Carrie tried her only decent jacket on several times but knew deep down she was just distracting herself from making the dreaded phone call.
She had decided not to go to the party tonight with that senior—Richard Dufraine—even though she had first said yes when he asked. But with less than two hours left, how could she tell him now that she had changed her mind?
She tore through her clothes again to see if she could find anything she actually liked, and soon her shed-sized room looked like an abandoned laundry basket. But the oppressive feeling that she was delaying the inevitable just grew.
Was she unsure of Richard’s intentions? If so, it was definitely on her, not Richard.
I’m being paranoid about guys as usual. Stop it. Now.
Carrie involuntarily caught a glimpse of herself in the tiny mirror on her homework desk. She grimaced.
Long blonde hair, ice-blue eyes, a few freckles, and a face and curves that were much too ordinary. That was the judgment she could not escape. It didn’t help that she was from another country and couldn’t escape her accent either.
In fact, she would feel like a loser, if she was truly honest with Richard about why she didn’t want to go.
But the reality was hard to deny.
Since Carrie McDonnell’s first day in her new high school, they had been sniping ‘Braveheart’ after her—that and many other, less savory nicknames not related to movies about fake Scottish history.
In particular, Eric Markham and Ann Salcroft relished the art of administering verbal poison drops behind Carrie’s back …
“So who can give me a resume of President McKinley’s term?” Mrs. Lane, their history teacher, asked cheerfully.
“Oh, Braveheart here knows McKinley perfectly—” Ann said through the corner of her mouth, eyeing Carrie who was hunching in the front row, “she even talks like him.”
Eric, from his desk, leaned towards Ann. “Maybe that’s why McKinley got shot?”
“For having dung between the teeth? Well, I guess that happens.” Ann rewarded Eric with a knowing glance, and Eric leaned back on his chair, smirking.
Carrie bit her lip and said nothing. She was sure Ann had a crush on Richard Dufraine, and therefore loathed Carrie by definition because Richard had been warming up to Carrie between classes for a month now.
The sniping behind Carrie’s back had been bad before, perhaps because Ann and her ilk needed someone to put down in order to feel high and mighty, but when Richard came into the picture, Carrie’s life in class became downright hellish.
Eric for his part merely loathed whoever would get him the attention of his next conquest, and well-shaped Ann with the prominent tits was exactly that. He was sure she would soon forget anyone else, and she seemed to egg him on, perhaps to take her mind off Richard.
Mrs. Lane pretended to be deaf to it all. She appeared to be of the profound conviction that if a problem among the students was ignored, then it did not exist. It was a helpful conviction to have since it meant she could better concentrate on her passion for talking about important dead men.
And since both Eric and Ann were top of the cool-hierarchy in her new class, Carrie did not have many allies to turn to.
With every day at school like this, any memories of things ever being different faded rapidly. It felt like years, but it had only been about six months since her life still contained some glows of hope.
Glows like that June day in her last full semester in her old high school—the only high school on the island in Scotland, where she had grown up. It was also the last evaluation before the summer holidays and Mr. Jackman, her English teacher, had given her top grade for her essay on ‘The Great American Novel’.
“A wonderful conclusion,” he said and smiled warmly. “And very true. Not only for what the characters go through in The Great Gatsby in the 1920s but also for our lives today.”
Before he proceeded to the next in line, Mr. Jackman turned and said, “I also appreciate your thoughts on why James Gatz changed his name to Jay Gatsby. It’s true that names can be both misleading and meaningful at the same time.”
It always made Carrie smile when she thought of how, at that exact moment, Connor McKinnon raised his hand and in his usual delinquent tone asked, “I wrote about Gatsby’s name, too, sir—why don’t I get the same score as Carrie?”
“Because,” Mr. Jackman replied with the precision of a swordsman, “despite your impressive research, Mr. McKinnon, I still doubt the author named his main character after a South African sandwich that would not be invented until 50 years later.”
And even the classmates, who had seldom been easy on her, laughed and exchanged smiles at this. So did her best friend, Siné Munroe. But to Carrie, it mattered most that many others besides Siné for once seemed genuinely okay with her good grades. That had not always been the case.
Carrie held the returned essay fast and wondered why it had taken so long to feel part of her class.
And why it had to end, just when she finally felt she belonged.
But there was no stopping her parents’ divorce or moving to the United States with her mother or starting all over in Cuyahoga Heights High School near Cleveland, where she became every bit the odd girl out again, but for different reasons.
The whisper ritual between Ann and Eric was repeated daily, affirming their unspoken pact. And everybody knew from the color of Carrie’s face that her aloofness was pretense. Like so many others pretended in high school—to be something they were not.
Then, in mid-December, a flier pinned to the students’ bulletin board gave all of them the perfect opportunity to pretend even more. It was an open invitation to attend the district’s biggest private ‘dance-till-you-drop’ party at none other than Adeline Alexandra Kouris’ house.
Adeline was newer than Carrie at Cuyahoga High but had money, daring outfits, and a horde of followers within two days of her arrival. None of which applied to Carrie. So of course Carrie decided not to go.
And then Richard asked her to.
And she said yes anyway. She fought after that to feel certain, and she had more or less succeeded.
That was yesterday.
Right now, Carrie began to scrutinize her body in the mirror but then stopped herself, when she became aware of what she was doing.
I have to call him.
She grabbed a plain T-shirt and pulled it quickly over her head. Then one last look at her room, one last allowance for disgust. Disgust with its size, with her clothes, with everything—except her drawings and the well-worn school library version on her shelf of The Great Gatsby which Mr. Jackman had gifted to her, before she left the island. They was a new edition coming but this one was the one they had used for the last assignment.
Carrie flung open the door to the second room of the apartment which doubled as a living room, as well as her mom’s room. As expected, her mother lay on the couch, watching TV.
Her long curly hair was blonde like Carrie’s but fading quickly. It seemed like she had tried to comb it and given up halfway through. But she was having a great time, in her pastel blue bathrobe, and with plenty of herbal tea and chocolate.
She greeted Carrie without looking. “Hi, hon. You ready for the big show?”
“I’m not going, mom.”
“I’ll just use the phone, okay?”
Her mother eyed her for an instant as if she wanted to ask about why Carrie wasn’t going to the party of the decade but apparently decided against it. She grabbed another chocolate instead and feigned great interest in what Detective Reynaldo Curtis said about a missing person’s case on the 13 inch blurry TV screen.
Carrie sighed. “It’s kind of private, mom. Didn’t ye say ye wanted to go out to shop for dinner?”
“Later.” Her mother pointed with the remote over her shoulder at the kitchen door. “You can take it in there. I’ll turn up the sound here. Not too much, of course.”
Carrie didn’t care to argue. What was the point of caring about things you could not change?
She brushed past the couch, and grabbed the phone from its hanger on the wall beside the kitchen door, at the far end of the living room. Then she opened the door to the kitchen and pulled the cord with her, as far into the kitchen as she could. She closed the door to the living room to seal off sound while trying to avoid cutting the cord in two at the same time. A balancing act. Like so much else.
