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Laura Stone knew exactly how to go to Hell.
She could map out its geography on napkins at departmental cocktail parties; she was able to recite all of the passageways and rivers and folds by heart; she was on a first-name basis with its sinners. As one of the top Dante scholars in the country, she taught a course in this very subject; and had done so every year since being tenured at Monroe College. English 364 was also listed in the course handbook as Burn Baby Burn (or: What the Devil is the Inferno?), and was one of the most popular courses on campus in the second trimester even though Dante's epic poem - the Divine Comedy - wasn't funny at all. Like her husband Daniel's artwork, which was neither comic nor a book, the Inferno covered every genre of pop culture: romance, horror, mystery, crime. And like all of the best stories, it had at its center an ordinary, everyday hero who simply didn't know how he'd ever become one.
Of the three parts of Dante's masterpiece, the Inferno was Laura's favorite to teach - who better to think about the nature of actions and their consequences than teeangers? The story was simple: over the course of three days - Good Friday to Easter Sunday - Dante trekked through the nine levels of Hell, each filled with sinners worse than the next, until finally he came through the other side. The poem was full of ranting and weeping and demons, of fighting lovers and traitors eating the brains of their victims - in other words, graphic enough to hold the interest of today's college students…and to provide a distraction from her real life.
She regarded the students packing the rows in the utterly silent lecture hall. "Don't move," she instructed. "Not even a twitch." Beside her, on the podium, an egg timer ticked away one full minute. She hid a smile as she watched the undergrads - all of whom suddenly had gotten the urge to sneeze or scratch their heads or wriggle. Finally, the timer buzzed, and the entire class exhaled in unison. "Well?" Laura asked. "How did that feel?"
"Endless," a student called out.
"Anyone want to guess how long I timed you for?"
There was speculation: Two minutes. Five.
"Try sixty seconds," Laura said. "Now imagine what it would be like to be encased in ice for eternity. Imagine that the slightest movement would freeze the tears on your face and the water surrounding you. God, as Dante saw Him, was all motion and energy - so the ultimate punishment for Lucifer is to not be able to move at all in his lake of ice. No fire, no brimstone - just the utter inability to take action."
That - at its heart - was why Laura loved this poem…and why, right now, she felt so viscerally connected to it. Sure, it could be seen as a study of religion, or politics. Certainly it was a narrative of redemption. But when you stripped it down, this poem was the story of an ordinary guy in the throes of a midlife crisis.
Not unlike Laura herself.
- - - - - - -
As Daniel Stone waited in the long queue of cars pulling up to the high school, he glanced at the stranger in the seat beside him and tried to remember when she used to be his daughter.
"Traffic's bad today," he said to Trixie, just to fill up the space between them.
Trixie didn't respond. She fiddled with the radio, running through a symphony of static and song bites before punching it off entirely. Her red hair fell like a gash over her shoulder; her hands were burrowed in the sleeves of her North Face jacket. She turned to stare out the window, lost in a thousand thoughts, not a single one of which Daniel could guess.
These days it seemed like the words between them were only there to better outline the silences. Daniel understood better than anyone else that, in the blink of an eye, you might reinvent yourself. He understood that the person you were yesterday might not be the person you are tomorrow. But this time, he was the one who wanted to hold onto what he had, instead of letting go.
"Dad," she said, and she flicked her eyes ahead, where the car in front of them was moving forward.
It was a complete cliché, but Daniel had assumed that the traditional distance that came between teenagers and their parents would pass by him and Trixie. They had a different relationship, after all; closer than most daughters and their fathers, simply because he was the one she came home to every day. He had done his due diligence in her bathroom medicine cabinet and her desk drawers and underneath her mattress - there were no drugs, no accordion-pleated condoms. Trixie was just growing away from him, and somehow that was even worse.
