Chapter 2: Charming domestic scenes
Copyright © 2015 by Brian Bixby
I get home and walk into the kitchen to find Stan at the table eating breakfast. Stan looks up at me and gives me his “I’m a nice guy” smile. He asks me, “Out exploring the town, or skinny-dipping in the lake?” Trust Stan to make the wrong comment. I get the impression he’s imagining me naked.
“No,” I reply, “I was just checking out the bars in town. There’s one called ‘The Burning Dog.’ I imagine you’ll love it there, Stan.” And I turn to go.
And run smack into my mother. She’s still in her bathrobe. She does not look happy. Mom’s not a morning person anyhow, at least not before the second cup of coffee. Donna and I used to joke that a vampire would get the shakes from trying to suck Mom’s blood. But this is something different. She’s annoyed at me. And she says so. “There’s no need to be rude to your father.”
Had she called him my stepfather, I would have let it pass. But I can’t help myself, and in an undertone so he won’t hear me, I reply, “He’s not my father.”
And the next thing, I’m running to my room crying, because my mom slapped me.
Jane, my dear, if there is one lesson you have learned from your mother, it is that the way people act toward you usually has more to do with them than it does with you. I used to think that meant I was unimportant, and then I realized everyone acts that way with everyone else. We are all each the most important person in our own little universes.
Ergo, it follows that Mom slapped me at least as much because she’s upset about something in her own life as she was with what I said to Stan. And Stan isn’t the kind to hold a grudge. He’s probably laughing it off and telling my mom she overreacted. And she’s telling him I need to show him more respect, and he’s getting sexy with her to get her out of her grumpy mood, and the two of them will soon be cooing at each other. And then my mom will decide she has to both apologize to me and at the same time tell me to be more respectful because Stan really loves all of us. But she won’t do this until she’s showered and presentable. So I should expect her in about an hour and a half.
I debate pouting the entire time, decide it is too undignified for fourteen, laugh at myself, and pick up Strange Times in Netherfield to read. Out of curiosity, I go looking in the index to see if there’s any reference to burning dogs. Burning llamas, no, burning dogs, yes. Probably burning the two of them together wouldn’t be kosher. So I dive in.
Right on cue, an hour and a half later, I hear a knock on my door, and then it opens and my mother peeks in. “Can we talk?” she asks.
I sit up on my bed, put the book down, and give my mother an encouraging nod. Not that she needs one, because anything short of my throwing something at her wouldn’t discourage her from coming in. I’ve tried. The object must be bigger than an empty wastebasket to scare her off.
Mom comes over and sits down on the bed beside me. She looks anxious, as if she’s not sure how to proceed. “Dear, I’m sorry I hit you back there. But your attitude toward Stan is over the line sometimes, and with the way you’ve been about this move . . .” She shrugs. “What’s the matter, baby?”
I shrug back. “Are we moving back to Boston?”
She thinks I’m joking. “Don’t be silly, hon.”
“Then it doesn’t matter what I don’t like about the move. It’s not going to change anything.” I give my mother my best stare to indicate I’m serious.
This is not what my mother’s expecting. She stares back, and then just shakes her head and stands up. “Well, if you’re going to be that way . . .” She heads toward the door, but before she reaches it she turns back. “It’s just that hearing you sobbing last night, you sounded so sad . . .”
Me, sobbing? “What are you talking about? When was this?”
She looks puzzled. “Why last night around midnight. That wasn’t you?”
“It sounded like you.”
“I think I’d know, ma.” And I decide to be nice. “I’m not that unhappy about the move, you know. I turned down a two-for-one deal at the suicide store.”
It takes her a moment to realize I’m joking. And then she shakes her head, an uncertain smile on her face. “You.” She shakes her head again. “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but it’s good to see you’ve got your sense of humor back, God help us all.” She comes forward to give me a kiss and sees the library book. “What’s this?”
“Local history,” I tell her, and hand it to her with the lurid cover art facing her.
Mom’s eyebrows go up. She starts to leaf through the book, sees some of the illustrations, shudders, and hands it back to me. “Where did you get that?”
“The local library,” I reply. “I went there first thing this morning. I told them my mother told me this town was full of history, and this is what they gave me. It’s educational. Did you know that there is a mermaid in Lake Netherfield?” Which is complete crap, because “Lake” Netherfield is a 20th century reservoir that replaced a 19th century mill pond. “It’s been known to kill skinny-dippers. Eats them and then makes wind instruments from their bones.”
My mother looks blankly at me again for a bit before she laughs. “I’ll warn Stan. No skinny-dipping for us, then.” She looks at me and laughs a little, and I join in. Seeing that I’m okay, she gives me a wink and leaves, thoughtfully closing the door behind her.
