a rag doll. She’d finished her homework and was bored, waiting for Sarah to finish an essay.
“I’m spending it with my aunt and my grandparents, up in Brigus.”
“Is that anywhere near Brigadoon?” Jillian laughed an incredulous sort of laugh, as if nothing Sarah ever said was real.
“Very funny. It’s a little town on the coast in Newfoundland.”
“Newfoundland?” Jillian’s head shot up. “Like the big hairy dog?”
“It’s in Canada, and actually my aunt owns one of those dogs. His name is Joe. She got him after my uncle died. Said they were both sort of big and hairy and drooled a lot so it was kind of like having him around still.”
Jillian giggled. “Don’t tell me, your uncle’s name was Joe.”
“Actually yes. Pretty lame, huh?”
Jillian looked back down at the floor and started pulling her fingers through her hair to see if it would touch the ground. “I think it’s cute–like she’s still protected and everything. I can’t imagine living alone.”
Sarah thought of Brendan’s smile and she felt a little spray of warmth at the way he’d protected her for no reason.
Jillian’s head turned to the side and she was looking at Sarah through a massive black curtain. Her almond shaped eyes looked very strange from the side like that.
“What are you all smiley about?”
Sarah started folding some stray pieces of clothing. “Nothing. I was just thinking about how cute it is too.” She lied.
Jillian narrowed her eyes. “Hmph.”
“They were very much in love, you know.”
“How did he die?”
“Now there’s something you don’t hear every day.” Jillian rolled onto her back and looked up at Sarah. “What exactly is a whaling accident?”
She realized how weird that must sound to someone who’d grown up surrounded by concrete and steel. “He worked on a whaling ship. You know, out on the ocean? Got caught in the line and drowned in the sea.”
“People still do that?”
Sarah glared at her. “Whaling is big business up there.”
“Sorry. It’s just so weird to think about. Seems more like something we might read about in history class than a real-life occurrence.”
Sarah sighed. Three months wasn’t going to pass quickly enough. “It’s a whole different world up there, I’ll give you that.”
“How often do you go?”
“Every summer since I was seven.”
“Yeah. You’d think I’d get sick of it, but I still love it.”
Jillian looked at her with a critical eye. “So what’s so great about it?”
“I don’t know. Everything is the opposite of here, so it’s hard to describe. Even the air is different there. It’s clean and misty and kind of fishy and I wish you could smell it.”
Jillian rolled her eyes. “Sounds delicious.”
“No, you don’t get it. The sky is enormously blue. If you could stand on one of the mountains that overlook the cove I swear it would take your breath away.”
“If you break into something from The Sound of Music I’m leaving right now.”
They smiled at each other.
“I know it sounds stupid. I mean, the tallest building is the fish cannery at a whopping three floors high. It’s nothing like New York, but I love it all the same.”
“I’ve only ever been to Disney World.” Jillian was picking at her fingernails. “But I’m not sure that counts. It’s like going from one reality-tv show to another.”
“It’s nothing like Disney World either. Close your eyes!” Jillian stopped picking and did as she was told. Sarah dropped down onto the bed next to her and made her voice sound like a narrator for a fairy tale. “Imagine if you will, a magical place, where the fog rolls in off the ocean each morning, covering everything in a fine, damp mist. Sometimes it’s so thick in the valley you can’t see five feet in front of you–kind of like smog, only clean. By afternoon it’s been burned off by the sunshine, revealing these incredibly vibrant colors and animated textures, like the unveiling of a long awaited painting. The ocean rises up to meet the hills and the landscape practically breathes in time with the rhythm of the tides.”
Jillian turned her head and opened one eye. “Are you for real or am I about to get Punk’d?”
Sarah punched her in the arm lightly. “Oh forget it!”
She rolled over and looked out the window. In the distance she could just make out his shape on the ledge, but she kept quiet. It was like her own little secret, and she liked keeping it that way. She wondered–not for the first time–if maybe she wasn’t the only one who wished they could leave their current life behind and find a place where they could really fly.
“Bren? What are you doing out there?”
His back was toward the door, but even with the iPod blaring he could sense his father’s presence behind him. He imagined it like thick black smoke that spread out ahead of the fire and formed tentacles, choking everything in its path.
“Can you even hear me? Take that shit out of your ears.”
Brendan laughed under his breath. As if it were possible to successfully extricate the last seventeen years of putrid deposits that had filled his brain and tainted his heart. He removed the ear buds but left the rest of him connected to the music.
“Your mother and I are going out.”
An uncomfortable silence loomed between them and Brendan looped his thumbs together in his lap, making the sign for the awkward turtle, swimming through the dead air space toward nowhere in particular. His back was still toward his father.
“Have you eaten anything?”
