Authors: Mary Beth Keane
George was the first to raise his voice. “Cool it,” he said to Anne, raising a hand to indicate he’d had enough. Anne raised her voice back at him and after a few minutes of shouting, Anne went to the closet and got the vacuum cleaner. She lifted it over her head, and George’s wife shrieked as Anne swung it at all of them. They all dodged it but three water glasses went flying, along with some cutlery, a dish of mashed potatoes. All of it skidded across the wood floor, onto the carpet. His father yelled at his mother like Peter had never heard before, and his mother, still holding the vacuum, squeezed her eyes shut. Peter took a step back, took another step back until he felt the wall behind him, and watched. When his mother finally went upstairs, slamming the door to her bedroom so hard that the whole house shook, the four people remaining in the dining room looked around at the mess and at each other.
“What the fuck, Brian,” George said. “What was she so mad about? Did I miss something?”
“You can’t reason with a person who won’t be reasoned with,” Brian said quietly. A plea that his brother not push. An acknowledgment that there was something going on that he’d lost control of, that he didn’t understand, that he’d have to do something about, and soon.
“Didn’t I tell you?” George asked. “Didn’t I tell you—what?—fifteen years ago?”
“George,” Brian said, and glanced quickly at Peter.
But instead of letting it go, of feigning harmony as all adults did, George turned and studied Peter. “You’re a cool customer, aren’t you?”
Who was the first to start laughing? George probably. His father got a bottle of something from a cabinet, and when George poured a little quarter-inch measure in the bottom of a water glass and handed it to
Peter, his father didn’t object. His mother showed no signs of coming back downstairs.
“You okay, sweetie?” Brenda asked Peter after a while. The brothers were getting louder. Brian pounded his fist on the table as he told some story from growing up, and Peter felt as if he were listening to a stranger.
“Yeah, I’m fine. Why?” Peter said breezily, as if he wasn’t sure why she was asking. The first sip of alcohol had burned a path down his throat to his belly. His breath felt hotter when he exhaled. He took the rest in one gulp, as he’d seen George and his father do.
“Okay, tough guy. Okay.”
The potatoes were still on the floor, the glasses topsy-turvy on the carpet. He could just push the potatoes back into the bowl and dump them into the kitchen garbage can. The glasses he could collect in one pass and stand them up in the sink so that no one would step on them and maybe get a cut on their feet. He looked around to check if everyone was wearing shoes. But cleaning up felt like it might ruin something, so instead he just turned his back to the mess and let it be. He’d never heard his father be loud. He’d never seen him pound a table. He didn’t know whether witnessing his father like that made him happy or afraid. George tilted the flimsy chair back on two legs. They’d moved from the dining room to the kitchen, and still, the mess stayed exactly where it had landed. George poured another quarter inch into Peter’s glass. Brian Stanhope looked but didn’t object.
“I’m just gonna . . . ,” Peter said as he grabbed a wad of paper towels and turned back to the spilled food. Brenda followed with a damp sponge.
Inside the Gleesons’ house, Kate tried to make sense of what had happened while her mother wrapped an ice cube in a gauze-thin kitchen cloth and made Kate suck. Her teeth were fine but she’d bitten her
tongue so hard that there were two swollen purple dashes there, and every time she moved her head they let loose a little more blood. It didn’t seem like much when Kate went over it, but the sum added up to more than the parts.
You think you’re so smart
, Mrs. Stanhope had said. Kate wondered if it bothered her so much because it was true: she did think she was smart. It was as if she’d pried open Kate’s secret and stuck her finger in it, stirring it around until the most shameful part emerged.
The whole exchange—only a minute long—already had the quality of a dream. Maybe, Kate thought, being an adult, Mrs. Stanhope saw something in her that Kate, having no perspective, couldn’t see, and that her own mother couldn’t see because she loved her so much. Kate recalled a morning a few weeks before, dress-down day at school—for a dollar every kid could show up in jeans and sneakers just like the public school kids got to do every day, and the money would go toward new basketball uniforms for the boys. Kate brushed pink powder along her cheekbones that morning and imagined some of the boys might notice. That was the day that Deacon and Mrs. Gallagher came to teach the monthly sex-ed class. They had nine children—their youngest had been in Sara’s class—and seeing them together, arranging the dittos at the front of the classroom before the deacon led the boys across the hall, she couldn’t stop thinking that these two—she short and husky, like a fire hydrant on legs, he tall and angular and not a single hair on the top of his head—had done what Kate knew people had to do to get nine children.
