In the Eye of the Storm

She had one of those experiences where the phone rings and you just know something bad has happened.

It wasn’t easy to explain why, maybe there was no explanation. But there it was.

“Should I get it?” Jarrod asked, looking at Carrie’s mom. She was focused on Don Johnson on the television. Jarrod looked at Carrie apologetically.

“I can do it,” she offered, giving him a quick smile.

Carrie’s mom had only been seeing Jarrod for a week, but he seemed pretty sedate. So, Carrie didn’t mind being nice.

Wriggling out of the couch, a small point of iciness settled in her stomach, but she ignored it.

She slowly and deliberately walked the three steps from the couch to the kitchen door, as if her body already knew something she didn’t.

She grabbed the phone and closed the door as much as she could without choking the cord – the eternal struggle.

Alone in their tiny kitchen, snow fell outside again. The streetlights below cast an eerie fluorescent glow on the flakes against the night sky. It would be pretty if it wasn’t coming down in waves that only grew bigger by the hour.

“Hello?”

“Carrie…”

“Lin?!”

“Yeah.”

“It’s… almost 10. Are you alright?”

“Not… really. Can I come over?”

“Now?”

“Yeah.”

“Where are you? Are you at home?”

“Not really…”

Tendrils of coldness spread in Carrie’s 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 crept into Lin’s voice, but it quickly evaporated, leaving only deep tiredness like she was already half asleep.

“Are you far away?” Carrie asked, twisting the phone cord harder between her fingers.

“No. I think I can be at your place in maybe 20 minutes.”

Carrie wanted that to be two minutes. She wanted to interrogate Lin about what the hell was going on, but a part of her already knew.

Lin’s father had died in a hotel in Haiti. Big, famous IT-businessman, and then… dead.

And her mother was a nervous wreck whose best idea for a “cure” to the insanity was to leave Lin with the old man who took care of the house and then fly off to the Keys with her own lover. Then she came back because she had a guilty conscience, but wasn’t really there.

Lin had gotten counseling. Lin had gotten back to school. Lin walked and talked normally. But of course, “normal” was just a word.

Carrie felt determination rising in her, mixed with her own guilt about all the things she hadn’t done or said until now. Because how the hell could she? She could barely figure out her own life.

“I’m coming out to meet you. Are you coming up from the main street?”

“Yeah.” Lin’s voice was weak. “I’m at the phone booth near the park… I think.”

“Okay. I’ll go get my clothes. I’ll meet you.”

Carrie’s heart beat faster, louder. She didn’t remember if she managed to say goodbye properly. She just hung up and rushed through the living room again, past Don Johnson and his melancholy beach walks on the television.

Lin, please… stay safe.

There were the usual questions from Carrie’s mom, and a few perfunctory ones from Jarrod. Then came a bit of shouting. But Carrie was off, down the stairs so fast she almost fell, and then into the gusts of snow that were like small razors against her skin.

There was practically nobody on the street at this hour because the weather was straight from Antarctica. Carrie worked her way through the snow piles towards the main street and the little park. She hadn’t gotten extra socks in her boots, and soon she felt the cold numb her toes. So, she walked faster.

She expected to see Lin all the time, but she wasn’t coming. Had she gone another way? Had she gotten lost?

After what felt like forever, Carrie saw the small huddled shape on a bench, just opposite the first phone booth she knew on the main street.

She hurried closer, and the small wiry form became Lin Kouris.

Lin wasn’t wearing a cap, even though it was definitely cap weather. Her dark stiff hair locks were sprinkled with snow. For a moment, she looked like a frozen hedgehog.

Carrie stopped right in front of her and grabbed her shoulders, not really knowing if she should shake her or what the hell she should do.

“Why the hell didn’t you walk to meet me?” Carrie blurted.

Lin looked up at her, hollow-eyed. “I knew you’d find me.”

“You’re absolutely crazy, girl. You’ll get pneumonia.”

Carrie pulled her up from the bench. Lin followed willingly, but as they made their way home, her arm in Carrie’s, Carrie wondered if Lin would have kept sitting there if she hadn’t called her.

She quenched the thoughts, and they got the hell back to Carrie’s apartment.

