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Authors: Elizabeth Hand

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BOOK: Last Summer at Mars Hill
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Moony nodded. She curled a long tendril of hair, dark as her mother’s but finer, and brushed her cheek with it. “I’m just gonna pull my hair back. Jason’ll give me shit if I don’t.”

Ariel laughed. Jason thought that they were all a bunch of hippies. “Okay.” She crossed the room unsteadily, touching the backs of chairs, a windowsill, the edge of a buoy hanging from the wall. When the screen door banged shut behind her Moony sighed with relief.

For a few minutes she waited, to make sure her mother hadn’t forgotten something, like maybe a joint or another glass of wine. She could see out the window to where people were starting downhill toward the gazebo. If you didn’t look too closely, they might have been any group of summer people gathering for a party in the long northern afternoon.

But after a minute or two their oddities started to show. You saw them for what they really were: men and women just getting used to a peculiar middle age. They all had hair a little too long or too short, a little too gray or garishly colored. The women, like Ariel, wrapped in clothes like banners from a triumphant campaign now forgotten. Velvet tunics threaded with silver, miniskirts crossing pale bare blue-veined thighs, Pucci blouses back in vogue again. The men more subdued, in chinos some of them, or old jeans that were a little too bright and neatly pressed. She could see Martin beneath the lilacs by the gazebo, in baggy psychedelic shorts and T-shirt, his gray-blond hair longer than it had been and pulled back into a wispy ponytail. Beside him Jason leaned against a tree, self-consciously casual, smoking a cigarette as he watched the First Night promenade. At sight of Ariel he raised one hand in a lazy wave.

And now the last two stragglers reached the bottom of the hill. Mrs. Grose carrying her familiar, an arthritic wheezing pug named Milton: Ancient Mrs. Grose, who smelled of Sen-sen and whiskey, and prided herself on being one of the spiritualists exposed as a fraud by Houdini. And Gary Bonetti, who (the story went) five years ago had seen a vision of his own death in the City, a knife wielded by a crack-crazed kid in Washington Heights. Since then, he had stayed on at Mars Hill with Mrs. Grose, the community’s only other year-round resident.

Moony ducked back from the window as her mother turned to stare up at the cottage. She waited until Ariel looked away again, as Martin and Jason beckoned her toward the gazebo.

“Okay,” Moony whispered. She took a step across the room and stopped. An overwhelming smell of cigarette smoke suddenly filled the air, though there was no smoke to be seen. She coughed, waving her hand in front of her face.

“Damn it, Jason,” she hissed beneath her breath. The smell was gone as abruptly as it had appeared. “I’ll be
right there
—”

She slipped through the narrow hallway with its old silver-touched mirrors and faded Maxfield Parrish prints, and went into Ariel’s room. It still had its beginning-of-summer smell, mothballs and the salt sweetness of rugosa roses blooming at the beach’s edge. The old chenille bedspread was rumpled where Ariel had lain upon it, exhausted by the flight from LaGuardia to Boston, from Boston via puddlejumper to the tiny airport at Green Turtle Reach. Moony pressed her hand upon the spread and closed her eyes. She tried to focus as Jason had taught her, tried to dredge up the image of her mother stretched upon the bed. And suddenly there it was, a faint sharp stab of pain in her left breast, like a stitch in her side from running. She opened her eyes quickly, fighting the dizziness and panicky feeling. Then she went to the bureau.

At home she had never been able to find the envelope. It was always hidden away, just as the mail was always carefully sorted, the messages on the answering machine erased before she could get to them. But now it was as if Ariel had finally given up on hiding. The envelope was in the middle drawer, a worn cotton camisole draped halfheartedly across it. Moony took it carefully from the drawer and went to the bed, sat and slowly fanned the papers out.

They were hospital bills. Hospital bills and Blue Cross forms, cash register receipts for vitamins from the Waverly Drugstore with Ariel’s crabbed script across the top. The bills were for tests only, tests and consultations. Nothing for treatments; no receipts for medication other than vitamins. At the bottom of the envelope, rolled into a blue cylinder and tightened with a rubber band, she found the test results. Stray words floated in the air in front of her as Moony drew in a long shuddering breath.

Mammography results. Sectional biopsy. Fourth stage malignancy. Metastasized.

Cancer. Her mother had breast cancer.

