The house was growing. Eight-year-old Abby MacNeil heard it at night the low groan of the walls, the floorboards creaking, the radiator pipes letting out long and shuddering sighs. Abby would lie still in the dark and listen as the old house complained about its aching wooden bones. It was their first house she and her father had lived in apartments ever since her mother left, and before that, a trailer and so she accepted its growing pains as something old houses did in the night.
When they'd first moved to this house a month ago, in the dead of summer, her father had argued that this third-floor room would be too hot for a bedroom. And, in fact, it was stifling up here, where the heat seemed to thicken the airless shadow beneath the slanted ceilings. But Abby still loved it. The room was round like a fairy-tale tower, with a pointed cap roof of green shingles. From its high windows Abby could see the backyard and the weedy fields beyond, and farther still, the woods, cool and green and inviting. At night sometimes, with the window open, they seemed to whisper to her, as if there were children there at play just out of sight behind the trees. Calling to her, an invitation to come and play....
She'd listen to them, and the sound of the house's long sighs as it settled in for the night, and then she'd fall asleep...
...And wake in darkness. Tonight. Around her, the house had grown still, and was silent. Her eyes searched the surrounding black, and she felt a tickle of panic. She was alone, and awake. In the dark.
She reached out to turn on the bedside lamp, gave its tiny chain a tug. Click-click. Nothing. She felt for the lightbulb and was surprised when her fingers felt something soft instead: small, feathered, dead. Like a stuffed bird stuck in the fixture. She pulled her hand away with a tiny gasp. Smelled her fingers. Moldy, like decaying leaves.
Now her eyes were beginning to adapt to the deep darkness. What she saw made her frown with its unfamiliarity. The room was bigger than she remembered from just hours ago, when her father had switched off the light.
In the textured darkness, she saw the walls as supple, like skin. Curious now, wanting to touch it, Abby swung her legs out from under the covers. Stood, feeling the natty weave of the rug beneath her bare feet. Began venturing out into the dark, groping ahead of her. Touched the wall and recoiled.
The wall had flinched. She jerked her hand away, as if stung. But more curious now than afraid, she approached again, lay her palm against the wallpaper, more gently now, as if it were a nervous animal. Moved her hand slowly over the wall, soothing it.
She felt its pulse. Deep, slow...confused it with her own. She was almost certain now the house was breathing...
...and that she was dreaming. She understood that dreaming was sometimes just as vivid as the things she did in daylight. But she had yet to develop the adult reflex to pull away from a dream, to deny what was happening so sharply that she woke herself up. So Abby accepted the dream, and decided to explore it.
She groped along the floor, venturing farther from the bed. Some of the things she found in the dark were familiar, her grandmother's rocker, the glass doorknob on the closet (it looked like a big diamond), her rolltop desk. But there were other things here as well, things long since lost. A doll with a hard plastic head, a favorite toy when she was three. (She could feel its bristly eyelashes on its open eyes.) A wooden duck that paddled after her when she tugged its leash. She hadn't seen that since she was a toddler.
She left these curiosities and continued to explore the growing dimensions of her room. She followed the round walls with trailing fingers, discovered the variations in its texture, sometimes smooth and sometimes furred, sometimes rough like bark. She found a chair that wasn't there in the daylight, its cottony insides bursting through a rip in the fabric. She found a bookcase, and pulled down one of its heavy volumes. She opened the book and tried to feel the words with her fingertips, like a blind person. She explored farther, realizing now with a glimmer of uneasiness that she had ventured very far from the safety of her bed.
Then she found the staircase.
It waited, disappearing below in the darkness. Not the stairs that were outside her room in daylight. These stairs were formed from smooth stones, the grit of dirt between them, cold against her bare feet.
She sat down on the top step and deliberated exploring farther. Already this dream had lingered much longer than the others. Already she'd ventured too far from the bed she knew. Could she find her way back now if she descended these stairs?
She would try. She stood, and took one exploratory step down. That wasn't so bad. She took three more, feeling braver now. She descended each step carefully, pausing before the next. She could feel the cool, open space waiting below for her. Cool like a basement. It smelled like a basement, too, cool and dank, though there were none of the chemical smells of paint cans and rusting tools found in her own basement.
How many steps had she gone down? She'd lost count. Finally she put her foot out for the next step and found there were no more. She'd arrived at the bottom. The floor here was earthen, gritty and hard beneath her bare feet. The darkness seemed deeper here, too. She couldn't see the room ahead, but she could smell its vivid contents, a dizzying potpourri of scents...dried flowers, raisins, dead leaves, and stagnant water. Then beyond these scents, others: candle wax, animal fur, ashes. She was disoriented, and with the disorientation came fear. She retreated a step toward the security of the stairs but couldn't find them now behind her. Like a stage set that was moved while the audience was distracted.
She fumbled, groping for the missing stairs. Couldn't find them. And became even more disoriented.
Her fingers fluttered in the open air, trying to find something firm, an edge or corner. Some reliable surface to lead her back home...
Nothing. More open space.
