As caveats go, I want to point out, as I did before, that starting any novel is no guarantee of finishing it. Although I expect to complete the book, many orphans have littered my writing history. If you're new to this story or just want a refresh, you can start with Chapter One by clicking here.
That much said, enjoy for free. You can find all of my finished books on my Amazon Author Page.
Val spread her long coat to help keep my ass dry. The one I’d wrapped myself in for the trip to Endicott wasn’t long enough to sit outside and watch the snow, which we decided to do almost as soon as I got to her house.
We sat in a vacant corner lot on the hill a couple of blocks away. Heavy wet flakes forced a misty silence. Our heads were topped with white.
“I guess I should’ve worn a hat.”
“I don’t remember ever seeing you with a hat,” Val said.
She nodded in the dark.
“It’s really beautiful,” she said, drawing her hood closer to her face. Strands of wavy hair leaked out around the contours of her cheeks and alongside her neck.
Streets congesting with snow, edges rounded or eliminated like romantic poetry, Endicott looked as soft and gentle as the snow showering it, comfortably make-believe in the valley below us.
“Like a dream,” she added. She looked at me with a smile. “I’m glad you came out to see me.”
“I might be crazy, hitchhiking all the way out here in this weather.”
With very light traffic, I’d been lucky to make it across the cities fast. I might need to spend the night walking all the way home. I still hadn’t braked myself with a practice for planning much in advance. Life would happen, and I’d grab the experiences as they slid by.
“Maybe I’ll freeze to death before I get home again,” I added, “but I wanted to see you. What else was I going to do, sit home and wait for Santa Claus? Nothing, absolutely nothing was going on.”
On impulse, talking with Val on the phone, I decided to ignore the storm for a chance to see her. She was willing and there was time. No wasting that.
“Do you still believe in Santa Claus?”
“I never stopped. What else have we got?”
The year gone by had been an emotional scrub brush altering my faith in the benevolent direction of the world around me. Eighteen years old felt like balancing on a pivot without any specific gravity or momentum in any direction, like my beliefs had been tightly racked and a cueball struck them, scattering them in a chaos so wild only a physicist could yank them back into order.
“I think we need to figure it all out from scratch. I don’t even know where to begin.”
“At the beginning, one step at a time, that’s the only way…”
“No shortcuts, like ‘All you need is love,’ that kind of thing.”
“Maybe, but how do we find them?”
“I know I love you,” I said. “That’s always there.”
“I love you too, but what can we do about it? Together, I mean.”
“Are we too loose?”
“When we’re together, we are, yeah,” Val agreed. “There’s no place for us to fit in. We have different lives in different places, and then, every once in a while, we have this.”
She gestured at the snow softened cityscape below us, as if she created it.
“I wish you’d let me change that.”
The intensity of the snow, the cold air, the fluffed fantasy, dreaming in unison.
“How? What are you going to do? Carry me off somewhere?”
I was barely able to carry myself.
“Maybe we should just stay like we are,” Val suggested. “You’re different for me. You make me look at myself in a different way. Maybe you keep me honest.”
Her voice tapered into a laugh.
“Maybe we’re just in-betweeners, Val. We meet in the seams between the rest of our lives.”
“I’m not sure what that means,” she said.
“I hope you’re not counting on me to explain it.”
“You always knew,” Val reminded me, “whether you wanted to or not.”
“Really, I didn’t know what I knew. We were so different. I never heard of any couple like us. I didn’t know what was happening between us or what, if anything, I could do about it. You were just always there, the continuum, you know?”
“That brings us to the point. You asked a question I think I can answer. You want a bigger picture. You want to understand how you got here, where you are right now, from way back where we were or before.”
With an exaggerated gesture, she added a wisp of comedy to the mix.
“Always, I do. I’m kind of of a mystery to myself. There are things I can’t explain.”
“You could start with Ginny, but that won’t do anything but give you regrets. Why not go back to where your parents made you turn into a magician. That’s what happens if you want to survive after your parents kick you into the shadows before you’re old enough to tie your own shoes. You learned to lean on yourself, alone, self-reliant. Didn’t seem odd when Emerson grabbled you, even when he went way over your head? That’s been your style.”
My brother brought me along to hang out at the university library when he went out to study on Saturdays. I always treated libraries the same way, like I was on a treasure hunt without much of a map, and I remember pulling Emerson’s essays off a shelf and getting scrambled trying to figure out his dense paragraphs.
“I have a style, Val?”
“Well, you left everybody, didn’t you — I mean, up to that point? To you, self-reliance meant independence. You took what you wanted out of Emerson, but that wasn’t what he meant. Emerson believed in community. You believed in staying out of it. When you tell your story, you make yourself look heroic, but let’s be honest. We’re friends. You weren’t. Sometimes, you were a painful person to know.”
