Authors: Natale Ghent
For Mark, who burned so brightly,
And for Jasmine, who shines on
arah Wagner had known all night that something was coming. There was the warning of the black locust branches tapping urgently against the window. And the street lamp flaring and exploding in a shower of phosphorous crystals and glass. She had been restless, too, the sweat beading above her lip, the floorboards creaking like footsteps as she struggled to find a comfortable position in bed. No matter how she tried, she couldn’t shake the sensation of being watched, or the barely perceptible feeling that someone—or something—was holding her hand.
She smelled him before she saw him. The odour of earth and rain arriving moments before he appeared beside the bed, boots glistening with mud. Funny how she noticed his boots, despite the blood pounding in her temples. But it was his face that shocked her the most—shining and slightly flushed, like he’d just been running in the rain. Like he’d never been sick at all. Her heart pumped in her throat as he reached for her, his mouth swinging open and closed like the loosely hinged gate to a dark and deadly garden. She tried to scream when his cold hand encircled her wrist, but
could only gape helplessly back at him, the darkness spilling from his lips and flooding into her brain.
“Please go away,”
Sarah stared out the window. The sugar maples blazed crimson against a concrete sky. Fall was her favourite time of year. It was bold and unforgiving. No apologies, no half-cloaked secrets like hushed voices in hospital rooms. She loved everything about it—except school. It was only the first week and already she was bored. Senior year. How had she made it this far?
It certainly wasn’t the other students who’d helped her through. The petty politics of high school—she was sick of it. Dates with “A-list” boys she didn’t even like. Running with frivolous groups of girls. Better to belong than to not belong. She’d had her hand in it: the gossip, the back-stabbing. How empty it all was. How hollow it had all seemed in the face of his despair. So she’d just stopped. Stopped hanging out. Stopped making herself available. Stopped answering the phone. Drifting away had proved easier than maintaining ties. Boys lost interest quickly. Friends fell away like chaff. Except Donna, the self-professed outcast. To her, pretty much everyone else was stupid or boring or a waste of time. And there was Peter, as well. She couldn’t seem to get rid of him.
Sarah rubbed her eyes with her fingers. The dull throb of a burgeoning headache pulsed along her brow. Pressing the heels of her hands against her eyelids, she increased the
pressure to the point of pain, then released, sending pinpoints of light exploding across the dark screen in her head. It would get worse before the day was through, she knew. That was the pattern. She checked her shirt pocket for aspirin but found a pack of Juicy Fruit gum instead. The wrapper shone brightly as she extracted a piece, opening it carefully so as not to tear the paper, removing the gum, refolding the silver liner, then sliding it neatly into its cover so that it looked like it hadn’t been opened. She’d done this out of habit since she was a kid. A trap for her mother or her brother.
The gum felt powdery against her tongue. Sarah examined the package.
‘You want, you need, you gotta have more sweet!”
Chewing gum was the only thing that kept her from coming completely unglued in class. Kept her mind from slipping loose and spilling over her desk. She imagined the inside of her skull, brains held together with strings of gum like rubbery webs. She chewed lots of it, sometimes several packs a day. Calculus was the worst. It took a whole pack to get through that class alone. When she was little, she used to swallow her gum instead of spitting it out when it lost its flavour. Before her brother told her it would stick—a big ball of gum growing in her stomach—and she would die. So she’d quit doing it, then worried endlessly about the gum she had already swallowed.
But it was John who had died. The brave one, the gifted one, the prodigal son. With his music and his dreams. Striking out in the world, free from the stultifying shame her family served up as the house specialty. He was going to rescue her. “We’ll live together,” he had said. She could be his roadie, travelling with the band, waking up in a different place every day. She loved the idea of being with him, of being part of
something bigger and, most of all, of being as far away from her mother’s disapproval as possible. She was a cold woman, an emotional iceberg. “The ice queen,” Sarah called her in kinder moments. But to make matters worse, she was weak. Beneath her frigid exterior was a mewling child, convinced that John’s sickness was somehow a judgment against her. It wasn’t long before Sarah stopped trying to please her altogether. She was only thirteen when she made the conscious decision to avoid her instead, wagering the bulk of her carefully guarded dreams on John. He was going to come get her the day she turned eighteen—he’d promised.
It was the illness that wore his promise away, drop by drop. Her love had been helpless against the glistening line of circumstance, hope reeled from the turbulent waters of her heart to thump gasping against the cold stone of fact: He was dying. He was dead. It had surprised Sarah—surprised everyone—how he struggled to hold on to such a small corner of life, kicking and moaning with the determination of a newborn. Why he wouldn’t just let go and be rid of it, the dreariness, the pain. He said,
“I’m so scared.”