Everything had been so bad this autumn: the jerks in class, the teachers, Richard dumping her… everything except Lin.

Until now.

They finally got in. Carrie’s mom met them in the hallway. She was all business, and Jarrod followed in her wake.

“You must be freezing!” Carrie’s mom almost pulled Lin’s coat off her and gave it to Jarrod so he could put it over the extra heater they had in the kitchen.

“It’s okay, mum…” Carrie knew it was a pipe-dream with an entrance like that, but God, she wished her mum would let them handle this themselves!

“No, it’s not ‘okay’. Lin – do you want a hot shower?” Carrie’s mom pulled open the door to their bathroom cubicle with one hand while she was on her knees, working on Lin’s boots with the other.

Lin kind of nodded, and Carrie went with her and showed her how to work the tabs.

After half an hour, Lin got out of the shower, a cloud of steam following her into their box of a hallway.

Carrie took her to her room, and they found some dry clothes that didn’t look too much like they didn’t fit.

Inside the living room, Carrie’s mom had found a use for her herbal tea obsession and made big mugs for the three of them. Jarrod had strategically retired to the kitchen to make more coffee.

Nobody was talking, and the only sounds were fake gunshots from the obligatory shootout at the end of the Miami Vice re-run.

Lin sat on the couch. Carrie’s mom sat beside her. Carrie took the footstool with the “sacred Maya pattern” blanket. Jarrod stood by the kitchen door.

Lin put the tea to her lips but didn’t drink anything before she set it down again.

Next up was the news on TV about death here and bad shit there, and then Carrie became clear-headed enough to find the remote and mute it all.

Lin sipped her tea, at last, her lips barely touching it.

Carrie’s mom breathed deeply. “What’s going on, Lin?”

“My mother and I had a fight.” Lin’s voice was little more than a whisper.

“Again, huh?” Carrie deadpanned because that’s all she really could do now.

“Again…” Lin nodded, while she looked down in the tea.

Then she eyed Jarrod for the first time. That was his cue.

“Hi,” he said and smiled a well-rehearsed smile under the crisp mustache. “I’m Jarrod. Deborah’s…” He nodded towards Carrie’s mom but hesitated.

“My hot date for the evening,” Carrie’s mom explained, returning the smile but wryly.

“Since last Monday,” Jarrod added, keeping up the cheery smile. “I’m the counselor at Collinwood High. Deborah subs in middle school there.”

“That’s nice,” Lin said, making an obvious effort to make it sound nice.

Then the phone rang.

Carrie got up ready to get it, but her mom was quicker.

“Stay here,” she said.

Carrie bit her lip and moved over to the couch beside Lin. She didn’t want her mom to take the damn phone because she knew bloody well who was calling now. But what could she do? Run past her and block the door?

Lin rocked a little back and forth, her eyes closed, holding the tea in one hand like she was meditating. The scent of hibiscus, the warmth – promises of other worlds than this.

Carrie’s mom’s voice cut through the half-closed kitchen door as Jarrod cleared his throat and moved to annex the footstool Carrie had just left.

“Hello, Julia. Yes, she is here,” Carrie heard her mom say from the kitchen.

“So… you two are attending Cuyahoga High?” Jarrod started and looked expectantly at them.

And that’s when Lin jumped from the couch and barged into the kitchen. “I’m not going home – I’m not!”

Carrie’s mom looked stunned for a moment, and Carrie could hear Lin’s mum at the other end talking frantically, a mixture of anger and desperation as if she wanted to reach out and grab Lin just by shouting.

The next five minutes were a blur. Carrie remembered running to the kitchen also, reaching out for Lin, who stood there like a wild animal, trapped. Lin’s mum shouted at the other end of the line. Carrie’s mom shouted. Lin cried. Carrie said small incoherent, meaningless things meant to calm her down, but…

Carrie thought Lin barely registered that she was there.

Lin didn’t want to talk to her mum, even though the distant, desperate voice pleaded with her to do so, and snuck in a few veiled threats about changing schools again.