Carrie let herself drop down on the wooden chair by the small dining table and then listened to the dial tone of the unhooked phone. She remembered Richard’s phone number as if it was her birth date, but she could not bring herself to push the damn buttons. On the other side of the kitchen window, there was only the dusky winter afternoon over the suburbs of Cleveland to witness her frustrations. Perhaps that was for the best.
Then an image popped into her head, clear like yesterday when the world was crisp with morning frost.
She saw a cityscape, not really like the one outside the window, but more like that movie the other night which she had liked, to her delightful surprise. Blade Runner. As in the movie, it was darker and raining in that imaginary city. And in the overcrowded gloomy streets of her vision, one figure stood out: a lone young woman. She was blonde. She wore an old overcoat, leather pants, and boots but otherwise nothing fancy. She walked as if she was searching for someone. It could be anyone, really, but Carrie felt it had to be someone important. Perhaps a little sister who had been kidnapped by an evil gang?
Carrie didn’t know what the heck the story was, only that she felt a strong urge to run back to her room and get her pencils and pad to make the vision of it real. And maybe with the watercolors, too.
If only she was better with those. Colors still eluded her mastery, like chopsticks when you were used to a fork. But she was getting there. She felt it. She could give it another shot tonight.
Carrie sighed and let the receiver drop into her lap.
Call him, dammit. Tell him you can’t go.
If she stayed home, everything would be better, right? She would not be humiliated at the party and she would draw something that really felt good to draw.
Then she remembered that she hadn’t started her final semester essay which was due Monday. The U.S. Civil War. And she had no idea what to write about it. And even though she cared little about grades for the sake of grades, or Mrs. Lane, she would hate to disappoint herself. It was important to her to always do her best.
No, the only people she wanted to disappoint were the ‘nice’ classmates who again on Monday would be mixing new poisons. About a new variation on the topic of Carrie Sawyer who sounded like her surname was still McDonnell and who constantly made herself look like a jerk because she didn’t know computers, or how to pick the right line from the maze of buses in Cleveland. Facts that sharks like Eric Markham would not let anyone forget anytime soon.
We had one bus in Scotland where I lived and it came twice a day. Never in winter.
The U.S. Civil War … she couldn’t afford to be late with the essay or get a poor grade for this one, but neither should the grade be too good. That would also cause problems. Not that there was any danger of the latter. What the hell did she know about the U.S. Civil War, anyway? She felt like she had barely landed, even though she had been living in the States since August. She would have to read up. A lot. But if she stayed home and got a head-start on that essay, she would close another front in her personal little war. Except, then they would talk about why she didn’t go to the party.
But she could stay home. Maybe write a Christmas letter to Siné back in Scotland. Maybe Siné would answer this time …
I’ll tell him, I’m ill.
She started typing the first digits of Richard’s number.
I can’t go.
All Carrie’s pests from class would be there to make fun of her lousy clothes, and her clueless make-up. She would stand out at that party like she was a scarecrow.
She pushed the last button.
“Carrie? Great that you called. Are you ready for tonight?”
“I’m … not sure I’m going.”
“Don’t you want to go with me?”
“I do but … ”
“Great. The snow is a bitch, though. Dad won’t let me have the car. I’ll have to meet you out there.”
“It’s okay, I—”
“I look so much forward to seeing you.”
“ … I don’t really have anything to wear.”
Tell him you are ill. Tell him.
Richard’s cheerful voice cut through her inner noise again. “You look perfect already. I can see you now like you were here. It’s my secret superpower but only you make it work.”
She couldn’t help smiling a bit. “Really?”
“Really,” he affirmed. “It only works with people I care about.”
He chuckled, and she remembered how that was one of the sweetest things about him when they first talked in that hallway at Cuyahoga High. Like he really knew everything was going to turn out fine.
“Look—” she tried again. But the list of illnesses she could have contracted since school this afternoon grew shorter.
Then Richard said something that made her want to talk a little more before she figured out how to tell him she didn’t want to go. And then they talked even more after that.
When she hung up she had affirmed that she was going to the party, even if she had to go by bus, even if she had no decent clothes, and even if sharks like Ann Salcroft and Eric Markham would be there, looking to get a bite out of her.
“It only works with people I care about.”
Those were the words Carrie repeated to herself again and again as she decided on clothes and then got the first bus to the party. The right bus.
“It only works with people I care about.”
Those were the words she used to crush all doubts.
Adeline lived in a three-story monster of a house that looked decidedly out of place among all the smaller houses dotting long woodland stretches along Tinkers Creek Road. Carrie had never been this far outside of Cuyahoga Heights, much less Cleveland.
She was half an hour late and had to walk from the bus stop but at least that was one thing that didn’t concern her overly much. There was no strict deadline for getting plastered and having fun, was there?
An old man, who looked like a cross between a gardener and a washed-up boxer, was the only human being in a garden the size of a park. He was shoveling snow. She hesitated at first, but he waved her down the driveway towards the entrance.
Once inside, there was a surprisingly small hallway to cross before she was plunged into “Gangsta’s Paradise”—and a cascade of other hits blasting from a hangar-like party room. It looked as if it had once been a dining hall, now unceremoniously torn apart and transformed into a teenage techno garage. The lightshow alone could have been lifted from a KLM concert.
It certainly also looked as if everyone had been going at it for hours already.
Adeline had stacked all the tables and most of the chairs, sprayed graffiti on the walls, and, from the look of all the bottles, also plundered the house for every last drop of liquor. Or just allowed people to bring their own. Apparently, the emphasis on ‘legal’ in the invitation might as well have added ‘in another universe’.
Carrie felt offended and excited at the same time. She carefully made her way to the other end of the huge room, skirting the edge of the crowd, stealing a look now and then at gyrating bodies on the dance floor. The official (and officially sedate) year-end party at the high school, which awaited next week, suddenly seemed very far away.
Carrie squinted against the strobing lights. She hadn’t seen the sharks yet but they might surface at any moment. So where was Richard?
She located a sofa-like chair in a corner farthest away from the seething mass of students, many of whom she had never seen before. She felt somewhat relieved by that fact, for it also meant that very few had probably recognized her yet.
Carrie allowed herself to gawk for a few moments before she hunched in the chair to be less conspicuous. She found it impossible to imagine a future in which Adeline’s parents did not kill their daughter for trashing their house like this.
It wasn’t entirely clear to her where Mr. and Mrs. Kouris had gone, though. Perhaps to a soundproof bunker in the basement?
Carrie had heard a lot of things about Adeline Kouris for a month now, and she was a new girl at Cuyahoga Heights High School like Carrie herself. That was about the only thing they had seemed to have in common.
Carrie had never imagined that Adeline lived in such a castle, on the edge of Valley View and barely within their school district. But maybe it was just because you could not imagine someone living like this, when you were used to sharing a two-room apartment with your mother?
But now that she thought about it, it made perfect sense. Adeline was, after all, the only daughter of Greek IT businessman Theodoros Kouris and some British professor. That much Carrie knew for sure. And apparently, Adeline had attended a private high school before she had transferred to Cuyahoga High. Why that had happened, Carrie had no clue.
And that was the extent of her knowledge about Adeline Kouris.
Why would any sane girl with so much money transfer to our run-of-the-mill high?
As on cue, Carrie finally spotted Adeline, whom she had only seen in passing at school. There was no mistaking the Pippi Longstocking Queen of Goth as she had already been dubbed.