That night, late, long after her sisters and parents were asleep, long after the throbbing in her tongue had finally dulled, Kate noticed a light shining on her bedroom wall. As soon as she noticed it—a circle in the dead center of the wall opposite the window—it blinked out. Then it returned. Then it blinked out again. When it returned, she went to the window. There, across the immense night, was Peter, standing at his bedroom window. He turned the flashlight to himself and then to something he was holding in his hand. He raised the window screen and launched what looked to be a paper airplane into the darkness. He tried
to follow it with the light, but the bright white of the paper and the circle of light kept chasing and passing each other, making something spectacular and frantic against the perfect stillness of the night. The plane landed on the grass, on Kate’s side of the lawn. Peter found it and held the light steady for a second, then back up at Kate, who nodded and waved so he’d know she’d seen it, that she knew it was meant for her.
S THE BUS LUMBERED
around the streets of Gillam, and all day at school that Thursday, Kate’s plan to meet Peter was like a warm stone she cupped in her hands. The paper airplane had been saturated with dew but he’d anticipated that, writing the message in pencil so the words wouldn’t run. She’d raced out the back door to get it before breakfast, before the rest of them had a chance to glance out the window and spot it there beside the holly bush.
“Were you outside already?” her mother asked when Kate came back in, blades of wet grass stuck to her bare feet.
“I thought I left a book out there,” Kate said, and her mother shuffled on, bleary-eyed without her first cup of coffee.
Midnight, the note said. He had to talk to her. He probably wouldn’t be at school. He hoped her mouth was okay. Meet him by the hedges.
At breakfast, Natalie and Sara wanted to know what had happened, exactly. They’d had a track meet the previous afternoon, came home late and had to finish their homework. They only pieced together the clues that something was up when Kate refused to leave her room for dinner
and their mother banned them from the kitchen so she could talk to their father in private.
“It was the craziest thing,” Kate began, keeping her voice low.
“Yeah?” Natalie said, grabbing an apple from the fruit bowl.
“I fell off the rock and bit my tongue. Blood everywhere. Mrs. Stanhope came out and she was so mad. She asked me if I thought I was smart. Then Mom came out and smacked me so hard. . . .” But Kate felt their blank stares. She couldn’t explain it. She couldn’t boil the whole encounter down to one riveting sentence.
“What’s with you and Peter?” Natalie asked. “Are you two fooling around?”
“No!” Kate cried as she felt a ball of light gather under her breastbone.
The simple fact that Kate was still at St. Bart’s and Nat and Sara were a senior and a sophomore at Gillam High meant that her stories could never be as interesting as theirs. Nothing rated until high school.
Sara leaned over her bowl to get closer to Kate. “Nat’s going out with Damien Reed.”
“Sara!” Natalie said.
“She won’t tell,” Sara said.
“Oh,” Kate said as she felt her own story get shouldered aside. She didn’t know who Damien Reed was.
Sara continued. “She said that if she ever gets pregnant, she’ll rent a car, drive to Texas, get an abortion, and tell Mom and Dad she’s at a track meet.”
“Sara!” Natalie said again, this time with more feeling. “I’ll kill you.”
“Why Texas?” Kate asked.
Nat sighed. “It doesn’t have to be Texas. Somewhere far.”
“Wouldn’t you want someone to go with you?” If they’d expected her to be prudish about it, she hadn’t given them the satisfaction.
“Sara would come,” Natalie said, looking at Sara to confirm this was true. She turned to Kate. “You could come if you wanted to. Not now, but in a couple of years. Not that I expect it to ever happen.”
Kate considered this.
“And if you guys ever need one, you can say you’re visiting me at school,” Nat said, closing the subject. She was heading to Syracuse in the fall.
Their mother came in and began taking everything she’d need out of the fridge and the bread box to make their lunches. “Whisper, whisper, whisper,” she said as she counted out six slices of bread, three black plums, three bottles of Snapple. She opened a tub of tuna salad. “You’d all better be ready for the bus. I don’t feel like driving anyone this morning.”
