That’s when I find the old novella draft from Lin. Another one unfinished. I kept it because she allowed me to keep it, when I was afraid she’d throw it out. She would have. Then it was with my mum for a long time, until she dropped most of my archived stuff here last year. Fair enough. I threw out a lot back then. But I kept this and then forgot.
Maybe part of me wanted to remember it now, because suddenly it dawned on me – that it existed. But I was afraid that I might have thrown it out. I searched and then I found out that Michael had taken it, because it was – somehow, inexplicably – in the bag with old paper to be reused. A lot of fine crayons 8-year old style on both back and front of the dot matrix-printed story.
So now you are expecting me to say that the story helped me. That grace or something like that made me think of it and find it. That’s not so. As a matter of fact I’ve got so few things left from Lin – even photos – that I obsess about the ones I do have. And even this one, precious as I said it was, did not avoid to come close to extinction in the mess that is my life and my house.
But I saved it. In truth, I thought about it all the way from Vegas. But it was a secret thought – the one I kept pushing away, because I didn’t want to feel it all again. I didn’t want to think of Lin lying in that pool …
The ink black mass at the bottom of the mug is completely solid:
“Has there been anyone in this place since it closed?”
I try to catch Lin’s eye, but she is just sitting there – on the big kitchen desk, pondering unknowns.
“I … have come here sometimes. When I needed to go somewhere quiet. Mostly to get away from my parents.”
Now I don’t try to catch her eye anymore.
“You think it’s creepy,” she says. Not a question.
“Well, no, but you have to admit – coming back to moonlight at your old ‘kindergarten’, turned into ghost house, is, well – “
“Yeah. It is.” Lin lets her fingers strafe gently across the kitchen desk. They go gray immediately, from the thick layer of dust. “Guess I just wanted you to see it, Carrie.”
“Okay. The, ah, cupboard doors are nice … they almost look handmade – with patterns and all.”
“They are handmade. I believe they are copies of the original cabinet doors from the 1800s. Everything in the mansion has been restored.”
“It wasn’t actually the kitchen, I wanted you to see.”
I swallow. It wasn’t the coffee but it sure feels like it: “Okay then, ready to boldly go where no woman has gone before, Mr. Spock.”
I turn for the large double door, which apparently leads out of the kitchen. But Lin holds her hand up:
“Nothing to see in there but armchairs covered by white sheets and cobwebs.”
” – But since we have broken into the ‘haunted house’, why not go all the way? ” I have my hand on the handle.
I don’t want to look like a complete coward but I sure wish we’d go back to Columbus soon. We were supposed to check on Deborah and now we’re looking for Norman Bates out in Chagrin Falls.
“Miss Super Lawyer,” Lin says, wry smile and all. “You see crimes everywhere. “
“Shut up. I’m barely through the first third of the long and weary road to my bar X.”
“Sorry …” Lin says quietly. “Maybe I couldn’t decide myself what I wanted. But now I have.”
Lin slides down from the desk and walks over to a small door in the opposite corner of the kitchen, between two large cupboards. I hadn’t even noticed that it was a door. But now I do. And it looks like there is a staircase inside the darkness.
“Uh … is there no light down there?”
“Just as much as here, when you pull away the curtains. No electricity, of course. “
“Are we going into the basement?”
“With its basement windows, yes. I didn’t think Captains were afraid of anything?”
I roll my eyes at her. Then I march past her and begin walking the cliché of a creaking staircase. I have to wipe my face with my sleeve almost the whole way down, while a thousand cobwebs try to steal a kiss from me.
Lin follows right after.
We end up in a basement room with curtain-less windows looking out into the empty garden. The pale autumn light is mostly lost in the thick greasy dust, covering the windows, but there is still light enough to clearly reveal a bed, a table with chairs and two shelves without any significant amount of books.
On the wall: A faded poster of Johnny Cash in San Quentin.
A room with more order than items; where you know it is a sin to move anything.
“Janitor’s room,” says Lin. She sits gently down on the bed, which is only covered by a single, tight sheet.
“I find it hard to imagine a janitor in such a neat little place – even if it is in the basement,” I quickly add (and wonder what the hell I meant by that).
“We called him the janitor. He had shown a different title. And someone has keep such a big house going,” she added. “It’s like a ship. It needs a guy to take care of the engine.”
“Lin … why are we here?”
Lin pulls up her legs beneath her on the bed.
I am still standing, not quite sure if I should sit down beside her. She is my best friend. I should.
