Leonard Stiller had an annoying habit of leaning forward whenever Franklin spoke. As if he thought his seventeen-year-old patient was about to tell him the meaning of life, or at least who was going to win the pennant. It had been a lot easier, Franklin realized, to put his thoughts down in the journal than to hold a conversation with this man.
"So," Dr. Stiller said, shifting in his chair, holding up the small brown loose-leaf. "You don't see anything remarkable, anything askew, in what you've written here?"
"Askew?" Franklin turned on the leather couch, caught Stiller's eyes glancing off him.
"Unusual," the psychiatrist explained, placing the notebook in his lap, balancing it across his scarecrow knees. "Different."
Franklin nodded, then thought. Rosey is unusual, he decided. Rosey is different. But he knew Stiller didn't mean that. He studied the man's placid face, the deep, empty eyes that gave out no light. "I give up," he said.
Dr. Stiller smiled, uncrossed his legs, and leaned forward again, his perfectly trimmed beard and gray-flecked brows swimming toward Franklin through the afternoon gloom. "Haven't you noticed," he asked, "what you've done here?" Now the notebook swam forward, too, falling open a little, the corners of its white pages gleaming. "Hasn't it occurred to you, Franklin, that all these memories are written in the present tense?"
"Oh, that." Franklin felt a familiar shame, a niggling failure to measure up. "My family's always on me about that." He turned around,settled back in the couch. "My friends, too."
"It's been over six months since Rosellen's death, Franklin." The older man's voice wasn't scolding or judgmental; it washed over Franklin, a slow, sad rain. "Six months since the accident, and yet you're still talking about her as if she's alive."
Franklin struggled to keep the film from starting, the reel that played in his head anytime someone mentioned the crash. Talk, he thought to himself, as Rosey's bright pink jeep rounded a curve. Talk, for God's sake.
"You asked me to put down everything I remember," he told Stiller. He felt the tears just behind his words, pushing, jostling each other like a concert crowd. "That's the way I remember it." For nearly two months he'd been jotting them down, bright pieces of the past that came alive as soon as he started writing.
"I see." Stiller leaned closer. "What do you think about that, Franklin?"
It was the same sort of question the doctor had been asking him for weeks on end. "How do you feel about that, Franklin?" when the antidepressants made him dizzy. "Would you like to interject something here?" when the school counselor attended a session, shaking her head, using words like despondent, clinical, withdrawn.
"What do I think?" repeated Franklin, weary and angry at once. "I think I'm sick to death of thinking." And I'm sick of coming here, he wanted to add. Of taking my pills like a good boy. Of trying to help everyone else forget.
"I wonder what would happen," Stiller said, the notebook back in his lap, the tips of his pale fingers pressed together, "if you rewrote those incidents in the past tense."
Franklin stared at the arched fingers of his therapist. A childhood game glided like a large, lazy fish into his mind. Here is the church, he thought, here is the steeple. Open the door, and see all the people. Then Rosey's car turned down the road toward Sundaes Unlimited, and he closed his eyes.
"Do you think you could do that for me, Franklin?"
"Do you think you could take this journal back and choose one of the entries to rewrite?" Franklin opened his eyes, the peak of hands collapsed, and Stiller sat up. "Describe things in the past tense? Put these memories behind you?"
Rosey behind me, Franklin thought. Rosey in front of me, Rosey beside me. Lidded eyes, dark hair with copper highlights flashing like waves. Ring around the Rosey, a pocketful of posies ...
Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.
"Did you hear me, Franklin?" Stiller asked. "Do you think you could do that for me?" He stood up, held the notebook across the distance between them.
Franklin rose and nodded again. He took the book back, and when Stiller reached out with his other hand, Franklin shook it, then hurried out of the office and downstairs into what was left of the afternoon.
"How did it go?" His mother's voice had the same cheerful, tinny sound it did when she asked him about tests at school. But she looked tired, the skin around her eyes and mouth looser, paler than he remembered. When had that happened?