There she was, frolicking on a mountain of oversized pillows on the far side of the room, relishing all the worship from a handful of boys, and quite a few girls, who all seemed to try to talk to her at the same time. The admirers or whatever they were had almost surrounded Adeline, but she didn’t seem to mind, quite the contrary. Carrie saw a boy there, Lars, whom she knew because he lived close to her place, and for some reason she felt disappointed in him, although they had barely talked to each other.
Adeline’s Goth look was extra-pro tonight—Carrie had to give her that. Pitch black eye-liner. A skirt so skimpy it wouldn’t exist if it was any shorter. Black leather bra underneath the see-through black blouse. It looked surprisingly cool on Adeline, even if she didn’t exactly fill it out. Or maybe it looked cool exactly because she didn’t fill it out and looked as if she didn’t give a damn?
A little new insight about Adeline, Carrie also didn’t like.
There had been a margarita standing on one of the wide armrests of Carrie’s chair for some time now. It looked totally untouched, still with a small paper umbrella in it. Carrie hesitated briefly then began nipping at it, while trying not to watch Adeline too much—or all the boys, including at least a couple of seniors, who flocked around Adeline’s pillow throne.
An annoying thought popped into her head, that maybe she ought to take off her jacket. She had borrowed it from her mother at the last minute when the zipper on her own had decided to croak.
Carrie decided to keep the jacket on. Sure, she might be more … interesting to the guys, if she only wore her top, but she wasn’t sure she wanted the attention just yet. As if that kind of attention was possible for her, anyway. And where would she put the jacket, and not lose it?
And where the hell was Richard?
Carrie scouted again for her date, but instinctively ducked when she saw the first shark; tall and with his usual stinging dark eyes surveying everyone, and the girls in particular, there was Eric Markham.
Richard—where are you?
Carrie decided to down the margarita in the hope that it would make her feel more steady, but something in the last gulp tasted sour, and she grimaced.
There was nothing else within range. She realized she had to get out from her little hide-out if she wanted more to drink.
And she did want something. Without a drink, she’d attract attention. The wrong attention.
Carrie looked frantically for another drink or maybe a lone bottle within easy reach, so she could go back to her corner quickly. But when she still found none, she began to slowly rise in the chair.
It was at that point she realized that Adeline was gone. Was she out dancing?
Just get up, she chided herself, and find something to drink. Don’t look any more like a weirdo than you already are …
Carrie got up. She moved close to the wall, without—she hoped—looking like she was trying to do anything out of the ordinary.
She kept looking around for something else to drink. There was plenty to choose from but too many people around.
The challenge was that Adeline had replaced the stacked dining tables with a bunch of wooden pallets, of all things. They had been placed strategically around the dining hall, and close to some of the pillows or the few surviving chairs. Standing on top of the pallets were the ‘legal’ liquor bottles, all kinds of them, and also a few big sodas if you wanted to mix and were lucky enough to have found an available glass.
But Carrie saw no pallets without a throng of people around, either sitting on the pillows or directly on the floor.
Then she spotted a single large bottle of cola standing near a wall.
Carrie made a quick decision. She wanted to get the cola and then get back to pour some in her empty margarita glass before anyone else could take over ‘her corner’. With luck, nobody would think that her new drink didn’t contain alcohol.
Carrie made a dash for the bottle. Then she stopped dead in her tracks.
Out from the dancing crowd only about five feet away, suddenly came Ms. Pippi Longstocking of Goth herself.
It was inevitable that they saw each other.
Adeline stopped. Carrie stopped.
“Jesus!” Carrie knew it was her who had cried out. And she was very sure that Adeline had heard her cry out, too, despite the deafening bass from the overheated loudspeakers.
“’Jesus?’” Adeline repeated, tilting her head and watching Carrie with a hint of curiosity, but without giving away any further indication of what she thought about someone calling out for Jesus in the middle of her techno-party. “Are you all right?”
“O-oh no—” Carrie managed to blurt. “Ye just startled me, that’s all.”
Carrie felt like dying. For stammering so much that she could not hide her accent. And for the totally stupid answer.
“You want one of these?” Adeline held out her blue drink. “They are pretty good.”
“No,” Carrie said without conviction, even though she felt she could down the whole world’s stock of alcohol at that moment, legal or not.
Adeline handed Carrie the exotic drink as if she hadn’t heard the rejection. The color was so blue it was like something out of a sci-fi movie.
“There’s more where it came from,” Adeline confided.
Carrie felt like she had to take the drink or look even more stupid. “Thanks … Adeline.”
The other girl winced. “Call me Lin. I hate ‘Adeline’. It was my mother’s idea. She thought it sounded ‘literary.’”
“Maybe we should sit down?” Lin nodded at a pair of big pillows in one of the corners. They looked like someone had been trying to throw them away before jumping into the frothing mass of dancers on the main floor.
What the hell does she want? Why can’t she just leave me alone?
Carrie shrugged. “Sure.”
The beat boomed louder than ever. Somebody had put “Gangsta’s Paradise” on the CD player for the umpteenth time. Carrie looked discreetly in the direction of Lin’s worshippers but they seemed to have been absorbed by the mass of dancing, writhing bodies.
Carrie tried her damnedest to look relaxed while cramping the blue drink in her hand.
“What are ye-you going to drink?” She glanced at Lin.
Lin shook her head and plumbed down on one of the pillows. “I’ve already had waaay too much.” She grinned.
Carrie felt decidedly queasy as she sat down on the other pillow.
What does she want? she thought again and took great pains to look at anybody else but Lin.
She felt that it was all falling apart. If Richard didn’t show up very soon she’d look so dumb. What should she tell Adeline—Lin—anyone?
I should leave.
“You look sad,” Lin said.
“I’m not.” Carrie began gulping down the blue drink. There was a lot of vodka in it and she hated vodka, but she kept it up regardless.
“It’s a Blue Lagoon,” Lin said. “Sort of. It’s good, right?”
“You’ve been sitting for yourself since you came,” Lin said. “I’ve been watching you.”
Carrie felt her fight-or-flight reflexes kick in.
“I’ve watched ye too,” she said, sipping the blue.
“Oh?” Lin did not grin, even though it was obvious Carrie had tried being flippant.
Instead, she looked away for a moment. There was a shadow on her face, darker than her make-up.
Lin turned back towards Carrie and Carrie saw her lips move, but she could barely hear the question that followed. “What were you looking at, then?”
“I … I just thought your make-up was cool,” Carrie lied, taken aback by the sudden change in Lin’s mood. “Really cool.”
She looked down at herself briefly, all too aware of the red jacket from her mom, and prayed that Lin had not noticed how out of fashion it was. Or anything else she could use to strike at Carrie, now that it felt like Carrie had offended her for some reason she didn’t quite understand.
Lin just nodded, though, and kept looking at Carrie in a strange way. “You’re the girl who came over from Scotland. Carrie McDonnell, right?”
The question had come out with perfect casualness. Carrie couldn’t detect any poison in it like she was used to. Not yet at least.
She breathed. “Yeah, I came over from good ol’ Scotland. And the surname’s Sawyer now.”
“Oh, so your mom is Scottish?”
