Have you ever had one of those experiences where the phone rings and you just know something bad has happened?
Not easy to explain why – maybe there is no explanation. But I think everyone knows.
“Should I get it?”
Jarrod looks quickly at my mum. She only looks at Don Johnson on the TV. So he turns to me, almost apologetically.
“I can do it,” I say and reward him with a quick smile.
Mum has only been seeing Jarrod for a week, but he is pretty sedate. So I don’t mind being nice …
Wriggling out of the couch, I do feel a small point of iciness in my stomach but I ignore it.
I take the three steps from the couch to the kitchen door, slowly and deliberately as if my body already knows something I don’t. Grab the phone and then close the door as much as I can without choking the chord: The eternal struggle.
Now I’m alone in our tiny kitchen. It’s snowing outside again. The lights from the street below give the flakes an eerie fluorescent glow against the night sky. It would be pretty if it wasn’t coming down in waves that only grow bigger by the hour.
“Carrie … ”
“It’s … almost 10. Are you alright?”
“Not … really. Can I come over?”
“Where are you? Are you at home?”
“Not really … ”
Tendrils of coldness spread in my stomach.
“Lin – where are you?”
“It’s kinda hard to tell. Street signs are all covered by snow.”
“I’m coming to get you. But can’t you see where you are? There’s got to be something … ”
“I know where I am. Sort of.”
A note of irritation creeps into her voice, but it quickly evaporates and there is only deep tiredness left like she is already half asleep.
“Are you far away?” I ask, twisting the phone chord harder between my fingers.
“No. I think I can be at your place in maybe 20 minutes.”
I want that to be 2 minutes. I want to interrogate her about what the hell is going on, but part of me already knows.
Lin’s father dies in a hotel in Haiti. Big famous IT-business man and then … dead.
And her mother’s a nervous wreck whose best idea of a ‘cure’ to the insanity is to leave Lin with the old man who takes care of the house and then fly off to the Keys with her own lover, and then come back because she has a guilty conscience … but not really be there.
Lin got counseling. Lin got back to school. Lin walked and talked normally. But of course … ‘normal’ is just a word.
I feel determination rising in me, mixed with my own guilt about all the things I didn’t do or say until now, because how the hell could I? I can barely figure out my own life.
“I’m coming out to meet you. Are you coming up from the main street?”
“Yeah.” Her voice is weak. “I’m at the phone booth near the park … I think.”
“Okay. I’ll go get my clothes. I’ll meet you.”
My heart beats faster, louder. I don’t remember if I manage to say goodbye properly. I just hang up and rush through the living room again, past Don Johnson and his melancholy beach walks on the TV …
Lin, please … stay safe.
There are the usual questions, from my mum – and a few perfunctory ones from Jarrod. And then a bit of shouting. But I’m off – down the stairs so fast I almost fall, and then into the gusts of snow that are like small razors against my skin.
There’s practically nobody on the street at this hour because the weather is straight from Antarctica. I work myself through the snow piles towards the main street and the little park. I didn’t get extra socks in my boots and soon I feel the cold numb my toes. So I walk faster.
I expect to see Lin all the time, but she is not coming. Did she go another way? Did she get lost?
After what feels like forever I see the small huddled shape on a bench, just opposite the first phone booth, I know on the main street.
I hurry closer and the small wiry form becomes Lin Kouris.
She is not wearing a cap, although this is definitely cap weather. Her dark stiff hair locks are sprinkled with snow. For a moment she looks like a frozen hedgehog.
I stop right in front of her and grab her shoulders, not really knowing if I should shake her or what the hell I should do.
“Why the hell didn’t you walk to meet me?” I yell.
She looks up at me, hollow-eyed. “I knew you’d find me.”
“You’re absolutely crazy, girl. You’ll get pneumonia.”
I pull her up from the bench. She follows willingly, but as we make our way home, her arm in mine, I wonder if she would have kept sitting there if she hadn’t called me.
I quench the thoughts and we get the hell back to my apartment.
Everything has been so bad this autumn: The jerks in class, the teachers, Richard dumping me … everything except Lin.
We finally get in. My mum meets us in the hallway. She is all business and Jarrod follows in her wake.
“You must be freezing!” Mum almost pulls Lin’s coat off her and gives it to Jarrod so he can put it over the extra heater we have in the kitchen.
“It’s okay, mum …” I know it’s a pipe-dream with an entrance like that, but God, I wish mum would let us handle this ourselves!
