By Francesca Lia Block
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2012 Francesca Lia Block
All rights reserved.
Death is one of them
There are certain things you have to accept. Death is one of them. But when you are seventeen and your mother sits you down and says what my mother said it is really hard to accept death. When you are sixteen and your best friend vanishes without a trace it is hard to accept death. You keep thinking there has been some kind of mistake. Or that you can do something to stop this thing that is so much bigger than you are. Or that, at least, you can make it go away by pretending it isn't there, like a child who covers her eyes and thinks she is invisible to everyone else.
But death is stronger than that and when you cover your eyes you are the one who can't see the dark. The dark still sees you.
* * *
My parents hadn't agreed to let me go away to Berkeley the day they sat me down on the couch in the living room to tell me my mom was sick. We never really used that couch because we liked to hang out in the kitchen, or sit in the den and watch TV together. The living room couch was overstuffed and pale enough to show stains. We saved it for company and important talks. It is where we sat when my parents told me that Jeni had not come back from the school trip to UC Berkeley, the trip I should have gone on with her. It is where the detectives showed us her image from the dorm surveillance camera as she went out alone. It is where we sat the day my mom told me she had cancer.
"We have to talk to you about something," my dad said. His eyes looked puffy and he was holding my mom's hand too tightly.
"What's wrong?" My heart beat faster. It's like your body always knows before you do.
"I got back some test results," my mom said. "There is a problem but we're going to do everything we can to take care of it."
When I was little I used to ask them how long they would live and my mom always said, "We plan on being around for many, many years." I realized, then, for the first time, at seventeen, that it was the perfect answer because I could never accuse her of lying to me, just in case. Now she hadn't said, "We're going to take care of it." She had said, "We're going to do everything we can ..."
My right hand fumbled with the bracelet on my left wrist. Jeni had made it for me with baby block beads, and one for herself that said my name. I never took it off. Besides the postcard that arrived after she disappeared, it was the most important thing of hers I had left. "What's wrong?" I didn't really want to know but I figured that was what I was supposed to say.
"I have a small growth." My mother was looking directly at me and she wasn't crying. She sat up straighter, smoothed back her hair and then leaned forward with her elbows on her knees. I wanted her to hold me and also I didn't. Mostly, I wanted to run.
"A tumor," she said. "It's not benign. They have to do some procedures."
"I think I have to go." I swallowed back the huge lump of sand that was getting bigger every second at the base of my hourglass throat.
"Okay," my dad said. "But if you have any questions, we're here."
Part of me wished they had made me stay. I wanted them to grab me and hold me down and reassure me, but they didn't. They were looking at each other with so much love, sealed up in this bubble where no one could touch them. It was the first time I hadn't been in there, too.
It was hard to move; it felt like there was a mass in my chest, weighing me down, and my arms and legs tingled as if they were expanding to the size of a giant's, but I made myself stand. As I did, I felt the photographs watching me. My mom never put up paintings, just family pictures scattered among the rows of books on the bookcase. There were artsy black-and-whites of me as an infant and huge glossy prints from their wedding. There were all my silly school photos with the swirly blue backgrounds and our professional Christmas shots with the good lighting. There were photos of me in costume for my ballet recitals. A picture of me and Jeni, laughing as she held my waist-length braid under her nose like a moustache. In the pictures before the previous summer I looked hopeful and smiling and even pretty, I guess, as my mom and Jeni always insisted I was, but in the few taken after that, the ones taken after Jeni vanished, I looked pale and lost beneath my too-long hair, wraithlike you might say, fading away. But I realized that the girl in all the pictures — the ones before Jeni and the ones afterward — was different, suddenly, than the girl the pictures were watching.
I walked past all those eyes to the door and stepped outside. It was a hot late spring afternoon. The sky burned blue and the eucalyptus trees gave off a smell like medicine. One black bird strutted across the grass in front of our house. He paused and turned his head so I could see a cold black eye.
That was when I started to run. I ran and ran as fast as I could along the pavement. Sweat poured down my face, mixing with the tears that had started to come. I could run fast. But you just can't run faster than time, not faster than death and, as I'd find out, not faster than love.