“Okay, your dad then.”
Lin smiled. “‘Aye’,” she repeated.
Carrie’s face went redder than her jacket.
“You have a lovely accent,” Lin added quickly.
For a moment Carrie was close to getting up and leaving, but despite all her misgivings, she got a sudden sense that Lin meant it. At least this part.
So she remained on her pillow, with half a blue drink in one hand, feeling like she was sitting on a tiny raft in a sea she never wanted to sail.
In front of them, the room suddenly went quiet as someone got up on the DJ-stand Lin had arranged on a small stage of pallets near the entrance and stopped the CD that was playing in the middle of TLC’s “Waterfalls”. First, there was booing, but then everybody cheered wildly when the frantic beat of U2’s “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me” took over.
Carrie and Lin listened for a while without saying anything, while Bono worked himself into his trademark mania with each chorus.
Lin was the first to talk again. “Your parents split.”
It wasn’t a question.
Carrie nodded and looked at the blue in her drink. There was a sharp taste of vodka in her mouth now.
“Why did they split?” Lin followed up. “I mean, if your mom is American she must have wanted to move to Scotland to marry your dad. That’s got to count for something.”
Carrie shrugged. “It did but then one day it didn’t.”
Lin nodded. “I’m sorry.”
Carrie eyed her cautiously. Then she decided what the heck.
Why not serve Lin this night’s version of her family record—the one that she always could serve because it had the vital I-don’t-give-a-fuck ingredient? Yeah, that would feel good.
So she told Lin about the divorce.
The tale didn’t come off nearly as dark as Carrie had wanted to make it, though. And she couldn’t quite make herself tell it with the homicide detective tone she usually reserved for these occasions. Why was that? Was it because she felt Lin really wanted to hear it?
Carrie didn’t know and she felt torn. She wanted to bullshit Lin and then get out of there. Something was screaming in her head, louder than Bono.
She’ll stab you in the back, like all the others …
But the story of the unwanted move from Scotland to Cleveland came out in the most normal way she had told it in a long time, despite her best efforts.
It was the shattering of a world. It was nothing special or unique. Except that it was her world. And she told it like that. She didn’t hide that she felt rotten but she didn’t pretend that she was special either.
Lin looked as if she was listening to all of it very intensely. She never once interrupted or commented. When Carrie had finished, she just said, “divorces are always shitshows.”
Carrie merely nodded. She felt a strange emptiness inside. This hadn’t gone down the way she wanted it. For some reason. But it felt like the fear had left her, and now she didn’t care much anymore. Not about Lin. Or Eric. Or Ann. Or even Richard.
She just felt a sadness inside that she hadn’t allowed herself to feel for a long time, and even though the volume of the music had long since topped inferno-level, Carrie heard little of it.
She felt far away, outside of her body, only vaguely attached to it. Somewhere else.
“So what do you like to do when you’re not at school?”
Carrie shook her head like she had to wake herself up from a dream. Lin was regarding her with the same intensity that she had since the first moment.
And there was that new question.
‘What do you like to do … ?’
At last, Carrie lowered her shoulders. And then she told Lin about drawing.
And Lin, to Carrie’s surprise, asked her a lot of questions about exactly that—techniques, tools, motifs, and much more.
Nobody had ever asked her that much about drawing.
At first, Carrie thought Lin might draw herself, but she shook her head. “No, I just dabble a bit in writing.” And that was it, apparently.
But it felt okay. It wasn’t just one-way and that was what made Carrie relax more than anything else.
In particular, there was a ring of truth as to why Lin had badgered her parents to transfer her to a “normal” public high school. She couldn’t stand the “creeps” in her private school, she said, like she was about to spit. That was it. It didn’t make much sense on the surface that a transfer was the only option, but the way Lin said “creeps” resonated with something in Carrie, and for her part, she couldn’t help believing Lin’s story.
And then they talked some more. About everything and nothing. As it was standard routine at parties, and yet it still felt more intense than any random meeting Carrie had ever had at any party.
Time seemed to change its flow. Only for one brief moment, did Carrie remember to look for sharks. Eric. Then Ann. But Eric had gone off somewhere, and none of the other classmates who supported him and Ann seemed to be in sight. She allowed herself one last ember of hope that Richard might show up, but nothing happened. Instead, it felt like there were more people in the ex-dining hall in general as if that was even physically possible.
Carrie hoped they wouldn’t all need to scramble for a fire exit anytime soon.
In fact, she hoped for the first time this evening she wouldn’t have to go anywhere at all. Even if someone did drop one of the many cigarettes that seemed as ubiquitous as the ‘legal’ booze and set Lin’s strange whale-like house on fire, while she was caught in its belly.
Somehow being caught didn’t matter as much now.
Suddenly the music came to a halt, and somebody called out across the hall.
Carrie felt like somebody had dropped a bucket of ice down her back.
From the improvised DJ stage, Eric Markham waved frantically—in Carrie’s direction. Ann Salcroft stood beside him, drink in hand, grinning.
“Show us your Riverdance moves, Carrie!”
Carrie got up like somebody had kicked her. Her cheeks were on fire. “I have to go.”
Lin got up, too. “Wait—”
Carrie hardly heard Lin. Her mind was racing.
Stupid-stupid-stupid. How could I believe they weren’t here-wouldn’t notice me-wouldn’t care about me tonight?
The straining loudspeakers began pumping out a new beat, and sure enough, it was “Riverdance”. Carrie wanted to strangle whoever had brought that CD to the party. And Eric Markham.
Eric hollered again. “Come on, Carrie! Show us!”
The people on the dance floor seemed befuddled by the sudden change in tune, and some tried to dance, making moves that looked anything but the grand Riverdance shows. Others began looking in the direction Eric was hollering, trying to figure out who was the target. It didn’t take them long.
Carrie felt her eyes sting. So many people were staring at her. Many who didn’t know her, many who would now likely never care to get to know her, because Eric’s stunt made it clear she was someone you called names at parties.
Lin’s hand was on her shoulder. “Let’s go somewhere else.”
Carrie pulled away. “The only place I want to go is up there and smash Eric’s fat head into a loudspeaker,” she hissed, feeling like she had trouble breathing.
In fact, Carrie felt entirely paralyzed. Did she actually want to charge Eric, or just get the hell out of there? Whatever course of action seemed a recipe for disaster. And the more she hesitated to make her choice, the worse everything got.
“Dance, baby! Show us your Scottish moves,” Ann Salcroft called, waving her drink and spilling something on the wobbling bumpers beneath her blouse.
“Riverdance is Irish, ye stupid cunt!”
Carrie had let loose and she regretted it instantly. The nearest guy, a lanky but good-looking senior, had begun grinning while saying something to his friend, another senior. They both nodded in Carrie’s direction and shook their collective heads.
“Carrie,” Lin tried again, “those two up there are fucking idiots. And they just proved that to everyone.”
“It doesn’t matter now.” Carrie felt something had snapped inside of her.
The “Riverdance” CD was still playing. Someone began to clap, a clumsy drunken imitation of the rhythm, and soon others joined in.
Lin shot past Carrie and began elbowing her way through the crowd with a ferocity that didn’t seem possible for a girl her size. She was steering straight for the stage and Eric and Ann.
