It was this face that stunned Jane into mourning. The solemn gathering of relatives with hard-marble faces left her unaffected, as did any semblance of loss. She was used to loosing people, first her father to a respirator then a casket, then her mother to long, sleepless nights and silent days. She knew how to cope. She'd been coping for years. But now, at thirteen, watching her mother coughing on her little stub of a Marlboro, she felt the tears pulling on the back of her throat like the kiss of a bad cold.
Her brother David, seventeen, was stoic as always. It was his birthright, standing beside their grandfather, looking mature and unaffected. The two men were mirrors to each other, straight-backed and dark eyed. Jane wished that she could set her jaw in such a strong, square manner. She gazed at her mother's shrunken form, curled around a cloud of cigarette smoke, and swallowed her tears. At that moment, cheeks and lips and forehead stressed with the suppression of emotion, she planned her escape.
The cemetery wasn’t far from her home. Jane held the memory of midnight seances and grave-toppling sessions a firm secret between her teeth. But in the daylight the trees lacked their characteristic menace. Each plot seemed to posses the same identical green dullness, each section of hot black pavement appeared identical to the last. She circled the area three times before stumbling across the exit. Jane cast one long look back at her family, a smattering of black in the distance like the crows in the dead tree branches outside her house. They were tossing dirt on the grave now. She could almost feel the warm, dry dirt under her fingernails. Jane grabbed the bottom of her starchy floral dress and ran towards the road.
She knew where to find them, knew where to seek out the gap in the trees behind the elementary school, knew where to push aside heavy vines of honeysuckle and where her knees would be torn open by thorns. The sun was high in the air, but dispersed between the close gathering of lime-tinted leaves. She cast off her shoes and waded through the little creek, soaking her K-mart stockings, then scrambled up the muddy bank. Her hands reached out for branches whose bark tore her palms to weepy abrasions. Finally she arrived at the gentle incline, bathed in mellow sunlight. Towering, runic-looking slabs of concrete lined the area, marked characteristically with spray paint images: a pot leaf, a skull and cross bones, and the words “class of ‘87 4ever.”
They didn’t raise their eyes or acknowledge her presence. The two boys were clad in ripped jeans and faded black t-shirts, like castoff members of the same grungy cult. Dylan’s hair was long and pale, his body girlishly thin. He was holding a knife, digging at the dirt beneath his unwashed nails. Roger was darker, more squarely built, with unkempt, unwashed hair that curled every direction from behind his ears. They were huddled on one stone together, a red leaf emblazoned over their head as if stolen from the Canadian flag. A radio was wedged between their denim hips, blasting a steady stream of fuzzy, ancient metal.
“Hey.” Jane planted herself on the edge of their rock, letting her muddy ankles sink deeper into the mud, staining the “nude” tights a satisfying shade of milk chocolate brown. Roger grunted.
“I’m not,” she protested blandly, gazing up at the sway of the trees overhead. Roger just grunted again, in a rough, lazy mockery of laughter, as if his twelve years of sexual experience rendered him an expert.
Dylan folded his knife closed against his palm. He looked at her, eyes cloudy like a moon at the edge of full-brilliance. His lips were a twisted, pink line, “Nice get-up. Weren’t you supposed to be at a funeral or something today? Didn’t, like, your dad drop dead again or something?”
“Fuck off,” Jane said, “Yeah, my grandmother. But I couldn’t stand it there. Everyone was like, so still, you know? Like they always are at funerals, statues. Like no one ever feels anything. Like they have to pretend to be normal. Except for my mom, who was a wreck, as always. Couldn’t stand it, didn’t want to be a statue too. Had to get away.”
Dylan leaned back on his elbows. His body still possessed the slenderness of a young boy, and each rib could be counted through the fabric of his Megadeth T-shirt, “Never been to a funeral. I was in a wedding once. Ring-bearer.”
“Awww,” Roger hissed, “You must have looked so precious in your little midget suit.”