And then suddenly, something: her fingers found cloth, worn cotton or lace, folded and creased. Was it a curtain? A fringe of tablecloth. She clung to it, not quite solid but still reassuring against this absolute dark. There was so much fabric, and beneath it something more solid, stuffing or soft wood. She explored its shape with her hands, recognizing carved wooden feet and arms. A chair. She felt a little better. She could curl up in this chair and wait for morning. Wait for her father to find her. She tried to climb up into the seat...
She reached up to feel the back of the chair and was surprised when her hands felt something rough, not the smooth cushion she'd expected. Rough and weathered, like leather...A face.
Someone was sitting in the chair.
Before Abby could snatch her hand away from that face the mouth opened suddenly and her fingers were sucked in.
Abby sat bolt upright in her bed, screaming. She shivered, gasping for breath.
The door to her bedroom opened, and with it came light from the hallway. Her father was there, profiled in the hallway light. Groggy and mad. "What's going on in here?"
He came in, sat on the edge of her bed. Yawning, taking her into his arms. "All right now, you're okay," her father said. "Musta had a bad dream. I told you not to eat chips before bed."
Abby clutched him tighter. Already now the dream was fading, her room was small and round again. She stared beyond him, trying to wipe the sticky saliva from her devoured fingers on his undershirt.
Hours later, she was too deeply asleep to hear the thump overhead as something heavy came down from the sky and landed hard on her little pointed roof. She was too deep into blissfully dreamless sleep to hear the chittering across the green shingles overhead as the thing that had invaded her dreams paid a midnight visit. The roof beams creaked beneath its weight, then were silent as her visitor leaned over the edge of its new perch, claws curled over the rusting gutter, and looked in.
The shrill buzzing of the alarm clock sounded like a fly exploring Wendy's ear. She swatted at it, missed the snooze but managed to sweep most of the contents of the bedside table onto the floor. She flopped over, yawning. Gave her senses time to wake at their own pace. Sight first: white ceiling, obnoxiously chipper sunlight. Then smell: this morning's coffee, yesterday's incense.
With a long sigh, she struggled out of bed and surveyed the chaos that had been her room for the last three years. Her mother had left it alone for once. Everything scattered where she'd left it: clothes, charm bottles, crystals, books, jewelry. Wait not everything. Her pentagram. Must've flipped itself upside down during the night. Now it hung on the wall with two points up, the symbol of the goat. Bad mojo. She spun it on its nail, transforming Goat into Man. The symbol of white magic.
Her parents accused her of being disorganized, but Wendy (who was taking an intro. psychology course this semester) countered that she was simply a right-brain organizer. That argument didn't discourage her mother from her midnight Clean and Organize missions. Yet another problem with living at home instead of in a dorm. But paying for room and board at a dorm a quarter mile away from home was even tougher to justify to her parents than her sloppiness. Especially when your dad was president of the college, and you lived in the president's mansion. The college waived her tuition, but not dorm housing costs, and her father made it plain that if she wanted a dorm room, she would be footing the bill.
She dragged herself onto her exercise bike and began pedaling mechanically. Gotta establish the rhythm: eyes closed, upper body swaying. Exercising was brutal this morning, especially after another restless night of weird dreams. The odometer stood at 1,249 miles. She'd thumbtacked a U.S. map to her wall, marked how far she'd managed to pedal in spirit at least away from here, this quaint little freckle on the backside of Massachusetts. Today's aerobic session should bring her to the outskirts of Jacksonville, Florida. She closed her eyes and tried to imagine herself there. Gators. Sunshine. Anywhere but here...
A half hour later and a few hundred calories lighter, she made the long trek to the shower. She reemerged ten minutes later, swaddled in a Big Thirsty towel. She hopscotched her way across the book-littered floor, being careful not to stub her toe on the Western canon. School stuff a psych text ($68.50), a weather-beaten English lit reader (a compulsory course for freshman). Then the scattered syllabus of her own independent course of study: classics of numerology, pyramid power, astrology. Titles like: Witchcraft through the Ages. Wicca. Gaia's Grace. Trance Channeling Understood. The most recent purchased with an employee discount at the New Age shop downtown where she worked. She spent most of her paycheck before she'd even walked out the door.
She kicked these few titles out of the way, searching for today's wardrobe. Color coordination wasn't an issue: practically everything she owned was some shade of black. She found a relatively unwrinkled blouse, her I-feel-frumpy-today jeans, black sandals. She dressed quickly, lingering only when it came to accessories.
She settled on old favorites: a crystal pendant, silver bangles, a black onyx ring. She deliberated when it came to earrings. Lately she'd even been considering letting the holes in her earlobes close. She'd taken out her nose ring for good her junior year of high school, when she realized even the class valedictorian had one. The navel ring had been a complete waste of time and pain since she was way too embarrassed to ever flaunt a bare abdomen in public. That left her pierced ears as the only remaining bit of sentimental body mutilation left...wouldn't it be a radical move to let them heal! But she was waffling and decided to let the issue go another day. In went the dangly silver crescent moons. At least piercings could close up if you got sick of them. The tattoo of a quarter moon and three five-pointed stars above her right ankle was something she'd need a goggled technician and a laser to get rid of someday.
She threw her books into her backpack and sprinted out. Downstairs, the folks were finishing breakfast. She gave her dad a quick peck on the bald top of his head.