Fall always reminded her of him. He’d left by degrees, like the leaves, until only the bones were left, the fire of him blown gradually away with the advancing cold. Until everything was gone. Except the rain. And the photos, cluttering up the house, collecting in corners and the backs of drawers in small piles. Her mother was numb, absent. Refused to talk about it. Sarah became methodical, gathering the photos and pressing them carefully into books, adding whatever notation she could remember.
Summer, ‘91. Grandma’s backyard. Christmas, ‘95. Uncle Fred’s place.
When she couldn’t remember she would write the names of the people on the back of the photos with a question mark. This
seemed fitting. Wasn’t that all anyone left behind? A name and a question with no answer?
An image of John standing beside the bed entered her mind, sending a shiver up her spine. The shock of seeing his face. Why had he come back? She touched her wrist where his hand had been and couldn’t help but feel that she was somehow responsible. It was possible to admit now, after the fact, that there were times when the weight of his illness had been too much for her, when the oppressive days of sickness had made her want to scream or run away and she’d found herself secretly wishing for a quicker end, then frantically retracting such wicked thoughts in horrified remorse. Or the times when she would drag her feet and arrive later at the hospital than she had said she would, to find him waiting angrily, seething with unspoken reproach. He had become so hateful near the end, too, as though he could see the betrayal in her heart, his personality eroding over the weeks until suspicion and morphine consumed his true self. It wasn’t his fault, she’d tell herself when he would bark at her over the simplest things, like forgetting that he took only ice chips—no water—or that he liked his pillow at a certain angle. It was as if he blamed her—blamed everyone for what had happened to him. And she blamed herself as well. She had failed him. Was that why he had come back? Out of anger? What was it that he had tried to say before she had wished him away?
The wind wailed, rattling its fists against the windows. A discarded juice carton tumbled and bounced across the parking lot, coming to a stop against the wire fence that surrounded the school.
Keeping the kids in or out?
Sarah let her eyes relax until the honeycomb of wire fence blurred into a solid wall of grey.
It was a good thing her dad had died before John did. It would have only made things worse to have him there, wrestling with his anguish over losing his only son, fighting violently with her mother, drowning a slow suicide in cheap scotch whisky. Sarah could hear the nurse’s voice over the phone like it was yesterday, a heavy Southern accent drawling like tupelo honey from the spoon. “A-neur-y-sm.” But death had been thankfully fast for Mr. Wagner. Joking with hospital staff one minute, flinging backwards onto the bed the next—one hand clutching his chest. Of course that last part Sarah only imagined. She couldn’t know for sure. But one thing she did know was that he’d been alone, as always, on the road in some strange place, away from his family. A drifter, a snake oil salesman, cruising into town to sell sewing machines to bored housewives with bad hair and too much lipstick. Pathetic.
Sarah shifted in her seat. She could feel the weight of his stare, the guy who sat against the wall, three seats back. Following the line of her cheek, the landscape of her breasts beneath her sweater, her hips curving inside her jeans. Surveying. Making maps. Turning from the window, she met his gaze and forced him to avert his eyes, then looked over at Donna, whose black rag doll hair framed her small angry face. Donna raised her eyebrows impudently and flipped her middle finger from behind her calculus book toward their teacher, Mr. Kovski, with his side-swept hair and synthetic brown leisure suit from the seventies. Sarah laughed. Mr. Kovski paused, then continued to drone until the bell rang, calling out some last-minute homework assignment as the students bustled out of the classroom.
“What’s his problem?” Donna asked as they jostled with the other students in the hall.
“I guess he just loves calculus.”
“Not him. That other creep. Michael what’s-his-name. The new greaseball who keeps staring at you in class.” Donna stopped in front of her locker, dropping her books in a loud heap on the floor. Turning her combination quickly, she yanked violently on the lock, then slammed her hand against the locker door when it wouldn’t open.
Sarah sighed. “Turn it slower.” Her own lock opened easily, the chrome dial cool between her fingers, the neat click of the mechanism sounding as it yielded to her touch. A quick tug on the locker door revealed her own books stacked with library precision, the familiar bottle of aspirin to one side. Extra-strength, coated capsules. Sarah popped the bottle cap and shook a couple of tablets into her hand, pushed them into her mouth and swallowed. No water needed. Affixed with grey duct tape to her locker door was a small, pink plastic-framed mirror. She checked her reflection. Pale blue eyes, even paler skin, a slight pout to her mouth. Her hair long and curly and brown—nothing like the straight hair that she wanted so badly, the kind all the girls had in the magazines. But her eyes—she wouldn’t trade those for anything. They were exactly like John’s: large and blue and a little bit sad. Should she tell Donna about seeing him? She needed to talk to somebody about it, to draw the curtain of fear in her heart and let some light in. But Donna was in a mood today.