“I don’t know,” Jane sighed. She reached out and wrenched Dylan’s pocket-knife from his dirty fingers, “At my dad’s funeral, they just spread the ashes and that was it. This one there was a casket and all. Closed, but everyone kept talking about how beautiful my grandmother must look in her white dress that they put her in. As if it fucking matters.” She snapped open the knife in an easy flip of her wrist, then squeezed it closed again.
“What’s the point of a casket anyway?” Dylan asked, “The most you need is a wood box, the worms’ll get you anyhow. Might as well just throw you in. Gonna end up the same dirt no matter what.”
“When I die,” Roger said in a loud, deep voice that cracked on the vowels, “I want to be cremated and I want you guys to snort the ashes, okay?”
Dylan chuckled, wiped his nose against the back of his hand. Jane could see a slick of snot against his pale skin in the sunlight. Somehow, that made her smile. “That’s bad ass man, but I don’t think your mom’ll go for it.” He said, ignoring Jane’s burgeoning grin.
“Nah,” Jane said, “That’s lame. And pointless. Why not do something worthwhile with the ashes like, uh, mix them into paint and have someone paint a portrait or something?”
“That’s gay,” Dylan said.
“Yeah, that’s gay, lesbo.” Roger agreed. Jane shrugged. She lifted her stocking carefully from her knee, stared through the translucent fabric. She flicked the knife blade out and gingerly began to split the threads. A narrow slit expanded rapidly to a gaping hole.
“Well, I’ll be fucked if you’re snorting my ashes.” she said, “But I’m definitely getting cremated. I don’t want anybody to go around talking about how beautiful when I’m dead. It’s too morbid.”
Roger laughed. When he did, his tongue slapped the top of his mouth, making a nice clear snorting sound, “I don’t think you have anything to worry about. No one’s gonna call you beautiful no matter what, lesbo.”
“Fuck you faggot!” The strain was starting to show on her forehead again, her eyebrows twisted into a miserable knot. She stared at him with hard, arctic blue eyes. He flashed her his middle finger.
“Yeah, I dunno, Roger. . . “ Dylan sighed. He didn’t look at either of them, only stared down at his nails as if addressing them, as if their dirt and chewed-off tips were a matter of great importance, “That was kinda an asshole thing to say, even for you. I mean, she’s not a dog or anything.”
“What is this, King Lesbian and her Faggot Queen? What are you guys in fucking love with each other?” Roger rose with surprising speed, eyes wide, “This is too fucking faggoty for me, I’m outta here.” He stomped out through the trees, his boots hitting the mud with each step, perfectly emulating the sound of flesh smacking flesh.
“Yeah, not a dog, thanks.” Jane said lamely. She fell back against the rock, her arms folded up behind her head to form a sweaty, mud-splattered pillow. She raised her knee, flexing it, watching the pale pink flesh move naked in the hole she’d created.
“No problem,” Dylan said with a shrug of his thin shoulders. He turned to look at her, squinting through the sun. She could see the smattered of freckles over his nose and the line of his white, crooked teeth, “Do you wanna make out?”
“What?” she could feel the heat rise over her chest and neck, could feel her earlobes starting to turn that grating shade of pink, “Why?”
“Well, I dunno.” there was faint redness over his own nose, between his freckles, “You’re cute enough. I mean, you don’t have tits or anything, but you’re cute enough. Roger doesn’t know what the fuck he’s talking about. Even if you don’t have tits. You’re not a dog.”
“Well do you wanna make out or not?” The sun was starting to go down through the trees, was just starting to cast pink and golden laser beams down o the rocks and the little river. Everything was sparkling and still, except for the slightest breeze moving the branches above. Jane could hear her breath, loud through narrow, pinched nostrils.
“Um. Sure.” She looked away, “But I’ve never done it before.”
“It’s okay,” he said quickly, “Me neither.” For a moment, neither moved. Dylan’s hands pounded a silent rhythm against the rock. Finally, he reached over, grabbed her pansy-clad shoulder with a skinny hand, and leaned his face close to hers, “Close your fucking eyes.”