I keep standing.
“When I was a little girl,” says Lin quietly, “my parents felt that I kept too much to myself – I isolated myself. Like a female Robinson Crusoe or something. I would stay for days, and almost not get out of my room during vacations.”
“That was a problem for them? Your dad who was always on business trips and your mum who was always at some conference? They had Mick to look after you.”
“It wasn’t the isolation that was a problem in itself. But I was also often depressed …. Sometimes angry, sad – without knowing why. Couldn’t explain it. “
I finally sit down, but there’s still an arm’s length between us. The bed creaks a little, like we’re in a bad movie. I fold my hands in my lap and look at her, waiting:
She pauses, and something glistens in her eyes: “Yes, I was damn well not normal – but when I was little …” she tries, then her voice fades.
“I was really … I had some real problems, Carrie.” She looks directly at me. “But no one knew what it was about. I certainly didn’t. However, my mom was a big fan of Goddard’s ideas about pedagogy that could help children with ‘special challenges’. So she and my father agreed that I should attend here, before they dared to send me to school.
“… How was it?”
“It was okay … but there were not many of the other girls I felt I could talk to, or adults for that matter. Except Uriah. “
“He scared me silly.” Lin smiles weakly. “Half of his face was scarred from burns. He kept much to himself. But he had to go look after the garden and paint and repair and such. So it was impossible not to notice him sooner or later, although he would certainly try to avoid us. “
“But why did he live here?”
“He had nowhere else to live.”
Lin stares at a small photo frame on the bookshelf. The photo is in black and white and depicts a young, athletic looking man in full firefighter uniform. He leans almost nonchalantly up against a fire engine. I can see the flash from the camera sparkle in the polished hood. The young firefighter is ready to save the world.
“Uriah Shannon helped put out a lot of fires in the Cuyahoga in the sixties,” Lin continues softly. “There was always someone who had forgotten that the river was more oil than water and dropped a cigarette in it. It must have been quite a sight for tourists – a burning river. One of the fires took nearly a day to get under control. Something went wrong. Uriah must have slipped at one point, for he fell straight down into the inferno. They thought he was dead, but when they pulled him up he was still alive… barely. Perhaps it would have been better for him if he hadn’t been.”
I try to breathe normally, as I look at the photo. Life can’t be that cruel, can it?
I should know the answer to that.
After having been silent a few seconds, Lin says:
“… Uriah was burned on nearly half of the face – and who knows how much more of the rest of the body. He could, for good reasons, not be a firefighter anymore. He could apparently not be anything else anymore, maybe because nobody would hire him because of his face. He started drinking, was repeatedly arrested for fights, got into debt, and was eventually evicted from his apartment because he couldn’t pay rent. Catherine – our principal – was evidently sorry for him. He was her cousin. She offered him a kind of job and a place to be. He had to be a kind of caretaker in the Yeardley House.”
“So finally someone could use him?”
“I think the other teachers didn’t like the idea,” says Lin, and looks as if she is still far away, in another time. “Perhaps they were nervous about what us kids would say to have a man who looked like that, in the house. Or perhaps it was the booze and the trips to jail.”
“Maybe some of it’s just my imagination.” Lin shakes her head, motions to get up. “I was only a girl. Maybe I mix things up … memories.” She looks down.
“It does not matter,” I say, and get up, too. I touch her shoulder: “So you were scared of him?”
“Yup. Until one day. I think it was a November day -” Lin smiles, all too briefly “- I had had enough of it all. I had decided to run away. I snuck around by the hedge where we came into the grounds, because I knew there was a hole in the hedge, and in the fence it grew alongside.”
“You ran away?”
“Didn’t make it. But it was not one of the teachers who caught me.”
“Yes, I thought he would beat the crap out me. They said he hit children. They said the principal sent children to him, because the other teachers were forbidden to hit children. But he took me by hand and took me into the yard behind the kitchen and closed the door to the rest of the garden. Then he sat down, looked me straight in the eye. I could see every scar on his face and was petrified. Most of the others were away on some trip. Those who remained were in the other end of the house. For once, I hoped that some of them would come and find me, but I knew that that was unlikely. I was also afraid that if they came, he would tell them what I had tried to do.”
“But you had only looked at the hedge, right?”
“Okay, maybe not exactly … I actually found a place, a kind of hole – not far from where we came in, and so I tried … you know … to get through.”