Something has run her off her rails. There was no lecture. Mom never engages in one of these “can we talk” discussions without a lecture. And yet I didn’t really get one. Strange.
One of the firmest family traditions Mom insists on is eating together as a family at least once a day. Saturdays, it’s usually lunch. So we sit around the dining room table, which is brand new, while Mom serves tuna fish salad sandwiches and chips. She’d normally make this a hot meal, but she hasn’t got the kitchen set up properly yet.
Since family dinner calls for a family conversation, once she sits down, Mom announces, “Jane was visiting the library today.”
Stan gives me a wink, while Donna and Freddie both look uninterested. Well, that was a hit. I say to Freddie, who’s eight, “There’s supposed to be a monster in the lake.”
That gets his attention. “Cool. Can we go hunt for it after lunch?”
Donna pipes up a bit too quickly. “Mom and I were thinking of going shopping in town. Maybe you could take Freddie, Jane.”
This is my sister. We used to be great friends. But ever since last fall, when she started to actually like Stan, she’s frozen me out completely. I miss the old Donna. And I have to wonder just how friendly she’s getting with our new step-dad. He smiles at her too much.
I resent being stuck with Freddie. But I was planning to go visit the lake anyhow, so I think to myself, “Why not?” And it’ll get Mom off my back. So I say, “Sure, I’ll take Freddie. We can go hit the public beach, maybe walk along the shore a ways. And he can defend me if the monster attacks, unless she eats him first.”
Freddie is overjoyed. My mom looks relieved. Stan smiles, because it means no one will bother him while he watches the game today. Which, I realize, he’ll have to go out to do, as we don’t yet have cable, either.
After lunch breaks up, everyone gets ready to go their different ways. My mom takes me aside before she leaves. “Here’s some spending money. Could you take Freddie down to the arcade when he gets tired of the lake? But don’t let him spend it all. You spend some for yourself.” She gives me a kiss and goes. I stare after her, slack-jawed with wonder. What has gotten into her? Handing out money for a treat unasked? Is she making that much money on the new job? More power to her, I say. And something for me, too.
There are three public beaches on the lake. We go to the nearest one, just a short distance away from the town. The lake is still frozen over in places, though the ice is thin. Freddie is delighted. He skips stones along the ice, stopping every so often to ask me what the monster looks like. There actually is a lake monster in Strange Times in Netherfield, but it’s a mermaid-like creature, and that would bore Freddie, so I describe something like the Loch Ness monster instead. Freddie imagines Godzilla. I imagine Freddie in a certain scene from Weird Al Yankovic’s “Jurassic Park.”
In between Freddie’s pleas for attention, I catch up on my phone messages. There are all the ones I expect, from friends back in Boston. Zena’s broken up with her college-age boyfriend for “no reason given.” Yeah, right, I can guess what the reason is, and I’ve been expecting this for months. And then this pops up:
Jane, jst wanted u 2 no I miss u. Eric
I have never, never had a text message or phone call or e-mail or tweet from Eric in the whole time we’ve been classmates in Boston. And now he sends me this? I don’t know whether that’s the sound of my heart actually breaking, or whether I want to kill him. I clutch at my chest while just staring at the message. And staring. And I don’t know how to reply to it. “Oh, God, I miss you too, Eric, more than you can know.” Nah, true but pathetic. “Thanks, miss you too.” Meaningless. “You WAIT until I’m gone to tell me this? What sort of jerk are you?” Stamping out my hopes at the same time I declare them, how clever, Jane.
I take the coward’s way out and stick the phone back in my pocket for now. Freddie looks like he’s getting bored, so I suggest a walk to the video arcade. Said suggestion receives an indifferent reaction until the words “video arcade” are spoken, whereupon Freddie transforms into a greyhound that is afraid the rabbit will get away from him. However, Freddie doesn’t know how Netherfield is laid out, so he can’t just run off ahead. He has to stay with me as we head through town. This sends him into a near panic when I stop in a coffee shop for a cup of tea and a chocolate croissant. (Mom has ruled out coffee for me, which in practice means I don’t drink any when family is around. Sort of how Mom was with smoking until she quit.) I let him get a hot chocolate, which keeps him quiet . . . for the two minutes it takes him to drink it. I think my brother is destined to be a binge drinker.
Eventually, we make it to the arcade. It’s Saturday afternoon, but even so the place isn’t crowded. My job is to watch Freddie and make sure no child molester gets at him. Which is a joke, because Freddie could probably do a better job protecting me than I can protecting him. He may be shorter, not by much, but he’s definitely stronger by quite a bit. I contemplate what I would look like as a body builder, and almost snort the last of my tea out my nose laughing at the image. Oh, that would be a way to get a date, for sure!