“Shit,” she, said. Her hands after she replaced the papers were shaking. From outside echoed summer music, and she could hear voices—her mother’s, Diana’s, Gary Bonetti’s deep bass—shouting above the tinny sound of a cassette player—

“Wouldn’t it be nice if we could wake up

In the kind of world where we belong?”

“You bitch,” Moony whispered. She stood at the front window and stared down the hill at the gazebo, her hands clamped beneath her armpits to keep them still. Her face was streaked with tears. “When were you going to
tell
me, when were you going to fucking
tell me
?”

At the foot of Mars Hill, alone by a patch of daylilies stood Jason, staring back up at the cottage. A cigarette burned between his fingers, its scent miraculously filling the little room. Even from here Moony could tell that somehow and of course, he already knew.

Everyone had a hangover the next morning, not excluding Moony and Jason. In spite of that the two met in the community chapel. Jason brought a thermos of coffee, bright red and yellow dinosaurs stenciled on its sides, and blew ashes from the bench so she could sit down.

“You shouldn’t smoke in here.” Moony coughed and slumped beside him. Jason shrugged and stubbed out his cigarette, fished in his pocket and held out his open palm.

“Here. Ibuprofen and valerian capsules. And there’s bourbon in the coffee.”

Moony snorted but took the pills, shooting back a mouthful of tepid coffee and grimacing.

“Hair of the iguana,” Jason said. “So really, Moony, you didn’t know?”

“How the hell would I know?” Moony said wearily. “I mean, I knew it was
something
—”

She glanced sideways at her friend. His slender legs were crossed at the ankles and he was barefoot. Already dozens of mosquito bites pied his arms and legs. He was staring at the little altar in the center of the room. He looked paler than usual, more tired, but that was probably just the hangover.

From outside, the chapel looked like all the other buildings at Mars Hill, faded gray shingles and white trim. Inside there was one large open room, with benches arranged in a circle around the walls, facing in to the plain altar. The altar was heaped with wilting day lilies and lilacs, an empty bottle of chardonnay and a crumpled pack of Kents—Jason’s brand—and a black velvet hair ribbon that Moony recognized as her mother’s. Beneath the ribbon was an old snapshot, curled at the edges. Moony knew the pose from years back. It showed her and Jason and Ariel and Martin, standing at the edge of the pier with their faces raised skyward, smiling and waving at Diana behind her camera. Moony made a face when she saw it and took another swallow of coffee.

“I thought maybe she had AIDS,” Moony said at last. “I knew she went to the Walker Clinic once, I heard her on the phone to Diana about it.”

Jason nodded, his mouth set in a tight smile. “So you should be happy she doesn’t. Hip hip hooray.” Two years before Jason’s father had tested HIV-positive. Martin’s lover, John, had died that spring.

Moony turned so that he couldn’t see her face. “She has breast cancer. It’s metastasized. She won’t see a doctor. This morning she let me feel it…”

Like a gnarled tree branch shoved beneath her mother’s flesh, huge and hard and lumpy. Ariel thought she’d cry or faint or something but all Moony could do was wonder how she had never felt it before. Had she never noticed, or had it just been that long since she’d hugged her mother?

She started crying, and Jason drew closer to her.

“Hey,” he whispered, his thin arm edging around her shoulders. “It’s okay, Moony, don’t cry, it’s all right—”

How can you say that?
she felt like screaming, sobs constricting her throat so she couldn’t speak. When she did talk the words came out in anguished grunts.

“They’re dying—how can they—
Jason
—”

“Shh—” he murmured. “Don’t cry, Moony, don’t cry…”

Beside her, Jason sighed and fought the urge for another cigarette. He wished he’d thought about this earlier, come up with something to say that would make Moony feel better. Something like,
Hey! Get used to it! Everybody dies!
He tried to smile, but he felt only sorrow and a headache prodding at the corners of his eyes. Moony’s head felt heavy on his shoulder. He shifted on the bench, stroking her hair and whispering until she grew quiet. Then they sat in silence.

He stared across the room, to the altar and the wall beyond, where a stained glass window would have been in another kind of chapel. Here, a single great picture window looked out onto the bay. In the distance he could see the Starry Islands glittering in the sunlight, and beyond them the emerald bulk of Blue Hill and Cadillac Mountain rising above the indigo water.

And, if he squinted, he could see Them. The Others, like tears or blots of light floating across his retina. The Golden Ones. The Greeters.

The Light Children.