“Oh. Sorry.” She did. She felt his hot breath on hers face, then his lips pressed to hers. Their front teeth knocked together. She opened one eye to see him staring back at her, exaggerated, wide, his eyes the same shade of blue as her eyes.
“You opened your eyes!” he said, drawing away. She laughed and wiped her mouth against her arm.
“Well so did you,” They stared at each other. Jane leaned over and kissed him again, probing his mouth carefully with her tongue. She could taste the remnants of fried food and cheap supermarket soda in his warm, sticky saliva. They pulled apart, then kissed again, and continued kissing until both of their tongues had the same dry, saccharine taste, until her mouth felt like a salty, red open wound, until the sun had disappeared over the line of trees and everything was bathed in gray.
Finally, in the dim light, Dylan sat up. He pushed his hair back behind his ear, made his face a mask of any emotion that would dare slip through. His features narrowed, though his lips remained slack and chapped with a white coating of saliva, “Fuck, I should get outta here. It’s getting late. My mom’s gonna be pissed.”
“Yeah,” Jane was surprised at how hoarse her voice sounded. She watched him stand, watched him start through the trees.
“I’ll be seein’ you.” he said softly, gazing over his shoulder at her. She sat up.
“Oh, um Dylan?”
He shoved his hands deep into his pockets, “What?” Jane sat forward on the rock, staring at the wrinkled dress over her knees, the torn stockings and muddy feet.
“We gonna tell Roger about this?”
Dylan rubbed his neck with the back of his hand. His eyes cast upward into the darkness, thoughtful, “Well, no, I don’t think that’s a good idea. Think he’d be kinda mad, ya know?”
“Yeah, that’s what I thought too.”
“Yeah, so I’m gonna go now.”
Jane nodded, “Okay. Bye.”
“Bye.” She watched his figure disappear into the darkness. She felt the outline of Dylan’s knife against her damp palm, cradled it against her hand and fell back against the concrete to stare up at the sallow acne-scar stars.
From the front porch, the house had the warm yellow feel of home smiling lightly through the miniblinds. Jane wondered if it was contrast alone, if she would feel any differently if the night was not quite so dark, the other houses along her street not quite so empty. With a sigh, she peeled off her tights and hung them from the metal rail. They swayed in the breeze, like a soiled synthetic silk flag of surrender. She slid her key into the door, heard the gentle click, and moved soundlessly inside.
There was the familiar sound of running water coming from the kitchen. They didn’t have a dishwasher, and with the way David consumed food, their mother had a nice steady supply of dirty dishes to clean. Only their mother washed dishes like no one else, Jane had noticed, with the water on full blast, throwing pots and pans in at random, and withdrawing them while still encrusted with food. The very sound of it made her tense. She began the long tip-toe up the stairs, trying to make each step light and cat-like and silent.
“Come in here please.” her mother placed stress on every other syllable. It reminded Jane of skipping stones only with tone of voice. Reluctantly, slowly, she backed down the steps and across the living room, leaving two long trails of mud.
“Yeah?” she tucked the knife up into her hand, hiding it against the inside of her wrist. Her mother was still wearing her night face. Her corners of her mouth looked long and thin. There was a cigarette dangling the side of her lips.
“Where were you? Where the hell did you go?” Her mother threw a cup into the water. A mass of bubbles drifted into the air, displaced by the weight.
“Um, I needed to be alone,” Jane chewed on her nail, “The funeral was getting to be too much.”
“Too much? Too much?” her mother pulled the cigarette from between her lips as though great force was necessary to separate her from her nicotine, “Do you know what an asshole you made me look like? At your grandmother’s funeral! Do you know the excuses I had to make for you?”
“Mom, I’m sorry, I--”
Her mother slammed another cup into the water. More bubbles, “Sorry?! You’re not sorry! You’re an inconsiderate little snot! I’m sick of this!” She took a little gasp of her cigarette. Jane shrank against the refrigerator, trying to look as small as possible.