Then Jarrod tried, and that counselor-voice did something to douse the fire, enough for Carrie’s mom to get Julia Kouris calm enough to listen to Carrie’s mom’s pitch that she thought 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…’

Carrie’s mom was annoying in a million ways, which included being a certified health nut, stuffing half the kitchen with dietary supplements… but sometimes it was pretty darn useful, especially when Lin’s mom was a sucker for those things, too. And saw Carrie’s mom as an authority.

That and the fact that it snowed an awful lot outside now…

So Lin’s mum relented and let her stay. At least until morning.

After she hung up, Jarrod asked the predictable questions about Lin’s family, and if she got any help and all that, but Carrie’s mom ushered him back to the couch and said she’d take that from here.

“Carrie – find the air mattress for Lin,” she said to Carrie 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 said with finality. For the third time in as many minutes.

    “Sure…” Carrie said, “but where will you go then?”

    “I’ve got an uncle in Patras. I could go there.”

    “In Greece?”

    “Why not?” Lin didn’t try to hide her irritation. “He is not my freaking mother…”

    They were in Carrie’s room, and it was later than late. Carrie could only see Lin’s face because she had gone into hiding below more than half of Carrie’s comforter. Carrie was sitting at the end of the bed with her 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,” Carrie shot back.

    Joking. Her first and only strategy.

    Lin smiled suddenly, but it was so quick, Carrie almost didn’t see it. “Daft,” she mused like she tasted 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,” Carrie said, half-annoyed with the topic already. “What were you fighting about this time?”

    “Oh, it was nothing special…” Lin grimaced, so Carrie knew it was 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?”

    Carrie took one of the pillows and hit her square in those dark locks. “D’uh – what do you think? Tell me everything!”

    Lin closed her eyes for a long moment, then opened them again and looked straight at Carrie. There was no real light in her eyes now, just shadows and intense fire.

    She looked away. “My mother wants Gerard to move in.”

    “Oh, shit…”

    “Yup.”

    The next few moments were 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!”

    Carrie looked away, looking for some sign – some help for what to say. There was none. Just words that couldn’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 said darkly, and in a split second, Carrie got this vision of Lin walking alone in some abysmal landscape with toxic fumes swirling all around.

    But Lin wasn’t afraid. She was just walking with silent determination, breathing in everything, letting it blacken her skin. And that was what made Carrie afraid…

    Lin went on, pulling Carrie 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 Greece.”

    Carrie swallowed. “Damn, this is so fucked up. But your uncle could get custody, couldn’t he…?”

    Lin smiled 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 shrugged. “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 wriggled herself into an upright position, so she was sitting with her back to the wall, her pillow in her back. The comforter was still tightly wrapped around her, but Carrie let her have it this time.

    She looked like one of those natives from the old paintings from the Arctic explorers – sitting in her igloo, huddled in furs or whatever. Carrie was still lying down, looking up at her, resting her head on her hands and her own pillow.

    “So I’m technically rich,” Lin said 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,” Carrie said with rightful indignation. “You must be able to use some of it. There must be a law or something…”

    She sighed. “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?”

    They laughed a bit at that, but not much. Then Lin’s face was a mask of sadness again.

    “You might get our school counselor to support you,” Carrie suggested without much faith. “He knows what your mum did – going away – when your dad died.”

    “Yeah, but it was just there and then,” Lin said, her voice getting more and more resigned. “And aside from that brain fart, she doesn’t mistreat me – not physically anyway.”

    “Lin…?”

    Lin wiped something from her eyes and sniffed. “Yeah?”

    That ice in Carrie’s stomach was still there. And she needed 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 shrugged, but a bit too quick for Carrie’s 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 seemed like there was nothing more to say after that. So, Carrie didn’t. But she could still feel the ice. Like a small razor from outside, somebody forgot inside her.

    Lin didn’t look much better. She stared into the semi-darkness of the room, but not at the new stack of magazines and comics on the shelf opposite the bed. That had been the place they usually started. Not tonight.

    Then a weak smile touched her lips, and she turned to Carrie 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?” Carrie suggested, being half-serious about that last part.

    “I appreciate that you’re not afraid to see me like this.”

    “‘Like this’?”

    “Like the girl who doesn’t know what the hell to do…” She choked a bit on the last part.