“Is it Easter already? Did mom cook?”
Brendan turned toward his father’s outstretched hand. “Could you make it an even hundred? I could use a little extra money for drugs this week.”
“Be serious, Brendan.”
He swung his feet around, jumped down and faced the man squarely, looking him straight in the eye. “I’m dead serious, dad.”
“Just take the money, and quit pulling my chain. That shit doesn’t work on me. You sit up here feeling sorry for yourself and let daddy pay for everything, and somehow I’m the asshole. It’s a good thing your grades are decent or you’d be out on your ass come June. Believe me, Wharton will be the best thing that ever happened to you. Show you what it’s like to work hard for the money you want to earn.”
“What if I don’t want to live in a penthouse? Not everyone aspires to the same lifestyle you do.”
“You’ve been privileged for so long you wouldn’t know what to do with yourself in the real world where people scrape by on eight or nine bucks an hour and live in rat-infested apartments. You think that’s any kind of a life? When you’ve got a golden opportunity staring you right in the face? Practically handed to you on that silver platter you so disdain. Take my advice boy, don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. You can hate me now, but you’ll thank me later.”
Several more awkward moments passed by in slow motion. Eventually Brendan pulled the bills out of his father’s hand and turned back toward the night sky. “Have a good time.”
After his father left, Brendan carefully folded one of the twenties into a paper airplane and sailed it off the balcony. Money was just too damned expensive.
“Welcome to the desert of the real.”
– The Matrix
“Tell me again what we’re doing?” Nate was holding the arms of Paige’s jacket out so she could stick her arms into the holes behind her. “You know, I’ve never understood this ritual. I mean, I get the chivalry aspect of helping a woman on with her coat, but why can’t she just look back once in a while and at least help guide the procedure?”
She smiled and looked over her shoulder but he wasn’t even watching. He was completely focused on fitting her hands into the holes and kept right on talking. “I swear it’s like trying to perform a mid-flight probe and drogue maneuver!”
“Probe and what?”
He looked up, slightly embarrassed. “You know, when they have to…fuel a plane or a spacecraft while it’s still in the air?”
She blinked a couple of times, waiting for further explanation.
“You’ve got the probe and it’s got to fit inside the little–” He gestured unsuccessfully with his hands. “Forget it. You were saying?”
“Drinks–with a new client. Shouldn’t take too long. His wife will be there and it’s supposed to be a casual thing, so I figured I could bring you.”
Nate straightened the lapels of his jacket and pretended to smooth his hair back. “Well then, arm candy I shall be.” He kissed her cheek, lifting her hair out of the back of her coat for her. “Is Kevin coming?”
She stopped, exasperated. “Why do you hate him so much?”
“I don’t hate him. I just don’t like him.”
Nate shook his head. “If you were a guy, you’d understand.”
“Because he asked me out a couple of times? I said no, for God’s sake. Who cares? That was almost three years ago.”
“It’s not the fact that he asked you out three years ago” Nate explained slowly. “It’s that he still wishes he could.” He picked up his keys and pocketed his wallet.
“We’re professionals, Nate.” She asserted. “And besides that, you’re seeing things.”
“You’re just going to have to trust me.”
Paige sighed. “You know what? Let’s just go.”
“Great! Where are we headed?”
“The restaurant over at the Carlton Hotel.”
“Nice choice. They make a great Sapphire and tonic.”
“I’m sure you’ll need one.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“A boring business meeting and Kevin too?”
“I’m thirsty already.” He smiled sarcastically.
“It’s not that far. We could probably walk.”
“Can I hold your hand?”
His smile was so genuine it disarmed her, the deep love he carried so obvious it stung. She’d never met anyone like him before. She could be infuriated one minute, and the next he was dismantling her arguments with a look. “You’re amazing, you know that?”
Nate opened the door, waiting for her to go out ahead of him. He followed her out toward the elevator. “Well, I never said I was buying!”
Downstairs, they walked out into the night air and Paige inhaled slowly with her eyes closed. “Ah. New York. Land that I love.”
Nate sniffed the air. “You’re the only girl I know that ranks the smell of garbage right up there with pizza and Chanel No 5. At this rate, I’m never going to persuade you to leave the city, am I?”
“Not likely.” She snorted sarcastically, but something in his tone stopped her from continuing to mock the absurdity of his statement. “Why? Did you have something in mind?”
“Oh, I don’t know.” They passed a jeweler and he looked over his shoulder. “Just talking out loud I guess.”
She pretended not to notice, but her heart started pounding in her ears as little beads of sweat formed across her forehead.
“Are you all right?”
She looked up into the sky and then looked sideways at him. “Yeah, I’m fine. Just a little panic attack at the thought of having to leave my native habitat.”