Wendy reached around to straighten his tie. "Why the three-button blazer today, pater? Bankers?"
As president of Danfield College, her father's days were spent raising funds for the school's endowment. Either locally, or in Boston, Cambridge, and the technology-heavy Route 128 corridor.
"Biotechnology. Someplace in Cambridge."
Wendy stole a sip of his coffee, a bite of his toast (black; dry). She said, "Nice, Dad. Soliciting funds from bioterrorists."
Her mother appeared with a glass of OJ for her. "Actually, dear, they make skin."
Her father lowered his newspaper. "Synthetic skin. For grafts, burn victims, that sort of thing."
"Didn't realize there was big money to be made in skin," Wendy said. But there must be, if her father was traveling all the way to Cambridge to meet with the skin-mongers.
As she dashed toward the door, her mother caught her sleeve. "What about breakfast?"
"Late for class."
"Eat something anyway." Of course her mom had already been up since dawn, assembling the impeccable ensemble she now wore: silk blouse, cream-colored skirt, a single strand of freshwater pearls. Accented by an hour's worth of cosmetics. Classy. Would you buy a house from this woman? Her mother certainly hoped so.
Wendy scooped a handful of Raisin Gravel into her mouth, chased it with a gulp of juice and turned to go. Her mother followed her out to the foyer.
"Honey, I need to talk to you for a second." Using her Quiet Voice. Something urgent, to be kept secret from her father.
Her mother hesitated, unsure how to begin. "I know classes are casual, sweetheart, but couldn't you find something a little less...wrinkled?"
Wendy rolled her eyes. "C'mon, Carol, I don't have time for this."
"Wendy." Sharper now. Not just nagging. "I know you want to just pretend that you're...the same as every other freshman. But you're not. You're the president's daughter. Believe it or not, that makes a difference."
Wendy's jaw set in an angry line. "Actually, Mom, I couldn't care less about being 'the same' as every other freshman. Conformity isn't exactly a high priority in my life."
"Maybe it should be." Her mother said quickly. Rewind. "That's not what I meant. I only meant to say...people notice. What the president's daughter does. How she dresses..." Her mother's face softened. She touched Wendy's hair. "I always liked your long hair. Won't you consider letting it grow out again?"
"I gotta go." She rolled her eyes and ducked out before her mother could try to hug her.
Outside, the day was hazy and hot, Indian summer coming to a reluctant end. Wendy jogged across the rolling lawn, which was wet from the sprinkler system the college's landscapers ran around the clock, drought-be-damned. Her car was waiting in the long gravel drive, a battered Gremlin she'd chosen over the more sensible Accords and Civics her father had offered when she turned sixteen.
As she was unlocking the hatchback, her father appeared on the front doorstep with his briefcase. "Try to keep it on the road today," he called. "It runs better without shrubbery in the grill."
"Okay, so I thought it was in 'Park,'" Wendy called back.
Her father crossed the lawn toward her. His own car, a silver BMW, waited a few car lengths and several rungs up the automotive evolutionary ladder away. He slipped an arm around her waist and looked at the Gremlin's glossy black chassy. He secretly admired the battered piece of shit. Probably reminded him of some psilocybin-inspired road trip during his own college days, maybe a girl with armpit hair and a Navajo blanket in the backseat...
"How's the paint holding up?"
"Starting to chip a little."
He grunted, looking where she pointed. When they'd bought the Gremlin it had been a sickening bioluminescent green, the color you want to imagine for nuclear waste. Together, they'd spent the better part of a weekend and $69.99 repainting the car to its current glossy black. Where the paint sported nicks, however, its former florescence glowed through.
Wendy looked up at her father suddenly. "Would you like me better with more hair, Daddy?"
He considered a moment, smart enough to know his answer mattered. "Not if it means you'll start spending as much time inthe bathroom as your mother." A nonanswer. He gave her a kiss and headed off for Cambridge.
She opened the Gremlin's hatchback carefully. Beeswax candles, overdue library books, and empty Diet Coke cans spilled out at her feet. The car was a four-cylinder Dumpster. She tossed her backpack onto the heap and checked her watch. Five minutes to class.
The president's mansion was on the college's west side, which meant a dash across campus to student parking, out in the hinterlands with Maintenance and the tennis courts. A five-minute drive on a good day, which this wasn't. Twice she almost hit frat boys on bikes darting out from parked cars. (One flipped her off.) Then when she yielded to pedestrians at the lone traffic light on campus the Gremlin conked out. By the time she got it started again she had an audience, including two hecklers beside her in a converted jeep/date-rape mobile. "Dyke!" one called as they sped off, leaving her in a cloud of blue exhaust.
"Thanks," she said. "You have a good one too." Pretending it didn't sting. She slipped the Gremlin back into gear, and it lurched ahead.
With only three thousand students and a dozen academic departments, Danfield's campus remained self-contained. Most of the classrooms were clustered around Parris Beach, which had been nicknamed for the central lawn with its narrow reflecting pool. In good weather, sunbathers populated the lawn. The whole place was surrounded by a low brick wall. All interconnected with cobblestone bike paths and little grassy quads. Très picturesque. But a nightmare for commuters. Scoring a campus parking permit required a Byzantine journey through the administrative netherworld, and being the president's daughter apparently didn't count. ("Honey, I'd help you," her father said early in the term, "but you can bet there are a dozen little would-be Woodwards and Bernsteins on the student paper just dying to uncover evidence of presidential favoritism.")