Les bienfaits de la lune
People didn't talk about it much when Jeni disappeared. You'd think it would be all they talked about. But maybe it would have made them all insane — mothers and fathers chaining children to their beds even though it had happened in another city, girls clutching at each other wherever they went, waking at night thinking they saw strangers standing over them. Instead they went on as if things could somehow be normal again. They went over to the Benson home with casseroles and flowers. They greeted Jeni's parents politely but nervously on the streets, as if to get too close would endanger them, as if Joanne and Mike were tainted in some way. That was the worst thing we did (I include myself in this) — not go up and hug them every time we saw them, not ask them to talk to us about her. If we did that, the whole thing would have been too real. We would have had to acknowledge that one day there was this girl making name bracelets or ones out of strands of colored thread for you to wish on, working the table at the pet giveaway where her voice went up a notch every time she spoke to the dogs, hugging you like you were her childhood teddy bear, and the next day — not. Some people helped put up missing-person posters but most figured the ones on milk cartons and flyers were more effective. At first we refused to believe she had been stolen away, kidnapped, or possibly worse. We wanted to believe she had run off, somewhere, or, if taken, that it was by someone who did not harm her, not really, someone who would one day leave the chain off the door so she could escape. At our worst moments we wished to hear that she had died, that her bones had been found, so that we could stop hearing her crying in the night, so that we could stand at a grave and put her to rest. And, slowly, everyone seemed to be giving up, except for her parents. And, most of the time, but not enough, me.
Now I had a chance to prove that I had not forgotten her.
After my mom found the lump she changed her mind about letting me go away to Berkeley, to the school where Jeni and I would have gone together. My parents told me they thought it would be good for me to be away while my mom recovered.
Maybe they were willing to let me have this one thing I wanted so much, after so many sad things had happened. Maybe they were too preoccupied with the illness to worry anymore. After arguing with them for months for this chance to get away, I had, with one word, been cast out of their protective circle. And that word hadn't even been said aloud.
* * *
They drove me up north one late August morning, our Prius packed with my belongings. No one said much the whole way. We didn't take the scenic route because we wanted to get there fast, so instead of blue-misted coastline we moved through the dry, barren landscape of I-5; the air stunk of manure and exhaust. It changed as we neared the Berkeley area. The sky was a clear summer cerulean and the hills were covered with green. The little town looked appealing with the Claremont Hotel, grand and white on the hill overlooking the grid of tree-lined streets, the athletic, tanned young men and women riding their bikes and the smell of good coffee in the air. You could see the campanile rising above everything, a white clock tower like a place where a princess would be imprisoned in a fairy tale, and as we drove into town we heard the heavy bells tolling three. One. Two. Three. I tried not to think of it as a sign. The loneliest number. The number in which bad things come.
"The charm," I whispered, instead.
When we got to the dorm I unsuccessfully attempted to swallow the latest lump of sand in my throat. It was just a tall, bleak-looking building with high windows that would have delighted any suicidal freshman but the thing that made my throat close was this: it looked exactly like the one in which Jeni had stayed. In fact, they faced each other. The camera in the lobby was no comfort, more of a threat, a reminder. I paused in front of it, remembering the staticky image the detective showed me of the girl in the striped T-shirt slipping away.
My room was a cubicle with twin beds, two desks, two closets and two chests of drawers. My roommate hadn't arrived yet. I'd never shared a room with anyone in my whole life; it was hard to imagine spending every night for the next nine months with a complete stranger.
"Let's eat, ladies," said my dad when we were through unpacking. He was trying to sound cheerful but I could tell he was distracted. He kept shooting glances at my mom when she wasn't looking, like he was checking to make sure she was still there. She was busy, moving even more quickly than usual, fussing over the bed corners and making sure the Degas and Arthur Rackham posters were evenly hung.
"It's important," she said when my dad told her I could do that later. "It'll make you feel more at home, baby."
We went to dinner at a famous restaurant on the north side of campus, a little wooden two-story house with candlelit tables and nasturtiums in vases. My father ordered gazpacho, salad, goat cheese pizza, figs and prosciutto, grilled salmon and a bottle of pinot but I couldn't stomach much. It was supposed to be festive but no one felt that way. I was secretly wishing that my parents would stay the night. We'd get a hotel room and I'd sleep on a cot at the foot of their bed.