“Hey!” he whispered. Moony sniffed and burrowed closer into his shoulder, but he wasn’t talking to her. He was welcoming Them.

They were the real reason people had settled here, over a century ago. They were the reason Jason and Moony and their parents and all the others came here now; although not everyone could see Them. Moony never had, nor Ariel’s friend Diana; although Diana believed in Them, and Moony did not. You never spoke of Them, and if you did, it was always parenthetically and with a capital T—“Rvis and I were looking at the moon last night (They were there) and we thought we saw a whale.” Or, “Martin came over at midnight (he saw Them on the way) and we played Scrabble…”

A few years earlier a movement was afoot, to change the way of referring to Them. In a single slender volume that was a history of the Mars Hill spiritualist community, They were referred to as the Light Children, but no one ever really called Them that. Everyone just called them Them. It seemed the most polite thing to do, really, since no one knew what They called Themselves.

“And we’d hate to offend Them,” as Ariel said.

That was always a fear at Mars Hill. That, despite the gentle nature of the community’s adherents, They inadvertently would be offended one day (a too-noisy volleyball game on the rocky beach; a beer-fueled Solstice celebration irrupting into the dawn), and leave.

But They never did. Year after year the Light Children remained. They were a magical commonplace, like the loons that nested on a nearby pond and made the night an offertory with their cries, or the rainbows that inexplicably appeared over the Bay almost daily, even when there was no rain in sight. It was the same with Them. Jason would be walking down to call his father in from sailing, or knocking at Moony’s window to awaken her for a three
A.M.
stroll, and suddenly there They’d be. A trick of the light, like a sundog or the aurora borealis: golden patches swimming through the cool air. They appeared as suddenly as a cormorant’s head slicing up through the water, lingering sometimes for ten minutes or so. Then They would be gone.

Jason saw Them a lot. The chapel was one of the places They seemed to like, and so he hung out there whenever he could. Sometimes he could sense Them moments before They appeared. A shivering in the air would make the tips of his fingers go numb, and once there had been a wonderful smell, like warm buttered bread. But usually there was no warning. If he closed his eyes while looking at Them, Their image still appeared on the cloudy scrim of his inner eye, like gilded tears. But that was all. No voices, no scent of rose petals, no rapping at the door. You felt better after seeing Them, the way you felt better after seeing a rainbow or an eagle above the Bay. But there was nothing really magical about Them, except the fact that They existed at all. They never spoke, or did anything special, at least nothing you could sense. They were just
there
; but Their presence meant everything at Mars Hill.

They were there now: flickering above the altar, sending blots of gold dancing across the limp flowers and faded photograph. He wanted to point Them out to Moony, but he’d tried before and she’d gotten mad at him.

“You think I’m some kind of idiot like my mother?” she’d stormed, sweeping that day’s offering of irises from the altar onto the floor. “Give me a break, Jason!”

Okay, I gave you a break,
he thought now.
Now I’ll give you another.

Look, Moony, there They are!
he thought, then said, “Moony. Look—”

He pointed, shrugging his shoulder so she’d have to move. But already They were gone.

“What?” Moony murmured. He shook his head, sighing.

“That picture,” he said, and fumbled at his pocket for his cigarettes. “That stupid old picture that Diana took. Can you believe it’s still here?”

Moony lifted her head and rubbed her eyes, red and swollen. “Oh, I can believe anything,” she said bitterly, and filled her mug with more coffee.

In Martin Dionysos’s kitchen, Ariel drank a cup of nettle tea and watched avidly as her friend ate a bowl of mung bean sprouts and nutritional yeast.
Just like in
Annie Hall, she thought.
Amazing.

“So now she knows and you’re surprised she’s pissed at you.” Martin raised another forkful of sprouts to his mouth, angling delicately to keep any from falling to the floor. He raised one blond eyebrow as he chewed, looking like some hardscrabble New Englander’s idea of Satan, California surfer boy gone to seed. Long gray-blond hair that was thinner than it had been a year ago, skin that wasn’t so much tanned as an even pale bronze, with that little goatee and those piercing blue eyes, the same color as the Bay stretching outside the window behind him. Oh, yes: and a gold hoop earring and a heart tattoo that enclosed the name
JOHN
and a T-shirt with the pink triangle and
SILENCE=DEATH
printed in stern block letters. Satan on vacation.

BOOK: Last Summer at Mars Hill
11.32Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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