When she finally arrived at her freshman comparative lit class, the seats were already nearly full. Three hundred fellow frosh, gulping down breakfast lattes and Cokes from the student center, grumbling at the early hour. Wendy stood at the base of the stairs looking up the tiered ranks, scanning for an open seat. Very aware that the class bell had rung five minutes ago.
Professor Karen Glazer appeared at Wendy's elbow, pointing up to the back of the hall. "There are a few seats left in the nosebleeds." She gave Wendy a disapproving look. "I'm still signing drop/add slips if you're having trouble making it to my class on time, Wendy."
"Sorry," she mumbled, then hurried up the stairs, receiving plenty of amused stares from her classmates.
As fate and the chaos theory of student seating would have it, she had to pass right by Jack Carter, Danfield's blond, toothy quarterback, whose mission it was to stamp out individuality wherever he saw it. "Look, it's the black hole of Windale," he whispered to his minientourage of Jensen Hoyt and Cyndy Sellers, both of whom giggled obligingly. Wendy discreetly blew him a kiss with her middle finger.
She caught a lone smile among the sea of hostile faces: Frankie Lenard, the pudgy little blond women's studies major from Los Angeles who had befriended Wendy at orientation. Frankie gave her a sympathetic quirk of the lips as Wendy climbed the stairs past her and slumped in the first open seat she found.
"Here, you missed this." A voice spoke quietly beside Wendy. She turned and found the second sympathetic smile of the day, this one unexpected. Lanky guy, nice eyes was that a scar over his right eyelid something reluctant about his smile, like he expected to get in trouble for it. He was dressed in khakis and a loud Hawaiian shirt. Fashion throwback or...nonconformist? She liked that in a guy. Scuffed-up pair of Ray Bans on his stack of texts. Maybe he thought he was at the University of Honolulu. Boy, did he have a surprise coming in about four months.
He showed her a photocopied page. "She handed these out before you got here. You can look off mine if you want."
"Thanks." Wendy glanced at the page, which described the parameters for an upcoming class term paper, eight to ten pages, three cited references, yadda-yadda-yadda.
"I'm Alex," the Good Samaritan said, and actually offered a hand to shake. She laughed, and gave his hand a squeeze. "Beat you here by about thirty seconds."
"Wendy," she said, introducing herself.
"Guess you wouldn't be late if you didn't have to park all the way over in East Lot," Alex said, then, at her confused look: "Black Gremlin, right?"
"You almost ran me over the other day." Matter-of-factly. "It's okay, really. My fault. I was jaywalking, headphones on..."
Wendy shook her head, smiling. "Sometimes I think that car's possessed. It's always "
"Wendy!" Professor Glazer interrupted, her voice sounding nearby in the acoustically sensitive lecture hall. Wendy snapped away from Alex, saw her prof glaring. She was a ferocious little woman, Professor Glazer. Even six months pregnant.
"Since you're so chatty today, why don't you help us get started with Hawthorne..."
Karen Glazer looked up at her student at the back of the lecture hall and waited. Wendy Ward, daughter of the college president, looked embarrassed to be caught flirting with the handsome guy next to her. Mortified now to be on the spot.
"Hawthorne, professor?" The poor kid's voice came out a squeak. Karen took pity.
"Give us your impressions of Hawthorne's House of the Seven Gables. Go ahead, throw out anything. Help get us started on a Monday morning."
An uncomfortable silence. Then, suddenly, the girl actually came through with a response. "Well...Hawthorne comes right out and says the moral of his book in the preface. Which was kind of surprising. I mean, usually writers disguise their morals in symbolism and whatnot."
Whatnot? Karen let it slide. "And what is Hawthorne's moral?"
The girl was thumbing through her copy of the novel. She found the passage and read aloud: "'That the wrong-doing of one generation lives into the successive ones.'"
"Exactly!" Bless you, child, was what Karen really wanted to say. Bless you for actually reading my assignment. She did a quick mental shuffle, reclassifying Larry Ward's kid from the overcrowded Space Cadet classification to the more rarified category Promising Student. An endangered species.
"And what are the 'wrongdoings' that haunt the generations in Gables?" Karen prompted, building momentum now, opening the question up to the entire class.
Silence. "C'mon, guys, this is an easy one."
Finally, an anonymous reply: "Witchcraft?"
"The accusation of witchcraft," Karen corrected. "Colonel Pyncheon falsely accuses his enemy Matthew Maule of witchcraft and Maule is hanged! What do you think of that? Kinda appropriate this time of year, don't you think?" She looked out at the gallery of blank faces, searching for some glimmer. Nada. If anything, they seemed embarrassed for her and her enthusiasm for this 150-year-old book. Karen felt herself deflate a little before their critical gaze. An unpleasant feeling. She was losing them.