Got a pile of sins to pay for and I ain't got time to hide, Dylan wrote. Check.
For Val, pictures were not hard to paint.
“Let’s forget for a minute that you were so reckless with the girls’ feelings that you played around with Ginny’s cute little sister the one time she turned her back, but what did you do when the big moment came, when you had a chance to be strong for her? You loved her, no question, but you found it too easy to cut her loose, didn’t you?”
In a sharply pitched moment, Ginny rushed across the room and leaned into my arms, tears streaming down her cheeks, afraid and crushed.
“Take me with you,” she pleaded.
“‘I can’t.’ That’s what you said,” Val reminded me.
“I couldn’t take her with me. That was true. She was underage. I’d go to jail.”
“Cover story,” Val waved me off. “You made that up for the book. You were underage, too. You didn’t really know about statutory rape. If you told the whole story, you’d talk about waiting at your apartment, hoping she’d make it there on her own, but you knew she wouldn’t, didn’t you? Of course. Besides, who but you and Ginny knew you had sex? Anyone?”
I shrugged, not remembering for sure, embarrassingly confident that I probably told at least my best friend, Bruce, who’d already shipped out.
“Her parents didn’t know,” Val insisted. “All they knew is you were sneaking around with their daughter, and they thought it was their job to protect her. But you didn’t stand up for her. You ran. If you stayed and confronted them, it might’ve made both your lives better in the long run. As you know, things didn’t go great for her once you left her, not for a long time.”
“I can’t be responsible for what happened to her after we broke up.”
“Really? Are you sure? Because if you’d figured out a way to stick with her and made it good, you’d sure take credit for that. Am I right?”
“Well, we can’t undo the past, can we? But I paid for what I did, as you also know, in a way I never imagined.”
My architecture fell apart pretty quickly without Ginny floating the joists. An emptiness washed over everything else. It lasted long enough, I wondered if it was going to be permanent. Fate finally lent a hand, one later winter day, sending a pair of rescuers named Doug and Boyd to pull me out. I’d been stunned.
“I knew I loved her, but you don’t have to remind me I held something back. I always had one foot out the door, but it wasn’t until later that I realized my heart didn’t leave with me. My heart was still fused with hers. It’s a funny thing to say, and it was a discovery nothing I’d ever seen or heard prepared me for. Our hearts plug in, hard and deep, no matter what our boots do.”
Val leaned away to pull me off the subject. What the hell? I can’t fix it now, anyway.
“You remember when you learned to hold so much back, don’t you?” she asked.
Was she pulling strings to surface memories or was it my own psyche?
In my earliest memories of life as an escape artist, we were, all five of us, waiting like refugees on heavy wooden benches outside the office into which a social worker lead Mom and Dad. Two days on the train from Florida left us dirty, tired and smelly. Set aside Mom’s radical violation of visitation rights, our appearances alone might been enough all by themselves to stifle her claim to competent parenting.
Mom was, as I saw it later, a child raising children. That’s why we loved her so much and also why she failed.
The door with the frosted glass window opened. Mom ran out ahead of the others, a tissue pressed to her reddened face and, just like that, ran down the stairs without a word. All five of us turned to look at Dad and the social worker, now a temporary couple. The only detail I remember about her, besides her gender, was how explicitly she, not Dad, explained the realities ahead of us. Toward Dad, my feelings had improved from resentment when I saw him waiting on the railroad platform to indifferent.
“You’re going to stay with your grandmother for a week or so until we can straighten things out with your parents.”
Mom was gone, down the stairs. What was she going to straighten out?
I noticed my brothers and my sister crying beside me.
“I saw that, Val, and I remember thinking, I better cry too. So, I did.”
“You faked it?”
“I faked it.”
“You see now? You were already out. You were already detached, at that age more like broken off, damaged goods, adapted for survival.”
“I wish I knew how I got there…”
“Does it really matter?” Val interrupted. “The thing is, if you really think about it, you stopped loving people, any people, right there, when your mother ran down the stairs, if not before.”
“How did you miss that?”
“I don’t know. I guess I must not have wanted to see it. Even knowing it now feels like shit.”
“The thing you have to remember is that your loving people never really stopped. You just buried it. You loved your father, your mother, especially your older brothers you relied on for so long, your sister, of course, and others, but it was too risky. You buried it. Survival comes first.”
“Those were some cold, fucking years…”
“And what ended it? What happened?”
“By then, you were good at surviving, with a lot of help you didn’t know about, but your were a real klutz with love. You hadn’t exercised that muscle much. Your heart was a wreck.”
“Wait a minute. What help I didn’t know about?”
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