“No, it’s not ‘okay’. Lin – do you want a hot shower?” My mum pulls open the door to our bathroom cubicle with one hand, while she is on her knees, working Lin’s boots with the other.
Lin kind of nods and I go with her and show her how to work the tabs.
After half an hour, Lin gets out of the shower, a cloud of steam following her into our box of a hallway.
I take her to my room and we find some dry clothes that don’t look too much like they don’t fit.
Inside the living room, my mum has found a use for her herbal tea obsession and made big mugs for the three of us. Jarrod has strategically retired to the kitchen to make more coffee.
Nobody is talking and the only sounds are fake gunshots from the obligatory shootout at the end of the Miami Vice re-run.
Lin sits on the couch. My mum sits beside her. I take the footstool with the “sacred Maya pattern” blanket. Jarrod stands by the kitchen door.
Lin puts the tea to her lips but doesn’t drink anything before she sets it down again.
Next up is the news on TV about death here and bad shit there, and then I become clear-headed enough to find the remote and mute it all.
Lin sips her tea, at last, her lips barely touching.
My mum breathes deeply. “What’s going on, Lin?”
“My mother and I had a fight.” Lin’s voice is little more than a whisper.
“Again, huh?” I deadpan because that’s all I really can do now.
“Again … ” Lin nods, while she looks down in the tea.
Then she eyes Jarrod for the first time. That’s his cue.
“Hi,” he says and smiles a well-rehearsed smile under the crisp mustache. “I’m Jarrod. Deborah’s … ” He nods towards my mum but hesitates.
“My hot date for the evening,” my mum explains, returning the smile but wryly.
“Since last Monday,” Jarrod adds, keeping up the cheery smile. “I’m the counselor at Collinwood High. Deborah subs in middle school there.”
“That’s nice,” Lin says, making an obvious effort to make it sound nice.
Then the phone rings.
I get up ready to get it, but my mum is quicker.
“Stay here,” she says.
I bite my lip and move over to the couch beside Lin. I don’t want my mum to take the damn phone because I know bloody well who is calling now. But what do I do? – Run past her and block the door?
Lin rocks a little back and forth, her eyes closed, holding the tea in one hand like she is meditating. The scent of hibiscus, the warmth – promises of other worlds than this.
My mum’s voice cuts through the half-closed kitchen door as Jarrod clears his throat and moves to annex the footstool I just left.
“Hello, Julia. Yes, she is here,” I hear my mum say from the kitchen.
“So … you two are attending Cuyahoga High?” Jarrod starts and looks expectantly at us.
And that’s when Lin jumps from the couch and barges into the kitchen. “I’m not going home – I’m not!”
My mum looks stunned for a moment and I can hear Lin’s mum at the other end talking frantically, a mixture of anger and desperation as if she wants to reach out and grab Lin just by shouting.
The next five minutes are a blur. I remember running to the kitchen also, reaching out for Lin, who stands there like a wild animal, trapped. Lin’s mum shouts at the other end of the line. My mum shouts. Lin cries. I say small incoherent, meaningless things, meant to calm her down, but
I think Lin barely registers that I’m there.
Lin doesn’t want to talk to her mum, even though the distant, desperate voice pleads with her to do so, and sneaks in a few veiled threats, too, about changing schools again.
Then Jarrod tries, and that counselor-voice does something to douse the fire, enough for my mum to get Julia Kouris calm enough to listen to my mum’s pitch that I think she just made up on the spot:
‘Lin might get a serious cold if she’s to go out anymore tonight. Not good for her asthma … What if your car is stuck in the snow? … What if … What if … What if … ‘
My mum is annoying in a million ways which include being a certified health nut, stuffing half the kitchen with dietary supplements … but sometimes it’s pretty darn useful, especially when Lin’s mum is a sucker for those things, too. And sees my mum as an authority.
That and the fact that it snows an awful lot outside now …
So Lin’s mum relents and lets her stay. At least until morning.
After she hangs up, Jarrod asks the predictable questions about Lin’s family, and if she gets any help and all that, but my mum ushers him back to the couch and says she’ll take that from here.
“Carrie – find the air mattress for Lin,” she says to me through tight lips. “And maybe you two should just go to your room? We’ll be off to Jarrod’s after the news … ”
“I’m not going back this time,” Lin says with finality. For the third time in as many minutes.
“Sure … ” I say, “but where will you go then?”
“I’ve got an uncle in Missouri. I could go down there.”
“Your uncle Jimmy? The Vietnam vet?”