"Okay, I guess." He shed his nylon parka, headed for the refrigerator, avoiding her eyes, her worry.
Ever since he was little, Franklin had been painfully aware that what happened to him happened to his mother, too. He had always had to stay cheerful, healthy, because if he didn't, they both paid. "It's a gene, that's all," he remembered Rosey saying. "A mother gene, and there's nothing you can do about it."
"Dud called," his mother told him. He felt her watching him now, memorizing his moves. "He said everyone's going to the Blue Lantern tonight."
"It's Friday, Mom." He emerged from the fridge with a bag of pumpernickel, a jar of mustard, and the last of a roll of salami. "They go to the Blue Lantern every Friday."
David Dudden had been Franklin's best friend through junior high and three years of high school. For almost that long, he'd been a karaoke freak, dragging Franklin and anyone else willing to tag along to the local k-bar on under-twenty-one night. Sweating in the spotlight, supremely happy, and gyrating obscenely, Dud treated them to off-key renditions of top-forty hits and, when the DJ could find them, songs by a band that everyone else had forgotten. "Red Dwarf is coming back," Dud always told his astonished audience. "You'll see. One day they'll be on top again."
Deftly, automatically, his mother slipped a wooden chopping board onto the counter before Franklin had time to cut into the salami. "You haven't gone out with the gang in a long time. It might be fun."
He shook his head, turned around to look at her. "Mom," he asked, "when you were in high school, did you call the group of kids you hung out with `the gang'?"
She smiled crookedly, like a kindergartner. "No," she admitted.
"Have you ever heard me refer to Dud and Company as `the gang'?"
Again the apologetic grin. "No."
"In fact," he added, spreading the meager slices of meat wide so there would be enough to cover the bread, "did you ever hear anyone except kids on bad sitcoms call their friends `the gang'?"
Defeated and much more cheerful, she brushed his hair back from one ear, then reached above him to the cupboard for a plate. "Nope."
"I rest my case." He closed the sandwich, put it on the plate, and patted its top with a flourish. He walked past her, carrying his late lunch toward his bedroom. "And yes," he told her over his shoulder, "maybe I'll go. Okay?"
He didn't. They both knew he wouldn't. But it bought time, time when he didn't have to see his own grief reflected in her face. Time he could spend in his room, silent and suspended like some slow beast in hibernation. He lay on his bed, Rosey's photo looking at him from the nightstand, their favorite Righteous Brothers disc on the CD player, louder and louder until he didn't need to think.
Lonely rivers flow to the sea, to the sea. The lyrics swelled, trickling like syrup through the music. To the empty arms of the sea. Now he couldn't help hearing the words, couldn't fight the wave that rushed him. Lonely rivers cry, wait for me, wait for me.
I'll be coming home, wait for me. Under the music, outside his door, he heard a timid, scratching sound. "Go away, Mingo," he yelled at the door. "Bad cat!" Rosey had loved his Siamese, loved the way Mingo rode on people's shoulders, his cream-colored body draped like a fur, the way he licked your face, his raspy tongue wetting your nose and cheeks. Since the accident, though, Franklin had hated the sight of his pet. The cat was sixteen years old, the same age Rosey had been. But that made Mingo close to ninety if you counted in cat years. What was wrong with God, anyway? Why did a spoiled feline who refused to eat anything but the most expensive cat food in the store (the label showed a long-haired Persian on a pink satin cushion) deserve to live longer than his girl, his own Rose?
It wasn't fair, it wasn't right. In fact it disproved the entire existence of Godeven if you'd been dragged to church every Sunday for years and still had a Bible with your name in gold letters on the cover. God couldn't exist, Franklin decided, because no God, whether he had ten arms with a flaming sword in each, whether he'd given his only son to the world to be hung on a cross, or whether he was formless and past understandingno God anywhere could help loving Rosey. Could kill her just like that. In an instant. For no reason. No damn reason at all.