This September - and here was another cliché - Trixie had gotten a boyfriend. Daniel had had his share of fantasies: how he'd be casually cleaning a pistol when she was picked up for her first date; how he'd buy a chastity belt on the Internet. In none of those scenarios, though, had he ever really considered how the sight of a boy with his proprietary hand around his daughter's waist might make him want to run until his lungs burst. And in none of these scenarios had he seen Trixie's face fill with light when he came to the door, the same way she'd once looked at Daniel. Overnight, the little girl who vamped for his home videos now moved like a vixen when she wasn't even trying. Overnight, his daughter's actions and habits stopped being cute, and started being something terrifying.
His wife reminded him that the tighter he kept Trixie on a leash, the more she'd fight the chokehold. After all, Laura pointed out, rebelling against the system was what led her to start dating Daniel. So when Trixie and Jason went out to a movie, Daniel forced himself to wish her a good time. When she escaped to her room to talk to her boyfriend privately on the phone, he did not hover at the door. He gave her breathing space; and somehow, that had become an immeasurable distance.
"Hello?!" Trixie said, snapping Daniel out of his reverie. The cars in front of them had pulled away; the crossing guard was furiously miming to get Daniel to drive up.
"Well," he said. "Finally."
Trixie pulled at the door handle. "Can you let me out?"
Daniel fumbled with the power locks. "I'll see you at three," he said.
"I don't need to be picked up."
Daniel tried to paste a wide smile on his face. "Jason driving you home?"
Trixie gathered together her backpack and jacket. "Yeah," she said. "Jason." She slammed the truck door and blended into the mass of teenagers funneling toward the front door of the high school.
"Trixie!" Daniel called out the window, so loud that several other kids turned around with her. Trixie's hand was curled into a fist against her chest, as if she was holding tight to a secret. She looked at him, waiting.
There was a game they had played when Trixie was little, and would pore over the comic book collections he kept in his studio for research when he was drawing. Best transportation? she'd challenge, and Daniel would say the Batmobile. No way, Trixie had said. Wonder Woman's invisible plane.
Wolverine, Daniel said; but Trixie voted for the Dark Phoenix.
Now, he leaned toward her. "Best superpower?" he asked.
It had been the only answer they agreed upon: Flight. But this time, Trixie looked at him as if he were crazy to be bringing up a stupid game from a thousand years ago. "I'm going to be late," she said, and she started to walk away.
Cars honked, but Daniel didn't put the truck into gear. He closed his eyes, trying to remember what he had been like at her age. At fourteen, Daniel had been living in a different world, and doing everything he could to fight, lie, cheat, steal, and brawl his way out of it. At fourteen, he had been someone Trixie had never seen her father be. Daniel had made sure of it.
Daniel turned to find Trixie standing beside his truck. She curled her hands around the lip of the open window; the glitter in her pink nailpolish catching the sun. "Invisibility," she said, and then she melted into the crowd behind her.
- - - - - - -
Trixie Stone had been a ghost for fourteen days, seven hours, and thirty-six minutes now, not that she was officially counting. This meant that she walked around school and smiled when she was supposed to; she pretended to listen when the algebra teacher talked about commutative properties; she even sat in the cafeteria with the other ninth graders. But while they laughed at the lunch ladies' hairstyles (or lack thereof), Trixie studied her hands and wondered whether anyone else noticed that if the sun hit your palm a certain way, you could see right through the skin, to the busy tunnels with blood moving around inside. Corpuscles. She slipped the word into her mouth and tucked it high against her cheek like a sucking candy, so that if anyone happened to ask her a question she could just shake her head, unable to speak.
Kids who knew (and who didn't? the news had traveled like a forest fire) were waiting to see her lose her careful balance. Trixie had even overheard one girl making a bet about when she might fall apart in a public situation. High school students were cannibals; they fed off your broken heart while you watched, and then shrugged and offered you a bloody, apologetic smile.