Mrs. O’Connor looked up from her attendance sheet and said his name twice before moving on. At gym Mr. Schiavone announced that it was Peter Stanhope’s turn to be captain and then looked around at everyone before naming another boy instead. Kate felt a hum of fear and joy rush through her every time his absence was noted, as if the shape of him were there beside her. Idly, throughout the day, she’d touch her hand to her jaw where he’d touched her less than twenty-four hours before.
“Where’s Peter?” some of the kids asked on the bus ride home.
“Not feeling well I guess,” Kate said, swallowing back a smile.
When she got off the bus, she was careful not to look too long at Peter’s house in case anyone would catch on. His mother’s car was in the driveway. Their front door was closed. Lena Gleeson was standing on the porch with an armful of mail. She waved to Kate’s bus driver as he drove on.
“Peter didn’t go today?” she said once they were inside.
“Nope.” Kate shrugged.
“Hmm,” her mother said.
Homework, dinner, dishes: Kate did all of it meekly, hoping not to draw attention to herself. “Are you feeling okay? Let me see your tongue,”
her mother said when Kate announced she was going upstairs to read before bed. Kate opened wide and stretched out her tongue as far as it would go.
“Looks fine,” Lena said, smoothing Kate’s hair away from her face. She brought her forehead to Kate’s, like she used to do when Kate was small. “Are you upset about your friend?”
“What do you mean?”
“He probably won’t be allowed to play with you anymore, Katie.”
, Mom. God. I’m almost fourteen.”
“Okay, well, whatever it is you do, I’m sure she’ll stop him doing it. But you steer clear, Kate, okay? Peter’s a nice boy but the family is trouble.”
That night, Kate lay on top of her quilt and waited for the minutes to pass. Natalie and Sara had been sharing a bedroom since Kate was born, her days and nights reversed. They’d stayed in those rooms ever since, and only that night did Kate wonder if it meant something, if it had been preordained, if she’d ended up with a room to herself only so she could sneak out so many years later to meet Peter at midnight.
Her father was working a four to twelve tour that night, but that meant he wouldn’t be home until at least one o’clock. When her sisters filed upstairs sometime around ten, she felt her nerves begin to electrify. At eleven the laugh track of her mother’s show abruptly stopped as the TV shut off and the house settled down into silence. Kate considered that less than fifty feet away Peter was doing the same thing: lying in the dark, waiting. If their bedroom walls fell away, they could have walked straight out of their rooms toward each other and been next to each other almost instantly. Kate’s childhood would end soon and that would be fine because that meant no one could tell her what she could and couldn’t do, and no one could tell Peter either. One day,
she and Peter would sit in restaurants, they’d order dinner from a menu, they’d chat easily about what happened to them that day. Sometimes adulthood seemed far away, but that night, as the clock finally showed eleven fifty-eight and Kate pulled a cardigan over her pajamas, it felt very near. And she felt ready for it. That readiness coursed through her as she tiptoed down the stairs to the back door, as she put her hand to the knob and pushed. Once outside she jogged to the side yard, where Peter was already waiting.
“Let’s go,” he whispered, grabbing Kate’s hand. Side by side they ran north on Jefferson—Kate’s cardigan flapping, Peter’s laces untied—and turned onto Madison, where there was an empty house, a cockeyed For Sale sign in the front yard. They went around back to an old swing set. This had been the Teagues’ house, their kids older than Natalie. They’d moved somewhere south when their youngest went to college, and the house had been sitting empty ever since. There was a lofted section on the play set that they had to climb a rusty ladder to reach. Peter pushed aside empty soda cans. Kate felt her pulse beating in her injured tongue.
“I have to pee,” Kate said.
“You’re just nervous,” Peter said. Everything about him seemed male to Kate now: the breadth of his hands, the particular set of his mouth, even the shade of blue of his eyes. They’d been comparing bodies since they were little, and now it struck Kate how much harder his body must have worked to get so much bigger than hers, cells multiplying at twice the rate hers did, muscles growing longer, stronger. Standing, the top of Kate’s head came only to his chin.