” … Escape from Alcatraz.” I squeeze her shoulder slightly, but it’s like she doesn’t notice it. She doesn’t look at me at any time while she tells me this. We’re here, in this little dark, damp room full of cobwebs and frozen memories.
“I was actually almost out on the other side …” she muses, with a grim smile, and then begins to head for the stairs. I slug along, trying not to give in to my urge to overtake her. I wouldn’t able to on the narrow stairway, but I would like to. I’m glad we leave now. Damn glad.
“I almost wet my panties, when I felt his arm grab me from the other side – ” she looks back at me, midstairs, as if this is of extreme importance ” – the hedge was thinner then.” I nod. We walk up. Into the kitchen. Out the kitchen. Into the empty yard.
“And one minute later I sat here – in ‘his’ yard.”
She looks back at the mansion, then her gaze drops to the dusty basement window – the one in Uriah’s room. It is impossible to see through the dust and the dark, and somewhere behind the mansion the sun is setting in dense, sombre clouds. Distant traffic drones on, behind the neighboring houses, but much weaker since we went in.
Her eyes narrow: “I wonder why he didn’t take this stuff with him when he left?”
“Maybe he could no longer bear to be reminded of the past?” I suggest.
Lin shakes her head then begins to look for the hole we crawled through to get here. The place some zealous judge might lecture at length about, if we were to be caught ‘breaking and entering’ a property closed down for ages, by some powerful heirs of Catherine Duval, ex-principal, who don’t know what to do with the house, who may even have forgotten it, who have faceless attorneys to nitpick such things.
But we’re alone here. No one will catch us.
It’s as if Lin remembers that she broke off her story: “We sat on his patio and I was ready to die. But after what felt like three hours, he simply said:
‘Would ya like ta tell me why ya wanna go through the ‘edge, Adeline?'”
“I could have come with all sorts of lame excuses. I was only five years old. It is natural that children climb into strange places, isn’t it? But he knew that I had tried to run away and I knew that he knew it. But he was staring at me until I got a strange feeling that I was no longer afraid of the scars – perhaps because I now had been looking at them in for what felt like a long time. It was as if I knew them.”
Lin looks back towards the mansion-house one last time, and it looks like there’s something pulling at her, like she wants to go back and lie down on that dusty bed and never get up again. But there’s also another power, a power that has almost pushed her away from the house – without even being able to finish embracing those memories, as if she had to get away before that embrace chokes her.
“I told him … everything,” she finishes and looks at me, at last with some semblance of summer in her eyes:
“I don’t remember exactly what ‘everything’ was. But it was everything that I had never told the other adults, even my mother and father: How sad I was to be there, in the house. I do not know if it was because I was stubborn or frightened or desperate or a little of everything. He sat still and nodded once in a while without saying anything. But I could sense that he listened to everything as if it was the first time that someone told him anything like that … and that maybe it would be the last.”
Her voice becomes intense, as if she’s afraid that I will not listen to her. I nod, try to make it look reassuringly. I couldn’t go anywhere right now.
She picks up the thread, one last time: “I became more and more upset because I felt I couldn’t explain it well enough – how I felt. And finally I cried and cried. So he put his arm around me and waited until I couldn’t cry anymore, and I thought – ‘when will the other grown-ups come?’ But there wasn’t anybody coming around, and finally, he let me go, looked very closely at me said, ‘I ain’t gonna say anything ta Ma’m Duval. But next time ya’ll want ta run away, Adeline, ya run by me me first, ‘kay?'”
Lin suddenly shivers, then stops. As if somebody hit her.
” – I’m babbling. Let’s go back to the car.”
She turns, quickly, and begins to look for the hole in the hedge.
I feel like I’ve dropped something precious on the floor, and I want to pick it up but I have to follow. I don’t want to be alone here.
Even with friendly ghosts.
As Lin drives us out of Cleveland, towards the main highway, and the silent mansion of Catherine Duval and her Goddard-inspired pedagogy has long since disappeared in the rear-view mirror, I catch a last glimpse of the Cuyahoga. In the evening sun it looks almost like it’s still on fire.
Lin has been silent since we left the house. But I have to ask:
” … Did you try run away again?”
Lin shakes her head, and the brightness of the fire that is both in the sun and the river touch her eyes:
After buying the sodas at the gas station, they crossed the street to sit down on the sidewalk. They found the first best, place which was the still warm wall next to a flower shop with rows of violets crammed in the front window, as if they had been hauled in quickly during the day.