Visine helped. So did Preparation H under the eyes, as disgusting as it was to imagine. Trixie would get up at 5:30 in the morning and carefully select a double-layer of long-sleeved t-shirts and a pair of flannel pants; gather her hair into a messy ponytail. It took an hour to make herself look like she'd just rolled out of bed; like she'd been losing no sleep at all over what had happened. These days, her entire life was about making people believe she was someone she wasn't anymore.
Trixie crested the hallway on a sea of noise - lockers gnashing like teeth; guys yelling out afternoon plans over the heads of underclassmen; change being dug out of pockets for vending machines. She turned Trixie turned the corner and saw them: Jessica Ridgeley, with her long sweep of blonde hair and her dermatologist's-daughter skin, was leaning against the door of the AV room kissing Jason.
He was wearing the faded denim shirt she'd borrowed once when he spilled Coke on her while they were studying; and his black hair was a mess. You need a part, she used to tell him, and he'd laugh. I've got better ones, he'd say.
She could smell him -- shampoo and peppermint gum and believe it or not, the cool white mist of utter ice. It was the same smell on the t-shirt she'd hidden in the bottom of her pajama drawer, the one he didn't know she had, the one she wrapped around her pillow each night before she went to sleep. It kept the details in her dreams: a callus on the edge of Jason's wrist, rubbed raw by his hockey glove. The flannel-covered sound of his voice when she called him on the phone and woke him. The way he would twirl a pencil around the fingers of one hand when he was nervous, or thinking too hard.
He was doing that, she remembered, when he broke up with her.
Trixie became a rock, the sea of students parting around her. She watched Jason's hands slip into the back pockets of Jessica's jeans. She could see the dimple on the left side of his mouth, the one that only appeared when he was speaking from the heart.
Was he telling Jessica that his favorite sound was the thump that laundry made when it was turning around in a dryer? That sometimes, he could walk by the telephone and think she was going to call, and sure enough she did? That once, when he was ten, he broke into a candy machine because he wanted to know what happened to the quarters once they went inside?
Was she even listening?
Suddenly, Trixie felt someone grab her arm and start dragging her down the hall, out the door and into the courtyard. She smelled the acrid twitch of a match, and a minute later, a cigarette had been stuck between her lips. "Inhale," Zephyr commanded.
Zephyr Santorelli-Weinstein was Trixie's oldest friend. She had enormous doe-eyes and olive skin and the coolest mother on the planet - one who bought her incense for her room and took her to get her navel pierced like it was an adolescent rite. She had a father, too, but he lived in California with his new family and Trixie knew better than to bring up the subject. "What class have you got next?"
"Madame Wright is senile. Let's ditch."
Bethel High had an open campus, not because the administration was such a fervent promoter of teen freedom, but because there was simply nowhere to go. Trixie walked beside Zephyr along the access road to the school, their faces ducked against the wind; their hands stuffed into the pockets of their North Face jackets. The criss-cross pattern where she'd cut herself an hour earlier on her arm wasn't bleeding anymore, but the cold made it sting. Trixie automatically started breathing through her mouth, because even from a distance, she could smell the gassy, rotten-egg odor from the paper mill to the north that employed most of the adults in Bethel. "I heard what happened in Psych," Zephyr said.
"Great," Trixie muttered. "Now the whole world thinks I'm a loser and a freak."
Zephyr took the cigarette from Trixie's hand and smoked the last of it. "What do you care what the whole world thinks?"
"Not the whole world," Trixie admitted. She felt her eyes prickle with tears again, and she wiped her mitten across them. "I want to kill Jessica Ridgeley."
"If I were you, I'd want to kill Jason," Zephyr said. "Why do you let it get to you?"
Trixie shook her head. "I'm the one who's supposed to be with him, Zephyr. I just know it."
They had reached the turn of the river past the park-and-ride, where the bridge stretched over the Androscoggin River. This time of year, it was nearly frozen over; with great swirling art sculptures that formed as ice built up around the rocks that crouched in the riverbed. If they kept walking another quarter-mile, they'd reach the town, which basically consisted of a Chinese restaurant, a minimart, a bank, a toy store, and a whole lot of nothing else.