But Carrie didn’t care anymore. Whatever she did now at this damn party would just make things infinitely worse. She felt that with certainty.
In the end, there was only one course left.
Outside it was freezing and the huge garden seemed particularly desolate because of its wide swathes of nothing but lawn. The old man was gone. Fresh snow had fallen to cover the parts of the driveway he had cleared and it was already difficult to walk in, especially with heels.
Carrie made for the gate towards the road as quickly as she could. She did not look back.
She stopped in her tracks. Even if she had no sure way of recognizing the voice because they had been trying to talk over the incessant noise of the party, Carrie knew it belonged to Lin.
Lin panted slightly, as she caught up. “Carrie, don’t go!”
Carrie hesitated for a few moments. A part of her had decided she didn’t really want to talk, but she couldn’t help herself. She sighed and turned toward her pursuer. “It’s not just Eric, Adeline—”
“Okay, Lin—but since the day I started in this high school, I have been everybody’s punching bag!”
Suddenly there was a strange defiance in Lin’s voice. Out here, in full Goth, against the twilit snow carpet, she looked like a tiny black troll. And now she sounded that way, too.
Carrie felt that she had hit a nerve, but was confused about what it was. She was just trying to explain how she felt. About coming over here, starting all over, and then getting beaten down at school. Every single day. Why was that so hard to understand?
Carrie crossed her arms. “Ye wouldn’t know the first thing about being unpopular, would ye?”
Lin shook her head vigorously. “I don’t know anything about your popularity, Carrie. I just transferred to your—our school—less than four weeks ago, remember?”
“Don’t pretend in front of me!”
“I’m not pretending!” Lin shot back. “We don’t have classes together. Aside from what you’ve told me tonight, I don’t know you at all.”
Lin shook her head again, but it also looked as if she was looking around for someone she couldn’t find. “Until now you just seemed like … well, one of those quiet girls … And yeah, there was some talk, but everybody’s talking about everybody and for Pete’s sake—it’s not just because you come from over there. Come on with me back inside. Let’s show them that—”
Suddenly something flared in Carrie. “Show them what? That Adeline Kouris has a new pet? ’cause that’s what this is really about, isn’t it? Ye want to show everybody just how Samaritan ye can be to the poor wee—the poor little girl from Scotland.”
Even out here in the dark garden, Carrie could see how much that stung.
Good. I want to kick back at somebody. And it’s way overdue.
Long seconds passed.
When Lin finally answered, it was with a calm that had more chill than the winter air. “You think you have no friends? That a lot of people backtalk you? Maybe you’re right. But I’ve got news for you! Everybody’s a punching bag from time to time. Everybody! Dan B because he came in from a farm and smells like it, Ellen Nga because her skin is gross, and—whatshername—Sharon Carthwright because she’s, well, because she dresses like eight years ago. We both know none of it is true, but that doesn’t matter because they—” she nodded angrily towards the house “—because they say it’s true. And that’s just the lousy facts of life. Everyone gets their turn to check out the bottom of the pyramid. In a few months, it’s someone else. Deal with it.”
And that’s what really pissed Carrie off. “Oh, I reckon ye must have a lot of experience in ‘dealing with it’ when ye can afford to throw parties like this! Ye think ye are the real deal but ye—”
“But what?” Lin snapped.
“Och! Don’t pretend to be stupid, too!”
Lin took a step closer to Carrie. “I am not. Tell me what you think of me.”
“Ye really want to know?”
“Ye are not going to like it one bit.”
“I think ye … ”
No. Not tears. Not now.
“I think ye are … ” Carrie tried again.
“Forget it. I’m going.” Carrie began marching towards the gate.
Lin grabbed her arm. “No, tell me!”
“Yes. Now tell me! And don’t hold back for my sake!”
Carrie looked away. “I think ye are … … shallow.”
“That’s it? ‘Shallow?’”
Carrie kept looking away, towards the gate, even while Lin was slowly letting go of her arm. Something was completely stuck in her.
She wanted to scream how terrible she felt about everything but couldn’t. She wanted to tell Lin that she didn’t really mean it. That she believed that Lin had shown genuine interest and had something more to offer than a smashed dining hall rave party.
The problem was that part of Carrie didn’t believe it. But it was too hurtful to be any more explicit about it than she already had been. So she was stuck.
Lin, however, did not have that problem.
She breathed deeply, shivering for the first time since coming outside. “You know what … you are right. I am shallow. In fact, I am so shallow that instead of going to counseling, I’m throwing a party for half of Cleveland, when my father got stabbed dead three days ago with a nail file while pushing his tiny dick too far up the asshole of a 15-year old hooker—the highlight of his business trip to Port-Au-Prince! I am so shallow that I just party on, while my mother stopped over on her way home from a Haitian morgue, at her shrink boyfriend’s holiday house in the Keys—to ‘find herself’—and left me alone with our caretaker, when I don’t have any other family here! That’s right, Carrie—I’m the fucking definition of shallow!”
Lin turned and marched back. Carrie reacted the only way she could.
She decided Lin was lying.
The bus stop was still about half a mile’s walk up the road. It hadn’t gotten easier to walk there due to the snow. And, of course, the night bus was half an hour away when she arrived.
“Shit.” That was all there was to say. Carrie leaned against the bus stop sign which was already clad in white.
At least she had had the wherewithal to snatch her overcoat before fleeing the mansion-like monstrosity that was Tinkers Creek Road 14124, but the night sky kept her company with more snowflakes while she waited. So the cold slowly but surely crept in, and by the time she finally saw the headlights of the bus, it lived in her bones.
But at least this total disaster of an evening was over now.
And the sooner I get out of my ‘great’ party clothes, the better, Carrie thought ruefully.
It was so incredibly stupid of her to have come here in the first place—that conclusion was as clear in Carrie’s mind as the chill that clawed at every part of her.
But she was not going to let Richard humiliate her any longer.
One thing made her feel stronger, though. Lin had said all that BS, and now there was no doubt in Carrie’s mind about how shallow she really was. That fake story about her father was pathetic. Just like her other attempts to get attention, including throwing a party with so much illegal booze, it would get her expelled after Christmas anyway.
That would give her attention.
Yeah, Carrie thought sullenly, as the bus pulled over, Adeline must be some kind of loony. It would explain a lot!
Carrie had one victory, though, which would help her from Monday and onward. It would help her rapidly exorcize the humiliations of tonight from her mind, and it would make her invulnerable to those that would come.
Her victory was that because of everything Eric, Adeline, and the others had done she had decided she would not care—about them. Or about anyone. Ever again.
What this meant was that she would from now on be deliberately reclusive. She would only talk perfunctorily to everyone at school. She would lock herself in her room and draw when she got home, as much as possible. She would not attend any parties, events, anything.
She knew it was a freakish choice, but she was convinced it was the first, best way to shield herself if she was to last for another two years in this school. At some point, everyone would find out that she was so impervious that anything could be thrown at her and it would just peel off.
The bus stopped in front of her.
A sleepy middle-aged driver pushed a button, and the door ground halfway open. Some dirty snow prevented it from opening all the way, but Carrie figured she could squeeze in. She took a step forward.