She felt a sudden sharp kick from the baby, and put a hand to her belly. Thanks, kid. Her own daughter joining the chorus of disapproval. She felt the gap between generations yawning suddenly wider before her. Felt a vertiginous lurch, toes at the precipice. Looking across the chasm at those blank, dispassionate faces on the other side of youth. Her students. Somebody's children. Each year she felt the distance from them growing. Was it simply a matter of age? At thirty-eight, Karen didn't feel old, exactly, at least not physically. In fact she felt for the first time her right age: she'd been thirty-eight for the last two decades. Back in college in Boston, then grad school, she'd always been a little out of sync with her classmates. Even from her friends, whose companionship felt more like a coincidence of common sensibilities, interdepartmental alliances, than true kinship. Would her daughter's love be similarly coincidental? A matter of convenience, of cohabitation? Would they grow apart, like roommates who drift out of touch because they were never really friends? Would her own daughter someday give her the same glazed-over look of incomprehension as this gallery of strangers?
"Professor?" A girl's voice. Karen snapped back into focus. Saw a raised hand Wendy again.
"Did you assign this book to hint that we shouldn't celebrate witch killing?"
Karen smiled. "Not exactly the best reason to have a parade, is it? But no, I don't have a secret political agenda in assigning Hawthorne. That's later in the term, when we read The Scarlet Letter." She perched herself on the edge of her desk and looked up at Wendy, grateful to the girl for helping get her back on track.
"I picked Gables as our first novel because it's fun if you bother to read it and because it takes place in a New England town similar to our own beloved Windale. And because it's a big ripe American novel by a guy who wasn't afraid of literary special effects." a few smiles now among the crowd, when she picked out individual faces "So there's plenty for us to chew on together." Karen opened her edition to the first passage she planned to talk about. "Shall we?"
Forty minutes later, Karen popped a cough drop into her mouth and watched her students filing out. She'd left them the assignment of reading the next three chapters of Gables; a few had looked at her like she'd asked them to transcribe the text into ancient Greek.
Eva Hartman slipped into the lecture hall from her own classroom next door, where her contemporary German lit (conducted entirely in the original tongue) was just letting out. "You want to catch lunch later?" she asked Karen.
"Rain check. I've got my monthly with the obstetrician."
"How are you feeling?" Eva was a vet when it came to pregnancies, with two startlingly blond, bilingual children in the Friends Select school favored by faculty parents.
"Not bad," Karen said. "She kicks a little more vigorously than I expected."
"Keeping you awake at night?" Eva asked, then explained her concern: "You've been looking tired."
"Bad dreams, actually." She flashed a smile to show she wasn't crazy. "Last night was this incredibly vivid tour of colonial Windale. Quite spooky."
"Too much Hawthorne before bed," Eva said, nodding with a smile toward the copy of Gables in Karen's arms. "You better take care of yourself, Karen. The last trimester can really suck the life out of you. Don't think you'll catch up on missed sleep after the baby's born."
"Don't worry," Karen said with a little laugh, "I'm not that naive."
Wendy casually gathered her books and notebooks into a manageable pile as Frankie came up the steps toward her. Most of the other students had rushed by including Jack "Quarterback" Carter, who shook his head and gave her a thumb's down followed by a finger up how original when she realized Alex was hesitating over his own pile of academia. Waiting for her?
"Alex, thanks again...."
"No problem," he said, propping his sunglasses in his hair.
You can do better than that, Wendy. She smiled, "So, what's your short and sweet here at Danfield?"
"My 'short and sweet'?"
"You know, your bio, personal sound bite, facts and figs," she said. "Look, I'll go first. Wendy Ward, freshman, biology major, dabbler in the arcane and, sadly, a townie." She left off the 'college president's daughter' section of her résumé. "Favorite color? Much too obvious."
Alex laughed. "Let's see...Alex Dunkirk, freshman, finance major, dabbler in the track and field here at Danfield, Minneapolis born and raised. Favorite color? Paisley."
Now Wendy laughed. "Paisley? Really?"
Frankie had sidled up next to Wendy, all smiles and ears.
"Athletic scholarship, right?" Wendy asked Alex.
Something unrelated clicked for her. "You know, I think you're in my astronomy class."
"That would probably be me."
Frankie had been looking back and forth between them. "Fine, if you guys are gonna ignore me anyway, I'll go chat with the prof."
Wendy snagged her sleeve.
"That's okay," Alex said, scooping up his books and backing away. "I'm about to be late for macroeconomics anyway. Nice meeting you, Wendy," he said, again offering his hand. She shook it, couldn't help grinning like a...like a schoolgirl. "And you...?" Alex said, looking at Frankie.
"Frankie," she said with a cursory smile.
"Nice meeting you too, Alex," Wendy called after him, with a halfhearted wave after he'd already turned his back to her. She looked at Frankie and headed off the avalanche of questions by saying, "If you want to talk to Professor Glazer, you'd better hurry. Think she's about to leave."
"Professor Glazer?" Karen looked at the girl before her and struggled for a name to match the round little face, the tight blond curls. Blank. But she was with Wendy, so Karen gave her points for keeping good company.
"I just wanted to say, professor, that I really think it's great, what you're doing." Behind her (Frankie! That was it!) Wendy looked embarrassed for her friend.
"What exactly am I doing?"
"Having a child. On your own, I mean. As a single parent," Frankie said, putting a hand on Karen's arm. "I think it's a really strong thing for a woman to do. We talked about it for, like, an hour the other day in class."