They might very well have been. It had been quite a summer’s day – and now night – here in Columbus, and the two young women had had most of the cinema to themselves.
People had better things to do than watch 11 PM showings of scifi train wrecks, it seemed.
But not Carrie Sawyer and Lin Christakis.
“Actually, I find it quite appropriate – ” Lin said as she popped her cola open “ – that the monster did not die.”
“Oh?” Carrie said and gulped down her own lukewarm drink directly from the can – and then spat it out: “Fuck – you took one they had only just put in!”
“Sorry,” Lin said, “I can go back and get another one.” She started to get up.
“No – “ Carrie said and grabbed Lin’s cola. “Just gimme that!”
Carrie drank a bit and then handed the can back to Lin.
“That’s better. Why didn’t you check?”
“Sorry again, mate – he just put’em in the bag, you know and then I paid.”
“Well, at least we have one cold drink.” Carrie leaned back against the bricks and a tired but satisfied smile slowly spread over her lips. “Do you think Alan and Nadine made it home all right?”
Lin snorted: “They didn’t even make it home, the way they behaved – let me tell you that. And the night is warm enough.”
“Warm enough for what?”
“Shut uuup … “ Lin boxed Carrie on the shoulder, but it was the friendliest pain Carrie had felt all day.
“You know … ” Carrie said and followed a lone, slow moving van with her eyes “ … we should be jealous.”
The van passed them and its tail lights were still visible long after its drowsy engine hum had been absorbed into the quiet summer night. Carrie kept staring in the general direction, a dreamy look in her eyes.
“They’re high school friends,” Lin said in a tone as if she was making a routine conclusion to a philosophical problem long out-debated. “Now they are college-friends. And above all – friends. I wish the best for them … ”
“Friends … “ Carrie said and turned her head back to Lin. “Can I have more of that cola? My head hurts.”
“Is it the heat or that bottle of wine we did before we let Natasha entertain us?” Lin asked, a sly smile showing quickly then disappearing and back was the standard Christakis-poker face.
But it was a beautiful poker-face, not particularly because of Lin’s gossamer features surrounding those intense deep dark-brown eyes, but more because when she was happiest it always looked as if there was some secret she did not tell you but really wanted to, and it would make you laugh when you knew.
That’s what Carrie loved about Lin – that was where it all started: That was what you could see if you knew her. If you had lived with her for almost two years sharing two apartments and argued about dishes and change for laundry machines and Nietzsche and bad scifi movies. You knew it was there, just under the surface of the smile, something beautiful – more than was ever evident in what you could see. And you remembered it when there were blacker nights and visits to the psych ward, and you weren’t sure it was a safe call to have that many pills in a glass in the bathroom at the same time.
The good periods outweighed the bad and when you are 19 you can’t imagine it otherwise. You have tremendous powers of suppression, because your whole life is in front of you and no one is going to take that away.
And summer nights with train wrecks on screens, they are the life-blood of your future. That kind of happiness is strong and real and obviously it must win and in the end come to stay forever.
“What did you mean?” Carrie asked, when Lin had not spoken for some time, “about it being good that the monster won? I thought it was a shame. I wanted the movie to end.”
“No more sequels?”
“No,” Carrie said, “I couldn’t stand it, even if she is pure eye-candy.”
“Nothing to be jealous of again?” The sly smile again …
“She is a movie-star, Lin,” – Carrie shrugged, trying to make it sincere “ – she is supposed to look better than the rest of us. Maybe all the making out between her and the others did something for Alan and Nadine, you know – they looked like they were in a hurry to get home. And she told me they hadn’t, you know … for two weeks at least.”
“Dunno – too many books, I suppose. Or Alan hasn’t been himself since his father died. It’s hard … “
“Movies with monsters having sex usually isn’t the recipe,” Lin said, “to get over that … “
There was just the slight edge of pain in her tone now and Carrie got up quickly, holding her hand out to Lin.
“Let’s go home. Fuck monsters. Fuck bad movies.”
“And you love both,” Lin said and grinned but took Carrie’s hand and got to her feet.
“I love this night,” Carrie said. “That’s enough.”
“Hey, want to hear a freaky story?” Lars blurted. “A few weeks ago, Alan and I made a dare … “
“Maybe we should make some coffee now,” Alan said.
“It’s because his uncle owns this gay bar downtown—” Lars continued, emphasizing ‘bar.’