He knew what they'd say, his friends, his family, all the well-intentioned people who kept waiting for him to "get over it." They'd say it was unhealthy to shut himself up like this, that Rosey would want him to get on with his life. They'd say he was only making it harder each time he pictured her sitting beside him, her small head nestled against his chest. He was living in a fantasy world, they'd say, if he kept hearing her laugh, like bubbles caught in her throat. Take your medicine, they'd say, see your shrink, they'd say. And all the time, all along, what they really meant was, forget.
But how could he? Why should he? When remembering Rosey was the only relief he felt; when closing his eyes and pretending she was touching him was the only way to stop the constant, lonely rattle inside him. So he did it now. He lay back and let her come to him, let her breath fall like sunlight against his arm when she leaned down and asked again, "So why can't we do it, Lin?"
She tickled his eyelids with the tips of her hair. "It's not like we're going to live forever. We could be dead tomorrow, and never know what great sex is like."
He remembered laughing, pushing her away. "A," he told her, "we're immortal, and B, if my mom comes back early, the sex will definitely not be great."
They had joked about being the world's oldest virgins. It seemed that every time they'd come close to finally "doing it"their clothes in awkward folds under and around them, Franklin's blood racing to all his extremities, even ones he wouldn't needsomething had stopped them. Either the police decided to patrol Harrington Field for the first time in recorded memory, or, like that last time, Franklin hadn't wanted to risk being caught by his mother.
Of course, he knew that his mom knew he had the same urges everyone else did. (He remembered the time she'd started to complain, shortly after his fourteenth birthday, about the way the bathroom tissues kept disappearing, how she'd stopped herself suddenly, turned, and walked, embarrassed, out of his room.) And, if you'd pinned him to the wall, he would even have acknowledged that his mother had probably, at some fuzzy point in the distant past, felt those urges too. But since the divorce, it was a topic they never discussed. He'd even avoided showing too much physical affection for Rosey in front of her. As if his arm around his girl meant one less hug for the other important woman in his life. It wasn't true, it was silly. But somehow, he'd always been careful.
Now, when he wished with every muscle and sinew he'd been a lot less careful, he remembered Rosey's eyes closed, her breath coming hard and fast, and her whole body pressed against his. "Oh, God, Rosey," he said out loud, turning over on the bed, wrestling the sheets into uncomfortable ridges. "You were right." He thought about dying like Rosey had, a virgin. He wondered if that wasn't the only fair thing to do. It didn't seem so much to ask, since he couldn't bear the thought of touching anyone else, much less having sex. Forgive me. He said it inside his head now. Please forgive me, Rose.
"For what?" Rosey asked him. Her voice sounded real, solid. He put his hands over his eyes, trying to imagine the face that went with it, trying to make her stay.
"It wasn't your fault," she said. "I'm the one who didn't wear a seat belt. I'm the one who didn't see that truck. Who ..." Her voice trailed off, dwindled to a sigh. A sigh that came, not from inside Franklin's head but distinctly, clearly, from just beyond his left ear. "Did you hear me, Lin? Open your eyes. I need you to look at me."
But he didn't. Instead he increased the pressure of his palms, blocking out as much light as he could. He didn't want to lose her, he didn't want to open his eyes and find the room empty. "Rose." He groaned it more than he spoke it, balling his hands into fists now, savaging his eyes with his knuckles. "Rose."
"It hurts if you don't see me, Lin." She sounded so sad, so alone, he unclenched his fists, stopped thinking about himself. "I can't feel my arms or legs when you look away. I need you to see me, Lin-san."
Franklin took his hands from his face; then, opening his eyes and blinking, he saw her, actually saw her. Rosey Mishimi was sitting beside him on the bed the way she always had, the way he knew, by all the rules of logic, she shouldn't be, couldn't bewould never be again.