“Aw, come on. You did it once. It wasn’t that bad, was it?”
Paige thought back to the years she spent in college. Life in a quaint mid-western town taught her many things. For one thing, that life was no respecter of persons–or geography, for that matter. It turned out small town scandals were just as common, only the gossip train didn’t have to wait for the six o’clock news. Soon after passing her CPA exam, she’d taken the first New York job offer that came her way. “Not bad, just different. Here is home. It feels right, being back here. I don’t know how else to describe it.”
“It would take an act of God then, to make you leave, is that about right?”
She laughed. “Pretty much, yeah.”
Paige stuffed her hands into her coat pockets and shivered. Nate immediately wrapped her in his arm, so her head could rest against his shoulder as they walked.
“Is that why you came back? It seemed like a couple of those other job offers would’ve been a lot more lucrative–especially the one in Atlanta.”
She smiled up at him. “I wouldn’t last two weeks in the South and you know it. Those sticky-sweet women make me want to take insulin. Money isn’t everything, you know.”
“Don’t I know it. Believe me, I’m not complaining. I’m pretty happy that you showed up on the scene when you did. It’s just–look around you, Paige. It’s so dense and crowded–you can’t even see the stars! Don’t you ever wish for wide-open spaces?”
“Sometimes.” She looked up at the small patch of night sky coming through the tops of the buildings. “I guess that’s what vacations are for.” She thought some more. “Besides, I never know what to do with myself in a wide-open space. It’s not everyone’s idea of freedom, you know.”
“You win. Let’s not talk about it anymore and just enjoy the evening.” His gaze followed hers up into the night’s starry atmosphere. “What the–what is that?”
What looked like a small piece of paper was falling from the sky. It came to rest on a window ledge about thirty feet above their heads, then blew off and drifted down. When it landed on the pavement just a few feet away, Nate walked over to it, but Paige kept her distance.
“Ingenious use of origami.” He chuckled softly.
“What is it?”
He stood, holding out a twenty-dollar bill that had been carefully folded into an intricate and surprisingly aerodynamic paper airplane, trying his best to stifle a laugh. “I think it’s for you. It’s a message from heaven.”
He was grinning as she came closer, looking from the sky to his face. “Who does that? Who throws away money?”
“People do it every day.”
“At Starbucks, yes–but not like this.”
“Are you mocking my addiction?”
“I still think it’s God trying to tell you something.” Still grinning, Nate slipped his arm back around her shoulders, and carefully placed the twenty into the front pocket of his jacket.
She was stiff as he pulled her along for the next several feet.
“Paige, come on, it’s no big deal–just a freakish coincidence.” She relaxed a little under the weight of his arm. “We’ll keep it for a rainy day. Maybe I’ll let you buy me a cup of coffee some time.”
Brendan heard a door close behind his parents somewhere in the distance. He cursed and then opened fire with his fist into the brick wall. His knuckles ripped open as a sharp pain exploded across the back of his hand. He sucked in a slow, deep breath and held it as if he were taking a hit, blinking his eyes and adjusting to the pain level as he settled back against the wall.
Holding the hand out in front of him, he watched the blood form a tiny stream that dripped steadily onto the bricks below, soaking into the pores of pressed clay. Mingling reds and oranges blurred together as he willed back the tears that threatened to spill over and dilute it all. When at last the pain dulled to a throb and became a part of his breathing he moved methodically into his room.
He rolled a joint, being careful not to disturb the congealing blood on the back of his hand. The alternating stripes against his pale skin sent him back in time. A Christmas memory from long ago crept into his consciousness as he watched a slow motion film of a candy cane shattering against the wall, his father’s voice thundering over him.
“Is that all you care about? A goddamned candy cane? I bought you a telescope and all you can do is play with that stupid toy camera and whine about when you get to eat your candy cane!”
Too bad it got returned to the store. That telescope would’ve come in handy now.
Brendan set the joint next to the ashtray and lined the lighter up exactly parallel to it. Then he opened his desk drawer and took out the blade. He always examined it carefully, turning it back and forth under the lamp until the light danced with the shadows on the ceiling.
He carefully rolled up the sleeve on his right arm. Finding a suitable place was getting harder. The scars never healed right if he kept reopening them. He looked on the left side and fixed his gaze as the feeling began calling to him. He lit the joint, took a long drag, and held it as he sank the blade into his skin.
A clean cut was a beautiful thing. It didn’t bleed right away, and in that brief moment before the blood was visible, if he was very still, he could feel without seeing the cut that would eventually become a scar. That was the moment he lived for–feeling that didn’t leave a wake. Reality however, remained victorious. Sooner or later every feeling left a scar. That was what the rest of the joint was for.