“Why not?” Lin doesn’t try to hide her irritation. “He is missing half an arm – not half his mind. Like my freaking mother … ”
We’re in my room and it’s later than late. I can only see her face because she has gone into hiding below more than half of my comforter. I’m sitting at the end of the bed with my back against the cold window.
“Okay, fine, your mum is daft, but that doesn’t allow you to come up here in my bed and steal,” I shoot back.
Joking. My first and only strategy.
Lin smiles suddenly, but it’s so quick I almost don’t see it. “‘Daft’,” she muses like she tastes the word. “You know, your accent isn’t that bad any longer. But you still use cute words.”
“I practiced a lot. I get enough grief from the jerks at school as it is, for being Scottish.”
“Pity, I like your accent and cute words.”
“Don’t wiggle out of this one,” I say, half-annoyed with the topic already. “What were you fighting about this time?”
“Oh, it was nothing special … ” Lin grimaces, so I know it’s special. “We’ve been at it since my father died, as you know – and way before that. But after he died it got worse.”
“So what was it, then?”
“You really wanna hear it?”
I take one of the pillows and hit her square in those dark locks. “D’uh – what do you think? Tell me everything!”
Lin closes her eyes for a long moment, then opens them again and looks straight at me. There is no real light in her eyes now, just shadows and intense fire.
She looks away. “My mother wants Gerard to move in.”
“Oh, shit …”
The next few moments are going to be as easy as walking on hot coal.
“I … thought you said he was kind of okay, though?”
“Carrie – it’s been less than two months since my dad died!”
I look away, looking for some sign – some help for what to say. There is none. Just words that can’t do fucked-up reality any justice. “Yeah … it was pretty bad of her to fly off like that when your dad had just died … ”
“‘Bad’ doesn’t even begin to cover it,” Lin says darkly, and in a split second, I get this vision of her walking alone in some abysmal landscape with toxic fumes swirling all around.
But she is not afraid. She is just walking with silent determination, breathing in everything, letting it blacken her skin. And that is what makes me afraid …
Lin goes on, pulling me back to the here and now and the half-darkness in the room. “I wanted to move out if Gerard moves in – but my mother won’t allow me. So I can run away from home and try to get pneumonia but that won’t really solve anything. Or going to Missouri.”
I swallow. “Damn, this is so fucked up. But your uncle could get custody, couldn’t he… ?”
Lin smiles a brief, joyless smile. “ – My uncle would fight to keep me. He knows how fucked up my mother is. But he can’t afford all the lawyers she can, not on his shitty pension.”
“Does your mum … love Gerard?”
Lin shrugs. “She says she does, and that she should have recognized her ‘true feelings’ a long time ago. So why not have him move in now? When she ‘needs’ him the most? Blablabla … ”
“But he is her shrink … ?!”
“Not just that anymore.”
Lin wriggles herself into an upright position, so she is sitting with her back to the wall, her pillow in her back. The comforter is still tightly wrapped around her, but I let her have it this time.
She looks like one of those natives from the old paintings from the Arctic explorers – sitting in her igloo, huddled in furs or whatever. I’m still lying down, looking up at her, resting my head on my hands and my own pillow.
“So I’m technically rich,” Lin says wistfully, “because my dad left money for me in his will – earmarked just for me. But it’s not money I can use before I’m 18. So I can’t buy a place for myself even though I could pay cash. Isn’t that crazy?”
“It’s so stupid,” I say with rightful indignation. “You must be able to use some of it. There must be a law or something … ”
She sighs. “There probably is, but what should I do? Sue my mother? Do you think she’ll give me money to at least let me do that?”
We laugh a bit at that, but not much. Then Lin’s face is a mask of sadness again.
“You might get our school counselor to support you,” I suggest without much faith. “He knows what your mum did – going away – when your dad died.”
“Yeah, but it was just there and then,” Lin says, her voice getting more and more resigned. “And aside from that brain fart, she doesn’t mistreat me – not physically anyway.”
“Lin … ?”
Lin wipes something from her eyes and sniffs. “Yeah?”
That ice in my stomach it’s still there. And I need to know. “Remember when you told me, you told your parents you’d kill yourself if you didn’t transfer to our high school – ?”
She shrugs, but a bit too quick for my taste. “It was just something I said. I was so angry last summer. I said a lot of things to get away from that snobby place in Toledo.”
“Okay … ”
It seems like there is nothing more to say after that. So I don’t. But I can still feel the ice. Like a small razor from outside, somebody forgot inside me.