That story about her dad … so pathetic.
The driver coughed hard. “You getting in or what?”
Carrie’s heart skipped a beat. She hadn’t moved an inch. She had wanted to step forward, yes, but she … had not done it.
The reason was as obvious as it was relentless. She had been hammering at it in her mind for the last thirty minutes, to make it go away, but now it hammered back.
What if her dad really is dead?
“Young lady?” The driver’s tone indicated that he would not ask a third time.
Carrie took half a step, for real this time, but then stopped dead again. Just like inside, when Eric had taunted her, she felt paralyzed. And that she would probably be a loser no matter what she decided.
Damn you, Carrie. If you go back there, Eric and his crowd will have you for breakfast.
Carrie looked up at the driver while being keenly aware that there had to be a million snowflakes in her hair already, making her look even more derelict than she already felt.
“Err, I’m actually waiting for another bus,” she managed to croak.
No. Get the hell in.
The driver looked down at her like she was waiting for an ambulance to the cuckoo’s nest. “There are no other buses on this route, miss.”
“Oh. Well, er, I think I left something inside.”
The driver’s eyes narrowed. He cast a long look at Carrie then briefly glanced over his shoulder. “You come from that wacko party back there? I bet the noise can be heard on the bloody moon.” His bushy eyebrows took on a less impatient curve. “You sure you don’t wanna go home, kid?”
Carrie shook her head.
The driver sighed and pushed the button to the door once more. With some effort, it closed. The bus accelerated away from the small stop and plowed through rapidly freezing slush into the darkness. Then it was just Carrie and the silent, black road again.
And a new choice.
Which she was absolutely sure would kill her this time.
And she would not go to heaven after her death but to a hell named Cuyahoga Heights High School.
Carrie gritted her teeth and finally moved.
Back in Lin’s house, Carrie frantically looked around—but saw only throngs of both juniors and seniors who could barely hear each other or were probably too drunk to understand what they heard.
Carrie looked around again, her heart beating faster. Were Eric and Ann nearby, ready to … ? No. She didn’t see them and wondered if they had gone upstairs or even outside. Maybe Lin actually threw them out?
That seemed unlikely, though. Lin had come out after Carrie very quickly. So … if Carrie had stayed and not chickened out maybe Eric and his lover doll would have gotten what they deserved? That thought was difficult but maybe it wouldn’t have made a difference? So many had seen Eric humiliate her.
Carrie wished she knew for certain if Eric and Ann were still there. It was bad enough that other people gave her the long look every so often. How far could she push her luck?
It all felt more and more like a wild goose chase. Lin was nowhere.
The party meanwhile seemed to have gained an uncanny life of its own after its mistress had abandoned it. And that life was self-replicating chaos. People had upended pallets and thrown the pillows around. There was dancing everywhere now, even in the hallways and some of the rooms on the ground floor. The ex-dining hall itself had in effect become a complete symbiosis between a hammering beat and thrashing bodies. There were already many overturned bottles and splotches of beer and other liquids on the floor. It was a wonder nobody seemed to have stepped on the bottles yet.
Carrie finally gave up trying to find Lin or someone who knew where she was. She hesitated for a moment, feeling that it might be prudent to leave again. After all, hadn’t she done enough now?
Carrie then saw Ann Salcroft coming down the stairs from the first floor. Still very much part of the party.
And she changed her blouse …
Carrie hesitated for too long and Ann spotted her.
“Well, well—look who’s here again.”
Carrie pulled herself together. “Ann, I need to know where Ade—where Lin went.”
“Lin who?” Ann tasted her drink, eyeing Carrie carefully.
“Haven’t seen her in a while,” Ann replied, glancing up and down Carrie. “Why are you looking for her, Braveheart?” She watched for Carrie’s reaction.
“Never mind.” Carrie slid past Ann, away from the bedlam.
“Maybe you don’t want to go up there,” Ann called after her.
Carrie stopped midway on the stairs and turned. “What?”
“Just sayin’.” Ann shrugged. “I don’t give a damn, but maybe you do.” There was a softness in her voice, Carrie had thought was impossible.
When Ann became too self-conscious she quickly pivoted. “I’m going to find Eric.”
What the hell was that about … ?
Carrie took a deep breath. Then she went up.
She had to step over some people on her way, some sitting and talking and drinking, some just exchanging mouth water, but eventually she reached the first floor.
Again Carrie marveled at the size of the house. Compared to her mother’s two-room apartment it was unbelievable.
But the size was the only thing that impressed her. The walls were pastel-colored like a hospital, and the pieces of abstract art that decorated them were like strangers.
I’d never draw like that …
There was a long hallway linking to all kinds of rooms. Several smaller groups had occupied them, which she found out when she tried to knock on, or even open, some of the doors. This struck Carrie as odd. These offices, bedrooms, and the like—why weren’t they locked?
Carrie hesitated to look in all of the rooms, though. Somehow she felt Lin wasn’t there, or maybe she was just afraid of who was. She could hear the unmistakable sounds of talking and laughing behind many closed doors and sometimes sounds of a more primeval sort.
She eventually decided to check on all the open doors. The criteria were simple. Either she could hear people talk only, or she could hear nothing. Anything in between she would avoid.
It was a nice plan, but ultimately it came to a crashing end.
Even though the noise from below made it difficult to discern, Carrie was sure that she heard nothing behind the last door in the hallway, and so she carelessly opened it. In her mind, she was already on her way up to the second floor.
And then she froze.
On a sofa inside what looked like a reading room of some sort, was …
Richard Dufraine, tall, well-built, blonde like herself and very much entangled with a little brunette Carrie had never seen before.
“Carrie?” Richard looked horrified and dumbfounded at the same time. “How come you are h-here?”
“Ye … invited me.” Carrie felt the cold from outside whizz back into her bones in an instant. And into her heart.
Richard’s attempt at smiling turned into a grimace. He was trying to disentangle himself from the brunette who seemed to be glued to him and who appeared oblivious to anyone else, her head buried between Richard’s neck and shoulder. She was very drunk. Richard tried to remove her hand which was deep in his jeans but it came back like a rubber band.
“I thought you had decided not to come,” Richard stammered. “I was late. Damn bus and the snow, you know. I would have called, but the only phone booth nearby didn’t work. The snow … ”
Carrie merely nodded, feeling the numbness spread inside.
“The snow … ” she repeated.
“Eh—?” The brunette stirred. She seemed, at last, to realize that she was becoming part of an unplanned menage-a-trois.
“Janine, wait—” Richard finally got her hand out of his pants.
He looked at Carrie again, lost. “I really only came here half an hour ago. You were gone—I thought.”
“It’s okay,” Carrie heard herself say. “It’s okay.”
Half an hour. That’s how long he ‘cared’.
“Look,” Richard tried. “Perhaps we could—”
Carrie closed the door.
Then she was back in the hallway, along with so many drunk and laughing students, going to and fro different rooms or the dancing below.
She felt like throwing up but managed to get a hold of herself, and head for the stairs.
But then she saw Eric Markham coming up from the inferno on the ground floor, Ann Salcroft in tow.
Carrie understood now what Ann had meant about the first floor being a no-go zone, but she had no desire to test Ann’s newfound compassion any further, especially with Eric there.