Freddie is good at these type of games, very good. By the end of an hour, he’s already made two friends who admire his knowledge and skill. Me, I’m bored enough to try two games, and blow them both so quickly that Freddie tells me I play “like a girl.” Feminism, where is thy sting? At least I’m not so petty that I head home immediately. I let Freddie play a few more games before hauling him out of there, to the sound of whining and leave-taking of his new friends.
As we’re walking back home, I think about that. Freddie can make new friends in five minutes. Donna takes an afternoon. Me, I can’t make a friend in anything under a season. What is wrong with me?
Maybe it’s what’s wrong with Netherfield, too. The coffee shop? Three female customers. One was a middle-aged woman reading Cosmo, probably some article on how to enhance one’s orgasms. She looked like she could use the help. Right, you’re an authority, Jane? Maybe you should be reading Cosmo. I shudder at the thought of reading a magazine for grown-up Barbies. Maybe that’s my personal hell, to be cooped up with women’s magazine models flaunting their fashion sense while going senseless over some guy with washboard abs.
Then there was an empty-eyed teenage beanpole in the uniform of some other fine establishment. I couldn’t see the dead brain parasite attached to her head; it must have been under the cap.
Finally, there was a woman in her early twenties who should have been labeled “Miss Goth Fashion Disaster.” You shouldn’t wear that much black clothing unless you’re mourning the death of your entire family and the family dog. Especially if the dog died in a fire. I know a place you can go to get a drink for that.
I don’t think I’ll be making any friends in that group. Where do girls my age hang out in Netherfield?
Stan isn’t at home when we return, surprise, surprise. Neither are Mom and Donna. Freddie hasn’t got enough of games, so he goes hunting in the packing boxes for the game controller, while I go back to my room and try to read more of Strange Times in Netherfield.
I can’t get Eric’s message out of my head. So I set down Strange Times in Netherfield and yank out my phone and stare at the message for, oh, an eternity or two. It’s not just that I don’t know what to say. I don’t really know what I feel. I don’t know what to do. It’s a long way to Boston, and I may never see Eric again. But he’s so . . . I just want to hold him. I try to imagine what I might do once I am holding him, an image that involves washboard abs, but the thought dies in my head. And that bothers me, too.
After agonizing over the message for approximately 1, 216 times longer than it took Eric to write it, I reply
Eric, I miss u 2. Luv, Jane
Polite, informal enough that it doesn’t commit me to anything, and yet leaving the door open for something to develop. And the moment I send it, I almost hurl the phone across the room, cursing my stupidity. What are you hoping for, Jane? That Eric will come out here and rescue you and take you back to Boston? You stupid, stupid, stupid girl. He’s just being polite. Well, I’m just being polite, too. Yeah, tell that to Eric when he sees “Luv” in that message. Yeah, but all of us use that. Yeah, among us girls, stupid. Gia knows about my crush on Eric. If she sees that message, my rep in Boston is ruined. After several minutes contemplating that possibility, I reply to several other messages with a “Luv” closing. That way it’ll look like a new habit of mine. Cuts off the gossip, still leaves Eric hopeful, I hope.
Mom and Donna bring pizza home, and Stan returns from a bar long enough to join us in the meal. And then Stan heads off to watch the other game, and everyone else decides to spend the evening unpacking.
The next morning, Mom decides we have to go to church. Mom isn’t the most religious person. She thinks Unitarians are too fundamentalist. But every so often, she gets religion, and we kids perforce must get it with her. The current run began when she got engaged to Stan. Must have been that “honest woman” thing. What makes this bitterly ironic is that Stan is exempt from attending with us because he’s Catholic. I think instead he has to go to confession once a year. He probably enters the booth and says, “Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. At least I’m sure I must have. I can’t really remember any of them, though. Well, maybe I blew up at the wife a few times, you know how it is. So what’s my penance?”
I’d hoped that the move to Netherfield would disrupt this current run of Sunday attendance. No such luck. Mom has looked up the churches in town, of which there aren’t many, and decided which one would be the right one. It has a woman as minister, so that’s good enough for Mom. “At least she won’t be lecturing me about abortion,” Mom offers by way of explanation when Freddie is not in range to hear her.
I walk to church dreading the experience . . . and then I see the church. It’s that church, the one that inspired the cover story on Miranda Milan’s book! It’s called the “Christian Union” church now, but it is definitely the old Congregational church, and I even pick out the dated cornerstone before we go in: 1823. I smile, and cheerfully resign myself to the service. We sit toward the back, as if we’re afraid of associating with the minister, as if coming to church didn’t already do that. Most of the other people also sit toward the back. What is it about churches that people do this? Do they expect the minister is going to pick them out and castigate them personally for their sins?