Lin doesn’t look much better. She stares into the semi-darkness of the room, but not at the new stack of magazines and comics on the shelf opposite the bed. That has been the place we usually started. Not tonight.
Then a weak smile touches her lips and she turns to me again:
“You know what I really appreciate about you, highlander?”
“That you are the only one who gets to call me that without me slapping your head off?” I suggest, being half-serious about that last part.
“I appreciate that you’re not afraid to see me like this.”
“Like the girl who doesn’t know what the hell to do … ” She chokes a bit on the last part.
“Lin, Lin … ”
I reach out to her. We hang on for a long time.
“Your dad died … ” I manage to say. “My dad drank so much, but he is still there. If I lose him … ”
I let that hang in the air, trying with all my might to suppress the images and feelings this last statement conjures. I know all too well my dad’s trip down the bottle – where it can end.
When mum is at her most vindictive, she never hesitates to spell it out for me.
“I know … ” Lin says, barely audible. “I know, Carrie … and I’m glad you still have him. I really am.”
It’s odd but somehow, even after these months, now is the first time I really notice how different Lin looks without her Goth make-up – which she wears like 90 percent of the time.
She looks different, like someone I both know and don’t know at the same time.
And also … real.
“I miss him,” she says, her voice thick. “He wasn’t there often, and the way he died … God, I miss him so much.”
Lin loses it again, and I’m afraid if I let go of her she’ll jump out the window. Even so, I’m glad we’re alone. It’s been hours since my mum went home – three blocks – with Jarrod. That was foresight on her part, I guess.
At one point Lin gets so much hold of herself that she just shivers once in a while.
And still, we hang on.
There is nothing else to do.
The night wears on, but sleep doesn’t come for us.
We should talk about stupid Richard who dumped me like that at Lin’s party before Christmas.
We should talk about Mr. Muggins and Mr. Zohar and all the other teachers we love to love or love to hate.
We should talk about the future, and the story we have talked about before. The story Lin is going to write and I’m going to illustrate.
The story brought us together for real. We first hatched the idea new year’s evening and felt that gleeful sense of vindication you only feel when you are used to being weird and everybody laughs at what you love. And we love old books, X-Men comics, and stuff.
Not stuff for girls. Yeah. Everybody says that. But we know better.
And we’re going to do some great stuff together, Lin and I.
And some of the nice boys actually like this world, too – our world. So what will Denise or Ann say when we hook up with someone like Jimmy Woo, who they all sigh about? What if we steal him away in front of their powdered little noses?
Or this rock band guy, Lars, who is quickly getting to be the most popular pretty face in school? But who is also into – get this – dungeons and dragons?
Anyway, we could do it, I suppose because at the end of the day we actually get their world. Of edgy music, magic and roleplaying, and all the other stuff, other people wrinkle their noses at.
We should have talked about how this future would be there for us – soon. Just waiting. Just a little while longer. And we would get our revenge against the other girls who think we are weird and who love to talk behind our backs.
We should …
But no words.
They aren’t enough. Not here and now.
So we let the hours pass.
It’s not snowing anymore and there is quiet darkness outside, only broken by the lonely street lamps.
I can see the light through gaps in the curtains, but the lamps are too far away to see directly.
All you have to go for if you want to make sure of their existence is to believe that the light comes from somewhere. That there is a source.
Because in our dark here in my room that is all you get.
Then suddenly Lin says something, and I’m almost half-asleep and it jolts me because I didn’t expect it.
“W-what?” I mumble.
“Tomorrow … I mean, when we get up … ” Lin glances at the digital clock. Its red numbers denote that tomorrow is already here, even if we don’t like it.
I get up on my elbow. Lin is on the mattress on the floor, in my sleeping bag, but for the moment I’m afraid she is not there.
“Tomorrow … ” Lin repeats, her voice faint. “I’ll call and tell my mum – or Mick or whoever she sends – to pick me up by the corner, near the trees. I don’t want them to come up here.”
“Okay … ”
“But … ” she continues.
“You will go with me, right? Until we see the car?”
“Good … ”
And that’s all she says.
Then she just sort of collapses and is almost immediately asleep again.
I want to go to sleep as well but even when I close my eyes I can’t relax again, at least not right away. I keep thinking of the clock … of how little time we have.
In a few hours, when the red digital clock blares, we are going to get up and have some toast and tea, and then we are going to walk to the corner with the trees.
There is frost on the windows but the dark sky is clear now and so it will be when the darkness lifts for the new day, which will be just about the time when we’ll go out to meet the car.
But at least we’ll both go.
Last edited 7 Sep 2021