Zephyr watched Trixie cry for a few minutes, then leaned against the railing of the bridge. "You want the good news or the bad news?"
Trixie blew her nose in an old tissue she'd found in her pocket. "Bad news."
"Martyr," Zephyr said, grinning. "The bad news is that my best friend has officially exceeded her two week grace period for mourning over a relationship, and that she will be penalized from here on in."
At that, Trixie smiled a little. "What's the good news?"
"Moss Minton and I have sort of been hanging out."
Trixie felt another stab in her chest. Her best friend, and Jason's?. "Really?"
"Well, maybe we weren't actually hanging out. He waited for me after English class today to ask me if you were okay…but still, the way I figure it, he could have asked anyone, right?"
Trixie wiped her nose. "Great. I'm glad my misery is doing wonders for your love life."
"Well, it's sure as hell not doing anything for yours," Zephyr said. "You can't keep crying over Jason. He knows you're obsessed." She shook her head. "Guys don't want high-maintenance, Trix. They want…Jessica Ridgeley."
"What the fuck does he see in her?"
Zephyr shrugged. "Who knows. Bra size? Neanderthal IQ?" She pulled her messenger bag forward, so that it she could dig inside for a pack of M&Ms. Hanging from the edge of the bag were twenty linked pink paper clips.
Trixie knew girls who kept a record of sexual encounters in a journal, or by fastening safety pins to the tongue of a sneaker. For Zephyr, it was paper clips. "A guy can't hurt you if you don't let him," Zephyr said, running her finger across the paper clips, so that they danced.
These days, having a boyfriend or a girlfriend was not in vogue; most kids trolled for random hookups. The sudden thought that Trixie might have been that to Jason made her feel sick to her stomach. "I can't be like that."
Zephyr ripped open the bag of candy and passed it to Trixie. "Friends with benefits. It's what the guys want, Trix."
"How about what the girls want?"
Zephyr shrugged. "Hey, I suck at algebra; I can't sing on key; and I'm always the last one picked for a team in gym…but apparently I'm quite gifted when it comes to hooking up."
Trixie turned, laughing. "They tell you that?"
"Sure," Zephyr said. "Don't knock it until you've tried it. You get all the fun, without any of the baggage. And the next day you just act like it never happened."
Trixie tugged on the paper clip chain. "If you're acting like it never happened, they why are you keeping track?"
"Once I hit a hundred, I can send away for the free decoder ring," Zephyr joked "I don't know. I guess it's just so I remember where I started."
Trixie opened her palm and surveyed the M&Ms. The food coloring dye was already starting to bleed against her skin. "Why do you think the commercials say they won't melt in your hands, when they always do?"
"Because everyone lies," Zephyr replied.
All teenagers knew this was true. The process of growing up was nothing more than figuring out what doors hadn't yet been slammed in your face. For years, Trixie's own parents had told her that she could be anything, have anything, do anything. That was why she'd been so eager to grow up - until she got to adolescence and slammed into a big, fat wall of reality. As it turned out, she couldn't have anything she wanted. You didn't get to be pretty or smart or popular just because you wanted it. You didn't control your own destiny; you were too busy trying to fit in. Even now, as she stood here, there were a million parents setting their kids up for heartbreak.
Zephyr stared out over the railing. "This is the third time I've cut English this week."
In French class, Trixie was missing a quiz on le subjonctif. Verbs, apparently, had moods too: they had to be conjugated a whole different way if they were used in clauses to express want, doubt, wishes, judgment. She had memorized the red-flag phrases last night: It is doubtful that. It's not clear that. It seems that. It may be that. Even though. No matter what. Without.
She didn't need a stupid leçon to teach her something she'd known for years: Given anything negative or uncertain, there were rules that had to be followed.