Reacting before they spotted her, Carrie pulled open the nearest door.
It led to a bathroom. Black tiles. And a bidet, of all things.
Carrie locked the door and plumped down on the toilet, seat closed. She didn’t know how long she sat there. Everything felt like a blur, but eventually, she opened the door again and peeked out.
Eric and Ann were gone.
She looked over at the stairs. People still came up and down, but nobody recognized her or cared if they did. She hoped she could get out now, without having to run any more gauntlets. She saw a few more classmates, but they were evasive and hardly offered more than a skeptical glance by way of a greeting when they recognized her. Eric and Ann had done their homework well, it seemed.
Well, I have done my part as well. Enough is enough.
Carrie headed for the stairs but just before she went down, she paused. She looked up to the second floor.
As far as she could determine, there was no one up there either, at least in the hallway—if the layout mirrored the first floor.
She wavered, her hand on the rail to the stairs leading down towards the maelstrom, so much in her protesting.
She took the first step.
It was up.
Fuck it. This night can’t get any worse …
But she was wrong again.
At the end of the stairs, on the second floor, there was indeed a new hallway with many doors. But this one was completely deserted. And compared to the pandemonium in the makeshift techno garage below, there was an uncanny calm up there.
Carrie suddenly felt incredibly tired. It was late, she had been outside for almost an hour before going back in, and then there had been all the humiliations. She didn’t know which drained her the most.
She sat down, with her back against the wall, and curled up. On the walls, she could see another series of spidery splotches in frames. Apparently, that type of art was very much to the taste of either Mr. or Mrs. Kouris or both.
Or had been … as regarded Mr. Kouris.
Carrie couldn’t still quite believe if what Lin had confided was true. It felt surreal. But she was here because she had decided to believe it.
Carrie rubbed her eyes and her hand came back with other kinds of splotches. Her make-up was already smeared by the snow and now …
She shook her head.
What am I doing here? Trying to apologize? Like, ‘Gee, I’m really sorry your dad fucked a hooker your age in Haiti and got stabbed for it … ’
She realized she didn’t know what to say to Lin if this insane situation was true. And now, more than ever, she was afraid Lin had made it up, somehow.
Carrie got on her feet but felt dizzy. It wasn’t the blue stuff Lin had fed her. It was a kind of vertigo that she knew came from deep inside. From struggling so hard against the part of her who wanted to flee.
She walked, very slowly, down the hallway. The last thing she wanted was passing out on the floor up there. It was also dark, except for the carpet near the stairs where she had been sitting.
She found a switch and turned on the light in all of the hallways. That revealed another set of stairs, at the far end. As she looked closer, she could see it was actually more a kind of ladder, like the ones leading up to an attic.
Carrie wavered again but figured that if she had to do one last search, she might as well see what was up there, even if it was probably just boxes and junk. The doors in the hallway were all locked, unlike the other floors. Perhaps that’s why nobody had wanted to waste time up here with people they ‘cared’ about?
She hesitated for a couple of seconds, then went to the ladder.
But Carrie had not gone very far up before she realized that this was no ordinary attic. She continued all the way and found another switch on the side of a sloping wall, which had to be part of the roof.
And then there was light.
The attic was a real room, and like everything else in Lin’s house, it was Big. About half the size of the house’s floor plan, she reckoned. On three sides the walls sloped, but on the last side, there was a wall dividing the room from what had to be a far larger attic. Or maybe there were other rooms like this one behind the wall, which you could live in and the real attic was just a slim long room below the roof’s ridge as it had been in the house Carrie grew up in back in Scotland. If it existed at all. It was like each new floor in this giant-sized house invited her imagination to explore even more. But … no. There were no more doors, she could find. This had to be the end station, and what a station …
Carrie blinked. The room where she was now standing could easily hold her mother’s entire apartment—one of the few places that Deborah Sawyer could afford to rent as a part-time substitute teacher and part-time unemployed.
And it was lined with books—in all shapes and sizes. The books were crammed in numerous bookshelves that surrounded Carrie on all sides. Each shelf was at least 6 feet tall and only stopped when the roof began to slope too much. There were comic books, too—and a plethora of magazines. By the window there was a huge Phillips player, and on the sill lay a scattered assortment of CDs she would never have recognized—Happy Rhodes, Wolfsheim, Ramones, Manowar, Joy Division—music that was a world away from the pleasing chart toppers in rotation down below. A patchwork of posters covered what was free of the sloping walls: Dragons from Lord of the Rings, glaring Heavy Metal viking warriors; ravens, goats and other animals trapped in mazes of Celtic patterns, and finally a tiny letter-sized poster with a shadowy silhouette of a ship that for some reason reminded Carrie of Noah’s ark.
What the hell was this, she thought? A psychedelic mess or a daring interior decoration experiment?
Probably depends on who lives here. But I don’t have to make too many guesses about that …
Carrie went over to the small single bed with a half-opened math book on it. They were lying on top of a thick book titled “Player’s Handbook” that showed some kind of knight charging ahead against unknown dangers.
Carrie wondered about the motley pair of reading materials for a moment, then she sat down carefully on an office chair beside a small writing desk next to the bed. Aside from a cupboard, these items were the only other furniture in the room. Everything else was crammed bookshelves.
She wondered briefly why the door—the hatch—had been left open, but it was obvious that if Lin had been here recently, then that was no longer the case.
Okay, get it over with.
Carrie picked up a small calendar on the writing desk and carefully tore out one of the empty pages in the back, where you could write notes. There were plenty of pencils to choose from on the desk. She only had to choose the words.
That was the hard part. She wrote it but felt like throwing it out immediately.
I’m really, really sorry. I screwed up. Maybe I’m not strong enough to be a punching bag any longer. I hated Scotland. I wanted to live in a real city—the bigger the better. But now I’m just the odd girl from Scotland who dresses wrong, talks wrong, and does everything wrong. I know it’s nothing compared to what’s happened to you. So for what it’s worth— I’m really sorry about what happened with your father and all. It’s terrible. It’s almost more than I can comprehend. I don’t have the words. Just that I wish I could take back the stupid things I said about you. But I can’t. So you’ll have to do with this corny note. I know it can never be enough but I wish it was.
Carrie left the note on the bed, held down by one of the math books. She gently let her fingers slide over it, as if the little piece of paper was the petal of a flower that had been uprooted and would not last long.
In some way, Carrie hoped it wouldn’t—that Lin would never read this. Everything in her was screaming again.
Lin bullshitted you about her father. She will use your note to make you a laughing stock. It’ll make everything worse.
Carrie forced herself to turn around and walk back to the ladder, and then … a ridiculous, absurd coincidence that almost made her laugh out loud.
There, on one of the shelves, right in front of her—the treasure beyond treasures.
Carrie reached out and slowly removed the original, 1925 first-print edition of The Great Gatsby from a shelf with other books of about the same vintage. It was in almost perfect condition. Even the dust-jacket only had one or two fine rifts in it.
She turned the book around several times and smiled, while she skimmed the back cover, which she had never seen before in its original version.
‘It is the story of this Jay Gatsby who came so mysteriously to West Egg … ’ she read and then stopped.