"You talked about my pregnancy in a class?!"
"Freshman seminar, actually. Contemporary women's issues. Professor Bennett."
Ah, Jessica Bennett. Danfield's own home-grown Camille Paglia. Very vocal in her support of Karen's pregnancy...though Karen secretly suspected Bennett was Patient Zero in the epidemic of interdepartmental speculation about the identity of the father of Karen's child. Karen was tempted simply to quash the gossip by announcing that she'd gone to a sperm bank. Tempted, in other words, to lie.
"Tell Professor Bennett I'm honored to make her syllabus," Karen said to Frankie. Wendy tugged her friend away by the arm before she could bury her Birkenstock any farther in her mouth. She flashed Karen an apologetic look. Karen was liking her more and more.
"What?" Frankie said as she walked double-time to keep up with Wendy, her sandals slap-slapping in the hallway.
"I cannot believe you just said that!" Wendy rolled her eyes heavenward.
"Why? I think it's very strong of her. I wanted her to know I support her decision."
"I'm sure she's grateful, Frankie."
As they exited Pearson and began to power walk back in the direction of student parking, Frankie asked, "So who's the guy you were flirting with?"
"That wasn't flirting. It was fraternizing."
"With the enemy."
"What, you don't like guys now that you're a women's studies major?"
"I'm physically attracted to them, yes. But that's just biology. I have no control over that." Getting out of breath now.
"Let me guess, that love charm I gave you didn't work."
"Great big round zero," Frankie said. "Besides, intellectually, I disapprove of everything men stand for."
"Which would be?"
"Aggression. Warfare. Organized sports."
"Then you definitely wouldn't like Alex. He's on the track team." She flashed a wicked little smile. "Track guys have great legs."
"And just where exactly is this going?"
"Nowhere," Wendy said, suddenly darkening. "It was probably a random blip. The blind squirrel finding an occasional acorn. Next class, he'll probably sit on the other side of Pearson. Chat up some other coed. End of story."
Wendy and Frankie reached the Gremlin and battled traffic all the way to the campus radio station, WDAN. By the time they arrived, Frankie had prattled on for twenty minutes and Wendy didn't mind seeing her leave. Frankie leaned in through the Gremlin's open passenger window for a final piece of advice: "Ask him out. But don't expect any sympathy from me when it all goes sour."
Her friend turned to go. "And don't forget to listen to my show!" she said, pointing to the call letters stenciled on the radio station's door.
Wendy turned on the Gremlin's old dashboard stereo. A man's voice announced, "Stay tuned for 'Sisters in Song,' which will be on just as soon as your host, Frankie Lenard, decides to show up..."
Art clicked off the studio mike and cued a PSA cart. Over the speakers, the public service announcement (Art's own prerecorded voice) warned whoever was listening at ten in the morning that "Swimmer's ear is more than a summertime nuisance...untreated, it can lead to painful swelling, infection, even hearing loss!"
He pushed away from the console and tipped his head back, closing his eyes and for the moment, letting everything fall away except for a heightened awareness of his breathing. The breathing meditation was supposed to help Art center himself, empty out a cluttered head, but usually all he achieved was a heightened awareness of how shitty this job was anymore. His eyes snapped open suddenly: overhead he saw crumbling acoustic tiles, badly water damaged. With an annual budget in the low five figures, no advertising, and a staff of unreliable volunteers, WDAN was a leaking ship awaiting decommission. And Art was the only guy holding a bucket. He looked at his watch: ten-fifteen. No Frankie Lenard yet, no "Sisters in Song." He cued a second PSA to stall. ("Do you have an eating disorder, or know someone who does?") The student DJs who signed up for airtime did it for fun, or (in the unlikely event they were communications majors) for a half credit of Independent Study. Could he really blame them for being late? These kids were out busy discovering life, reading Walt Whitman, figuring out all the various interesting combinations for genitalia. Art envied them. He'd been envying them for the last fourteen years.
Some of the student DJs Art had managed back then were now MDs, JDs, PhDs. Christ, some were on the faculty now. And Art? Fourteen years later, he was still behind the console, filling in for another tardy kid. Recording PSAs for Big Brothers/Big Sisters and the National Association of Podiatrists. And still chasing down that last little bit of research for his own dissertation.
Actually, he was going to have to start thinking of the dissertation in the past tense. No longer a work in progress. He'd submitted it two weeks earlier, and its absence on his desk still haunted him like a phantom limb. Which opened up a whole other avenue of dread...
What would happen when he was awarded his degree? It had been two weeks now since he submitted his long-awaited dissertation, which examined the social impacts of the textile industry's rise and decline in Essex County (in general) and Windale (in particular). Suddenly he'd no longer be a PhD candidate, he'd be...well, an alumn. A doctor. What next, then professorhood? That's exactly what he'd been avoiding these past fourteen years, choosing to offset his tuition in the graduate program by managing the campus radio station, instead of becoming a TA, or pinch-hitting for profs on sabbatical. Those jobs required exponentially more contact with students and faculty than Art wanted. Just the concept of facing a lecture hall of students sent him scuttling back to his breathing meditation, on the brink of hyperventilating. Tenure, academic infighting, publish or perish...