Hey, maybe they did in Puritan times. That actually sounds like it would be fun. Imagine what it would be like when the minister accused two parishioners of committing adultery, or of one stealing from another. Wonder if they had fist fights after church?
When the minister comes in, I see she’s pretty young, looks like she may not even be 30. She’s got wavy brown hair down to her shoulders and is wearing white robes. Her voice is loud enough to be heard even without a microphone all the way at the back. Her one drawback? Her name, according to the program, is Honoria Blood. What do you call a woman named Honoria? Honor? Horror? Horrible Honoria Blood? Sounds like either a vampire or a serial killer. I imagine the minister soaked in blood, standing in the pulpit, screeching about “the blood of the Lamb” while waving a carving knife in the air. The “Gloria Patria” puts an end to that particularly lurid scene.
They don’t have fist fights after the service here. Instead, like a lot of churches we’ve gone to, the minister greets you at the door on your way out from the service. Ho, hum. We’re new, so Rev. Honoria Blood takes extra time to greet Mom and talk to us. I wait until they’ve said the customary stuff before interjecting, “Tell me, Rev. Blood, is it true that a witch once killed the minister here in his pulpit?”
My mother is left with her mouth gaping open for about five seconds, and then she chides me, “That was a rude question to ask, Jane Harris. You apologize to the minister.”
Rev. Honoria Blood doesn’t seem so put out. “That’s all right, Ms. Levecq.” She turns to me. “Where did you run across that story?”
“It’s in Strange Times in Netherfield,” I reply.
Rev. Blood nods. “Miranda’s book, of course.” She actually smiles at me. “Well, it’s true that there was a parson who died in the pulpit. The rest . . . well, Miranda’s repeating the stories that people told about it. Did you just read the stories, or Miranda’s analysis of them?”
Is she treating me like a kid? “Both, including the footnotes,” I promptly tell her.
Rev. Blood looks at me more seriously. “And what conclusion did you come to?”
I hesitate. “I’m not sure. In the context of the other stories about the witch, it seems reasonable, but then it would have to, wouldn’t it, for the stories to get around?”
“Hmmm.” Rev. Blood looks thoughtful. “You should go talk to Miranda sometime.”
My hopes go up. “Does she come here?”
That gets Rev. Blood to laugh. “No, no, not unless she’s doing research. Maybe you and I should have a talk first before you see Miranda. It might be better all around. I live in the parsonage just . . .”
“Next door. I know,” I interject.
“Of course.” Rev. Blood turns to my mother. “Nice to meet you, Ms. Levecq. And you too, Jane Harris. Do come to see me soon. And now I must greet the rest of the congregation.” We are dismissed.
The rest of the day passes in unpacking and rearranging. Stan is out most of the afternoon, probably watching a game at a bar. Freddie bothers me once an hour or so to ask if I’ll take him to the arcade. And I do my best to resist looking at my phone messages every ten seconds. If Eric doesn’t respond by the end of the day, my hopes will be crushed.
Finally, around dinnertime, a message comes through:
Jane, call when U get back from school. Luv, Eric
Did he write “luv” because he does, or just because I did? What does he mean by “luv?” Does he mean “love” luv or “nice to be friends” luv? I don’t think running this through Google translate will help. I need an Eric-to-Jane dictionary and phrase book, and the Universe thoughtlessly didn’t include one in my personal library. I get nothing else done this day, not that I’m attaching too much importance to Eric’s message.
I can’t sleep the night before I start school. And it seems that applies to starting at a new school mid-year. Everyone, me included, turned in early. I’m still awake. It must be school. It’s definitely not thoughts of Eric keeping me up.
And then I hear this sobbing. I can barely hear it. It doesn’t sound like it’s coming from Mom and Stan’s room, or from Donna’s room. Freddie’s is across the hall. Is he crying? For what? I get up, toss on a bathrobe, and walk out into the hall.
The hall is dark. I can’t see a thing. But Freddie’s room is straight ahead, and it’s not coming from there. It’s coming from down the hall. And if I look really hard, I can almost see where it’s coming from. There’s someone there. Oh . . . my . . . god, someone’s in the house.
There’s a light switch on the other side of the hall, right by Freddie’s door. I cautiously take a step, and make no noise. The sobbing continues. The figure, it’s not that far down the hall. I take another step. Abruptly, the sobbing stops. And I know it’s seen me and is coming for me. With a scream, I fling myself the rest of the way, and hit the switch.
I’m afraid to look. I have to look. I turn. And there is nothing there.
End of chapter two
(Jane’s on a roll here. Admittedly we don’t hear anything about the diary, so maybe that’s kaput, but at least she’ll still telling the story. Keep our fingers cross and see whether a next installment appears!)