For a second time that night Carrie had to gawk. On the rest of the shelf, she saw many more first edition classics—Hemingway, Woolf, Yeats, more Fitzgerald, even a whole collection of Jane Austen. Carrie was not much of a classics reader, but these old books… she knew they must have cost a fortune.
Good old Mr. Jackman would have fainted if he could see this, she mused.
“—What are you doing here?”
For the second time, tonight Lin managed to scare the living daylights out of Carrie.
She turned slowly, Gatsby still in her hands, and tried not to shake as Lin made her way up the ladder.
“I, uh, uh—I was just looking … for ye.”
Lin went over and snapped the book out of Carrie’s hands, and then placed it firmly back on the shelf.
“Why did you take that book?”
“Why that one?”
“I, er, just like it very much. I wrote an essay about it in school—in Scotland. It’s beautiful and … sad.”
Lin scoffed. Carrie could see her make-up had been running, too, but it also looked as if she had been trying to fix it, perhaps in one of the bathrooms. It hadn’t worked out well.
“So,” Lin said, looking over the shelf as if inspecting its contents was the sole purpose of having come up to her room, “I suppose it must have been a great essay, then?”
“Well, er, it was mostly about the meaning of the funeral scene—ye know when Nick Carraway searches for someone to come to James Gatz’s—I mean, to Jay Gatsby’s—funeral and no one wants to and he realizes that it’s all about … that we all, ye know, have to spend our lives alone, beating on, ‘like boats against the current’. And … all … that … ”
Lin stared coldly at Carrie. “Yeah, that sure sounds like a great essay.”
“I just wanted to, ye know—” Carrie tried again “—to say that—”
Lin crossed her arms. “I think you’ve said quite enough already.”
Whatever threads had been holding Carrie together until now were unraveling. Lin had clearly never expected an answer. And then there was the utter exhaustion from all the humiliations, the running around outside, Richard …
“But I w-wanted to—”
Lin cut her off. “Why do you suddenly think I give a fuck what you want? I’m shallow, remember?”
Carrie felt a lump growing in her throat. She wanted to tell Lin about the note, or just say what she had written. But the way Lin regarded her, she felt with icy certainty it would be useless.
She looked away. “I’m sorry … ”
Lin shook her head in disbelief. “Isn’t it a little late for that?”
“I really am … ” Carrie tried one last time, but her voice was almost gone.
Lin looked at her with a mixture of contempt and pity. “And that’s how you show it? Going into my room without permission?” She cast a sharp glance at her books, then back at Carrie. “What other things have you been snooping around in here?”
Carrie felt vertigo coming back, full power.
Get out … get out!
She brushed past Lin and ran back down the ladder.
Lin didn’t call after her this time.
When Carrie finally made it outside, the winter was still gray, silent. But at least she was alone.
Like she knew she would be from now on.
Carrie waded through heavy snow, heading towards the bus stop again.
She could hardly feel her feet, but at least kicking at some stone or tree once in a while to ward off the increasing numbness could make her focus on something else. Her heart was like a knotted fist, clenching itself tighter by the minute.
When Carrie got to the bus stop and got the snow scraped off the sign, the next surprise was like a slap in the face.
No more buses until 5 AM? No …
She was sure that there had been at least two more buses, but she must have read the sign wrong when she was here before. Because of the snow. Because she was so stressed about the showdown with Lin in the driveway. Because …
What could she do? Go back once again and borrow a phone? Except, even if Lin didn’t kill her for showing up again, it would not do much good. Her mother didn’t have a car and the weather …
Hitching a ride with one of the other students? Yeah, right.
For the first time, Carrie wondered if she shouldn’t just lie down and die right there at the bus stop. But whatever the prospects of freezing to death either by accident or volition, one thing made her feel even more terrible still.
Lin hated her.
Carrie had had one chance to be something else to someone else than ‘Braveheart’-girl, and now …
Then she heard something she couldn’t quite place, but after a little while, the noise coalesced to something recognizable but unexpected.
It was the engine of a car.
Out of the whirling snow emerged a big, sleek BMW. Tires in snow chains ground into the white road, as it came to a halt in front of Carrie. The old man from the garden was behind the wheel.
He lowered the passenger window and leaned over. “You Carrie Sawyer?”
“Mick Driscoll. I work for Mr. Kouris.”
“Gardens, driving, stuff like that.” He eyed her like it was the stupidest question in the world.
Carrie, however, couldn’t help asking another one—one that had been burning in her for several hours now. “He … he really is dead, then, Mr. Kouris, I mean … ?”
Embers of twilight twinkled in the old man’s eyes. “Not officially. You gettin’ in or what?”
Carrie felt disoriented again. “Getting in?”
“Is there an echo ‘round here?”
Mick held up a warning hand. “Because the young missus asked! I’ll drive ya home, okay? The party is over. Now get in before I bloody change my mind.”
“The party—” Carrie gazed down the road towards the house. She had been so absorbed in her own thoughts that it occurred to her only now there were no more sounds coming from that direction. Only the stillness of the falling snow.
“Yeah, not too proud of that mess,” Mick added cryptically, “but after the stunt her mother pulled, who am I to—” He broke himself off and looked directly at Carrie. “Well? Do ya want me to come out and hold the door for ya?”
Carrie didn’t know what to reply. Or do.
Mick barked a laugh when he seemed to guess the reason for her continued hesitation. “Ha! The young missus thought ya might not be stupid enough to get into a car with a lurid old man. Glad to see yer not just blonde. Here!”
He handed her a note out the car window. It was the one she had left on Lin’s bed.
“Now,” he drawled, the gravel quotient in his voice several notches up, “Are ya satisfied that I’m legit?”
Carrie shook her head but of course, she meant ‘yes’. And she felt too exhausted and too cold to mean anything else at this point.
She slowly opened the door and let herself slip in, choosing the backseat behind the empty passenger front seat. Once inside, she shuddered, even if it was genuinely warmer in the fancy car. She was sitting on real, crackling leather, and there was a quirky, but reassuring, smell of pipe tobacco from Mick’s jacket; and soft jazz purred from a ten thousand dollar-something car audio system. But she still felt cold inside.
Carrie looked at the wrinkled piece of calendar paper with her own writing on it. Maybe Lin had given Mick the note to assure her that the old man really was there to drive her home. But to Carrie’s mind, you only returned something as personal as this to underscore that the recipient sure as hell wasn’t forgiven. And Mick already knew her name, so there had never been a need for showing it as ‘proof’ that he was okay …
At least it seemed that Lin was decent enough not to leave her out here, even if she hated her guts. But Carrie knew with chilling certainty that all the luxury rides in the world would not help her when she returned to school Monday and had to face the sharks again. Would Lin be one of them this time? Or just throw them meat in secret, like telling them things Carrie had confided about her parents’ divorce?
Mick growled a two-word question about her address. She told him, feeling nauseous again. The car lurched forward, skidding a little over the icy road, but the snow chains did their work. For what it was worth, she was on her way home, at last.
And then Carrie saw it. On the backside of her note, there was someone else’s writing. Not much, but enough.
In fact, Carrie thought, if there was only one definition of ‘enough’ this would be it.
Let’s beat on then if you still want me in your boat.
Last updated 2 Aug 2023