He realized he was tugging on his ponytail, a nervous habit. No getting around it. It was due time he figured out what was next in life, the way most grown-ups already had by the time they were forty. The old cocktail party line he'd used for years ("I'm in public radio") no longer came as quickly to his lips. (Of course, invitations to cocktail parties weren't coming as quickly either, so that problem took care of itself.)
The door of the studio opened and Frankie peeked inside. "Sorry sorry sorry...," she said, ducking beneath Art's disapproving gaze and taking the swivel chair he vacated for her.
"I pulled some CDs to get you started," Art said, handing her the tall stack of jewel cases. "I used your last playlist."
"You're the greatest!" Frankie said, donning headphones and giving Art a wave that was both mea culpa and dismissal. He left, shooting her one more warning stare through the Plexiglas studio window, and went to fetch the mail.
An FCC bulletin, last issue of Stereophile, a couple of photocopied take-out menus for the overnight DJs from local pizza joints and sandwich shops...Art shuffled through the mail on his way back through the dingy cinder block halls of WDAN. He found an official-looking white envelope at the bottom of the pile, addressed to him. From the history department's graduate program. He felt his stomach drop.
Art took a breath, closed his office door behind him, cleared a space on his desk, pushing aside the bonsai tree he was busy killing, the Magic 8-Ball, promotional copies of new albums. He tore open the letter. Started to read, just as Frankie's "radio" voice piped through the little radio Art kept on the windowsill. She really enjoyed getting into her sultry voice for the airwaves. Compared to her normal squeaky Frankie voice, it almost seemed like a superhero's secret identity. "Good morning, sisters in song! We've got new tunes today from Tori Amos..."
The sound dropped away behind Art. The world dropped away. He looked at the letter in his trembling hand.
His dissertation had been rejected. Not a qualified rejection, not a "we'd like to discuss certain aspects of your research" sort of rejection. Rejected absolutely and definitively. Everything but the rubber stamp.
"It is the opinion of this Board that the subject of your dissertation does not meet current requirements necessary for the degree of Doctor of History," Art read aloud with disbelief, then continued reading in stunned silence.
Typically, doctoral candidates receive guidance from an assigned faculty advisor, so that situations such as this unfortunate one are avoided before candidates invest time and resources on research. As you know, dissertation topics must be preapproved by both the assigned faculty advisor, as well as this Board. Your situation is unique in that all of the members of the original Board who approved your dissertation topic have since retired from Danfield College, while the original faculty advisor assigned to you Professor Emeritus Karl Lundt has passed away. Typically, when the Board rejects a dissertation, it accepts a measure of responsibility for inadequate academic guidance throughout the development process. However, given the protracted amount of time you have taken to complete your research and dissertation, the Board feels it cannot accept such responsibility. What we can offer is our deep regrets, and warm wishes for your future academic pursuits.
The letter was signed (respectfully) S. Leigh Himes, Chair, Board of Graduate Studies.
Art picked up his Magic 8-Ball and hurled it across the room. It smashed against the opposite wall in a spray of blue-tinted water. He felt immediately remorseful, like he'd kicked a dog.
He scooped up the telephone and punched in his brother's cell number.
Paul answered on the second ring. "Leeson Contracting."
"They fucking rejected my dissertation."
A beat while his brother processed. "They can do that? After fourteen years?"
"Of course they can! They're Nazis." He was about to rant on some more when he heard something on his brother's end of the line, like the buffeting of a strong headwind. "Where the hell are you?"
"On the roof of a beautiful Queen Anne that's seen better days. Out on Old Winthrop Road."
"Well climb the hell down and come take me out for a sympathy beer," Art said.
"I'm sorry, bud," Paul said. "The homeowner wants an estimate this afternoon the ceiling's been leaking on his little girl." Art heard his brother shift the cell phone to his other hand. "You should see this roof. Looks like someone dropped a tree on it."
"I feel like someone dropped a load of shit on me today, too," Art said glumly.
"I bet," Paul said, genuinely sympathetic. "Listen, I'm booked up today, but what do you say I buy you lunch tomorrow at that vegan place you like the one where the waitresses don't shave their legs?"
"That's okay. I know you're busy." He knew his brother usually wolfed down a sandwich driving between jobs. A two-hour pity lunch would be cutting into the man's livelihood. "I gotta be here for an FCC inspection."
"Then come over for supper, sometime. How about this weekend?"
"Sure," Art said unenthusiastically. That introduced a whole other circle to Art's hell, as he got to sit across from Paul and his girlfriend whom Art had loved since high school. "That sounds...nice."
Paul must have heard the defeat in Art's voice. "Take it easy on yourself, bud. You'll figure this one out," his brother said, concerned. "You're the brains in the family."
They hung up. Art stood wearily and crossed the room, stooped down and began picking up plastic shards of ruined Magic 8-Ball from the carpet. He found the little twenty-sided oracle die tangled in the sopping shag. (It was an icosahedron. What a useful fucking thing to know.) He picked it up and gave a humorless laugh when he saw its forecast: OUTLOOK NOT SO GOOD.