    “Lin, Lin…”

    Carrie reached out to her. They hung on for a long time.

    “Your dad died…” Carrie managed to say. “My dad drank so much, but he is still there. If I lose him…”

    She let that hang in the air, trying with all her might to suppress the images and feelings this last statement conjured. She knew all too well her dad’s trip down the bottle – where it could end.

    When her mom was at her most vindictive, she never hesitated to spell it out for Carrie.

    “I know…” Lin said, barely audible. “I know, Carrie… and I’m glad you still have him. I really am.”

    It was odd, but somehow, even after these months, now was the first time Carrie really noticed how different Lin looked without her Goth make-up, which she wore like 90 percent of the time.

    She looked different, like someone Carrie both knew and didn’t know at the same time.

    And also… real.

    “I miss him,” she said, her voice thick. “He wasn’t there often, and the way he died… God, I miss him so much.”

    Lin lost it again, and Carrie was afraid if she let go of her, she’d jump out the window. Even so, she was glad they were alone. It had been hours since Carrie’s mom went home – three blocks – with Jarrod. That was foresight on her part, Carrie guessed.

    At one point, Lin got so much hold of herself that she just shivered once in a while.

    And still, they hung on.

    There was nothing else to do.

    The night wore on, but sleep didn’t come for them.

    They should have talked about stupid Richard who dumped Carrie like that at Lin’s party before Christmas.

    They should have talked about Mr. Muggins and Mr. Zohar and all the other teachers they loved to love or loved to hate.

    They should have talked about the future, and the story they had talked about before. The story Lin was going to write and Carrie was going to illustrate.

    The story brought them together for real. They 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 they loved old books, X-Men comics, and stuff.

    Not stuff for girls. Yeah. Everybody said that. But they knew better.

    And they were going to do some great stuff together, Lin and Carrie.

    And some of the nice boys actually liked this world, too – their world. So, what would Denise or Ann say when they hooked up with someone like Jimmy Woo, who they all sighed about? What if they stole him away in front of their powdered little noses?

    Or this rock band guy, Lars, who was quickly getting to be the most popular pretty face in school? But who was also into – get this – dungeons and dragons?

    Anyway, they could do it, Carrie supposed because at the end of the day, they actually got their world. Of edgy music, magic, and roleplaying, and all the other stuff, other people wrinkled their noses at.

    They should have talked about how this future would be there for them – soon. Just waiting. Just a little while longer. And they would get their revenge against the other girls who thought they were weird and who loved to talk behind their backs.

    They should…

    But no words.

    They weren’t enough. Not here and now.

    So, they let the hours pass.

    It wasn’t snowing anymore, and there was quiet darkness outside, only broken by the lonely street lamps.

    Carrie could see the light through gaps in the curtains, but the lamps were too far away to see directly.

    All you had to go for if you wanted to make sure of their existence was to believe that the light came from somewhere. That there was a source.

    Because in their dark here in Carrie’s room, that was all you got.

    Then suddenly Lin said something, and Carrie was almost half-asleep, and it jolted her because she didn’t expect it.

    “W-what?” Carrie mumbled.

    “Tomorrow… I mean, when we get up…” Lin glanced at the digital clock. Its red numbers denoted that tomorrow was already here, even if they didn’t like it.

    Carrie got up on her elbow. Lin was on the mattress on the floor, in Carrie’s sleeping bag, but for the moment, Carrie was afraid she wasn’t there.

    “Tomorrow…” Lin repeated, 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 continued.

    “Yeah?”

    “You will go with me, right? Until we see the car?”

    “Of course.”

    “Good…”

    And that’s all she said.

    Then she just sort of collapsed and was almost immediately asleep again.

    Carrie wanted to go to sleep as well, but even when she closed her eyes, she couldn’t relax again, at least not right away. She kept thinking of the clock… of how little time they had.

    In a few hours, when the red digital clock blared, they were going to get up and have some toast and tea, and then they were going to walk to the corner with the trees.

    There was frost on the windows, but the dark sky was clear now and so it would be when the darkness lifted for the new day, which would be just about the time when they’d go out to meet the car.

    But at least they’d both go.

    *

    Last edit 17062024


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