Alan took a deep gulp of his beer. “Look, I’m not going to tell them about when you puked on stage during the rehearsal in our garage, am I? Because that’s what happened the day after!”
Opposite the two guys, the girls had gone silent.
Lin looked from Lars to Alan, but betrayed no emotion. Carrie looked away.
When the silence had lasted too many seconds, Carrie began talking quickly about how much she had fretted about whether to study law when she had been seriously tempted to go all-in with art school.
Outside the large windows it was pitch black, like the entire world around the holiday house had turned into a featureless night.
Carrie kept it up for almost a minute.
“No more drawing for hobby’s sake,” she lamented. “But my mom’s always dead broke and I never want to—”
“That’s exactly what I’m talking about,” exclaimed Lars, who was already well into his fifth beer in less than two hours. “Choosing what to do after high school is the biggest and most difficult choice in life. It’s like groping your way through a darkroom—like the one we saw!”
Carrie frowned. “That’s not—”
“I’m going to make coffee.” Alan almost toppled the round chair as he got out and made for the kitchen.
“I don’t need coffee,” Lars called, “plenty of good things to drink already!” He waved his beer and almost dropped it.
Carrie looked as if she had lost her car keys. “I don’t even know what a ‘darkroom’ is.”
Lin closed her eyes briefly, then leaned over and whispered something to Carrie, who snickered. “Really?”
“So we had snuck in,” Lars continued, his tone a combination of drunken hoarseness and the whisper of secrecy, “because Alan’s uncle owns the place and so we could go in the back door and—”
“I thought you said ‘snuck in’?” Lin interrupted. “Which is it?”
“What I mean is,” Lars started again, “Alan has a key for the street door to storage because he cleans that and the bar on Mondays when they are closed for customers. But obviously, we’re not supposed to use that door to get in on a Saturday night.”
“To sneak in?” Lin queried again.
Lars ignored her. “There’s a ventilation shaft. If you get up on a table and take off the filter you can see a little slice of the darkroom on the other side. But there wasn’t much to see. You could hear everybody moan, though. And then afterward we talked about — ‘hey, how do you know the other guy isn’t like a big fat slob or something?'”
“Well, you can use your hands, right?” Lin looked at him seriously, and for a moment it was like Lars wavered. But he swallowed the rest of his beer and opened a new one.
Carrie looked half-way over her shoulder towards the kitchen. Alan had several bags of coffee out now, and none of them seemed to be the right one. He kept shuffling them and then putting one or another back in the cupboard.
“What I mean is,” Lars tried again, “no matter what they, well, feel they still don’t know. And there are holes in plywood walls in the room itself, you know, if you just want to—”
“Would somebody like that coffee now, or is it just going to be me?” Alan called out.
“I would,” Carrie ventured.
“I know plenty about darkrooms,” Lin said, as if she was expounding on literary analysis. “My father used to go to them rather frequently. But he fucked girls—not guys. At least as far as I know.”
Lars almost spat out his beer. “What?!”
“Lin … don’t.” Carrie put a hand gently on Lin’s shoulder, but Lin pushed it away and Carrie felt vertigo that didn’t quite align with how little she had drunk.
“Er, but the problem,” Lars continued, foundering like a ship in a storm, “is that you can also end up real bad in such a place. Alan’s uncle told me once about a murder in a darkroom in a bar he knows in L.A.”
“You’re full of shit,” Carrie said.
Lars looked at her with the iciness he usually reserved for his parents. “Don’t get all riled up. I’m talking with your girlfriend here.”
Carrie frowned and looked around in confusion, as if she hadn’t understood what Lars had said. Lin raised a brow but said nothing. She was still fixing Lars with intense eyes.
Alan had stopped the coffee machine and pulled out a French press instead. But it just stood there on the table, and he did nothing more.
“It doesn’t matter.” Lars made a sour gesture with his free hand and then took a big gulp from his current bottle. “It doesn’t matter. But it’s true, all right. Imagine that, huh?”
He trailed and looked to the darkness outside the east windows for solace. “Imagine that … you feel something sticky and it’s not cum but someone else’s blood. Just like real life.”
“I thought darkrooms were real life?” Alan came back and sat down. Without coffee. He studied Lars like he was studying the scene of an execution.
“So now the fun is beginning,” Alan continued, “maybe I should go break open the champagne? It’s not yet midnight, but since we’re having so much fun we might as well celebrate early, huh?”
Lars just looked away. He looked deflated in the round chair. “Forget it, man. I’m just drunk. Forget it … “
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