Anticipating another restless night of bad dreams, Wendy stopped by the health food store on her way home from work for the ingredients to a naturopathic hot toddy. While the herbs were steeping on the stove, she took a hot shower. When she came down a few minutes later to fetch her concoction, she found her father standing over the saucepan, a spoon in his hand.
"What the hell is this?" he asked, making a sour face.
"Shouldn't you ask that before you taste? What if I told you it was a powerful herbal laxative?"
"I've learned my lesson. What are all the floaties?"
"Licorice. Lemongrass. Peppermint. Valerian root. Skullcap," she said, counting them off on her fingers. Missing anything? "Oh! And good old chamomile tea."
"Think I'll stick to bourbon," he said, searching the cupboards for one of the everyday highball glasses (as opposed to the presidential Waterford.) He was enjoying a rare night alone Carol Ward was at a seminar on new Essex County zoning policy which meant he could indulge a little. He found a highball glass and opened the freezer for ice.
"Trouble sleeping, kiddo?"
"The usual. Bad dreams."
He closed the fridge, dropping ice into his glass with a satisfying clink. "Garden variety, or something we need to talk to psych services about?"
Wendy considered a moment before answering. "Somewhere in between, I guess." Something in her voice caught him, and he looked up at her with concern.
"What kind of dreams?"
"Just weird. I don't know, I can't really describe them." Or want to. "Very vivid. Like I'm being watched by someone I can't see."
She could tell she was spooking him. "This doesn't have any sort of connection to the real world, does it, honey?" he asked. "You're not being stalked...?"
"No, daddy. It's okay." She flashed a smile to signal he could drop back to DefCon One. "Really. I mean, being followed around by guys is definitely not a problem I'm having. I should be so lucky..."
He was relieved and gave her a kiss on the temple that made her slosh her herbal tea all over her bare toes. "I thought you've looked a little tired lately," he said. "Your mother and I noticed."
"I figured. Mom left me a tube of Revitalizing Eye Gel on my nightstand. That's her idea of getting to the root of the problem."
He laughed, and she gave him a quick peck good night. Minutes later she lay burrowed under her down comforter, sipping the citrusy tea and reading Hawthorne. Already her eyelids were feeling heavy. She put the book aside and gave herself to sleepy thoughts. Free association...Frankie, and Professor Glazer, and the Gremlin, and...Alex. With the uncertain smile. Her thoughts kept circling back around to him like a recurring melody in a piece of jazz.
And on that smile, she fell asleep.
Midnight. Throughout town a dry wind blew, quick and mischievous, animating bits of trash and overturning garbage cans with a clatter before retreating to the restless treetops. At the Grocery King on Main, the breeze set a shopping cart rolling across the empty parking lot; while out on Old Winthrop Road, at the all-night Stop-N-Go, it blew insistently enough to trigger the automatic doors, startling the night clerk with a gust of sudden litter.
Across town, in the tiny business office of Holy Redeemer Church, Father Joe Murray heard something clatter on the roof slates overhead and looked up from his faded paperback. At first he mistook the sound as laughter, but before his ears could identify its source the sound was masked by the steeple bells chiming midnight. Father Murray scowled. He hated the digital chimes, which had replaced Holy Redeemer's original bells two years ago. Just the latest sad concession to technology. Before that, the parish had been forced by the insurance companies to replace the ranks of votive candles with vulgar electronic ones to remove the risk of fire. It wouldn't be long, Father Murray sometimes grumbled, before the parish would decide to replace him he imagined by a laptop computer on the altar.
Thump. This time the sound was so loud Father Murray left the business office and walked into the dark chapel. Had a tree branch fallen? The night was certainly windy enough, and he'd been meaning to call the O'Neill boy to have a look at the diseased elms that overhung the church.
The digital chimes were just beginning the second verse of their tinny hymn when the church shuddered violently, and Father Murray heard a terrific crash. The digital chimes slurred, leaden, then were silent.
Father Murray bolted through the dark chapel and out through the church doors. He turned and looked, craning his neck to see what had happened. He could just make out the steeple, still standing in profile against the night sky. Its side was gaping, the wood splintered. What the hell had done that? A wrecking ball?
The breeze shifted, carrying a dark smell to him. He felt his hackles rise in response to the musky, fetid smell the stink of spoiled meat, left to rot. He shivered, suddenly afraid. On the roof of Holy Redeemer he saw a fleeting motion, a shadow darting across the scrim of stars
CRASH! Another phenomenal concussion, and now the steeple was falling in slow motion toward him. The crucifix it had held aloft for three decades came tipping forward and broke in two on the roof shingles...the ruined steeple slid down the slanted roof and landed in a splintered heap on the lawn at Father Joe Murray's feet.
Wendy slept, if not exactly fitfully, then at least without interruption throughout the long night. There was a storm front moving through, and it tossed the branches of the old maple outside her bedroom hard enough that it clacked repeatedly against her window. But still Wendy slept, deep into the night, and dreamed. Behind closed lids her eyes scanned rapidly left to right, left to right, and her breathing was quick and troubled. But she did not wake or couldn't.
Not even at the sound of the heavy thud overhead as something stronger than the agitating currents of the storm front landed on the roof above Wendy's bed, waiting.
Copyright © 1999 by Joe Gangemi & John Passarella