When I was a baby, my mom found me convulsing in my crib from fever. Meningitis. She stayed with me in the hospital the whole night, nursing me in the narrow bed among a tangle of I.V.s. The doctors had told her she couldn't stay but she insisted. She lay on her side all night, my dad told me, with her breast in my mouth.
Her breast where something now grew.
I felt some wine burn back up in my throat.
As we drove to the dorm under a fat white moon wallowing low, we passed the homeless; so many more than we saw in the San Fernando Valley. They drifted like ghosts through air smelling sharply of burnt cheese and rotting fruit. There was a large woman with pale eyes, dancing in circles wearing a pair of children's torn gauze and glitter fairy wings. A small person of unidentifiable gender held the train of her long dress. One man with dreadlocks stood on a corner, prophesying to himself. I tried to make out the words.
They were something like this: "The daimons exist everywhere. If you deny them they will appear in your head! Arise!"
We were stopped at a light and he seemed to be looking right through the dirt-streaked car window at me. I turned my head away to look out the other window and saw another man, a huge man — he must have been close to seven feet tall, even hunched over. He limped along the other side of the street, swaddled in rags, then slowly turned his head so that I saw his eyes watching from under his protruding brow. When he raised his hands up I could see; each one was the size of my head.
I glanced over at my mother; she looked pale and exhausted, small vertical lines showing around her lips. My parents might have allowed me to go, now, but they were still afraid; I could see the night in their eyes.
When we got back to the dorm my roommate was there. Lauren Barnes. A very blond, tan girl in a low-cut T-shirt, tight jeans and diamond studs. I was suddenly conscious of my pale skin, my frayed, mousy hair, shabby vintage sundress and beat-up cowboy boots. The baby bracelet on my wrist that spelled my missing best friend's name.
Lauren took one look at me and my posters. "How did they manage to match us up?"
I didn't know what to say but she laughed and hugged me, a little too hard. "J.K. Just kidding. I think it will be great to expand my horizons." Then she went back to putting away her cashmere sweaters.
My mom fussed around the room some more, straightening the sheets and plumping pillows until my dad made her stop, and then we said good-bye. They were going to get a hotel somewhere along the way back home, they said. I was the one to pull away first when they hugged me. I watched them walk to the parking lot from the ninth-story window of my room. They looked tiny and scared, holding onto each other.
I went down the hall to the coed bathroom, hoping no boys were there yet. I washed my face and brushed my teeth as fast as I could. It seemed unnecessarily cruel not to have separate men's and women's restrooms but my parents had chosen the cheapest option, plus I think they reasoned that I'd be safer with nice young men around. I went back to the room and put on my pajamas while Lauren sat on her bed reading a Cosmo magazine. I couldn't imagine getting used to changing in front of her but it was better than trying to do it in the bathroom stalls with boys shuffling by. I got into bed, flicked on the reading light my mom had bought me and stared at my book of Baudelaire's poetry without actually registering a single word. It didn't matter; I knew them by heart anyway — and this was my favorite poem, the one about the capricious moon overtaking the pale green-eyed child in her bed, "tenderly crushing" her throat so that she always longed to cry.
Finally my eyelids got too heavy and I marked the book with Jeni's postcard, rested my head on the pillow and turned off the light.
As I was drifting off, I thought of how, when I was a little sleepless girl, my mom would come in my bed with me and curl up at the bottom.
"I love you," I'd say. "You're the best mommy in the world." And she'd say, "I love you more." We went on like that back and forth. One night she added, "Someday I hope you meet a man who loves you as much as I do. Because every girl deserves that much love." I reached out and took her hand and that was how I had been able to sleep.
There were no nightmares then, not real ones, no malignancies, no missing girls.
The residue of lonely
I almost went on that school trip with Jeni, and the other students and the chaperone Mr. Kragen, but I got the flu at the last minute. I wonder if I'd gone, would she still be here? She would never have wandered off alone. I'd have been by her side the whole time. After what happened I wanted to go to Berkeley even more. I wanted to be where she had been — to find something, to find myself. Since she'd been gone, I'd gone missing, too. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Elementals by Francesca Lia Block. Copyright © 2012 Francesca Lia Block. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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