“Sorry,” her mother laughed humorlessly, “Where the hell were you anyway? You’re a mess! Where the hell are your stockings? What happened to your shoes for chrissake?!”
“I uh, I was hanging out with Roger and Dylan--”
“Roger and Dylan!” With the utterance of vowels, Jane’s mother lost her cigarette in the sink. She didn’t appear to notice, “You know how I feel about Roger McCormack! I told you I didn’t want you hanging out with that little pig!”
“He’s my friend,” Jane said weakly.
“Yeah. Your friend. Right,” Her mother’s laughter reminded her uncannily of Roger’s, that dull, self-righteous snort that couldn’t be questioned, “Are you screwing him?”
“Fuck you!” Jane was shocked by the raw quality of her own voice, “No! He’s my friend!”
“What did you say? What did you just fucking say to me?” Her mother lurched forward, grabbed Jane’s wrist in her soapy hand. Jane heard the knife hit the floor but didn’t move to pick it up. Her skin was white under her mother’s big fingers.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” she squeezed her eyes shut tight, “Mommy, you’re hurting me.”
“Don’t you dare ‘Mommy’ me!” her breath smelled like onions against Jane’s face, “I’m sick of this shit! I won’t stand for it, you hear me!”
“I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” Jane’s voice was her own again, small and scared.
“Sorry’s not good enough! You fucking bitch!” She squeezed Jane’s wrist even more tightly. Jane resisted, pushed back, finally squirmed away. She began to run, tripping, almost falling over as she scrambled to pick up the knife and disappear upstairs. “Run you little slut! I’m not going to have my daughter treat me like this!” Her mother bellowed after. But as she reached the landing, her mother’s tone changed, grew inflexive, and become choked with tears. She was addressing Jane’s father once again, conversing with ghosts as if she was one herself, “Oh Richie, Richie, why did you leave me with this? Why did you leave me? Oh Richie, I want my mommy. . . “
Jane slammed her door shut. It was her only respite from her mother’s withering voice. She threw her window open and climbed up, balancing her body against the narrow window sill. She was almost getting too tall to sit like this; her knees barely fit into the frame of the window. The night air was cool and breezy. There were a smattering of stars overhead and if Jane cared to look, she would have seen Orion overturned in the sky or the big dipper pouring down on her. But her eyes remained cast on the chasm of darkness in the street below.
She looked at the knife in her hand. It was a Swiss Army knife, red, with a little white cross on it. Dylan had scrawled his initials onto the handle with a permanent marker. D.O. Or maybe it had been his father’s. She pulled the blade open, stared at its bland butter-knife shape. The blade was the color of the bars at the jungle gym, that worn, dull silver without any gleam. It was really pretty unimpressive. She thought of Dylan’s stories, his proud explanation for why he carried it: to protect himself against his stepfather. She wondered if he‘d be in danger without it tonight. “I’d slit his throat if I could,” she heard Dylan say in her memory. But somehow the knife had found other uses, had been buried in other flesh. Dylan’s arms had become a roadmap of scars lately. She tried to imagine the short clean blade violating the surface of the soft skin along his forearms. She tried to imagine dragging its metal surface along her own skin. Somehow, the image wouldn’t solidify. Her hands felt cold. In the window, her silhouette was as still as the night.
“Jane?” the door opened. It was David. He walked to the window without any invitation, leaving the door a gaping hole to the hallway. She could hear her mother murmuring beneath the sound of distant running water.
“What?” she asked softly. He stared at her, stared at the knife, and grabbed it from her hands.
“What the fuck are you doing? Are you doing that bullshit goth cutting yourself thing?!” he threw it straight out the window. She saw it flash in the starlight and then it was gone, didn’t make a sound when it hit the ground. Jane suspected it was lost somewhere in the bushes, gone forever.
“Dylan’s gonna hate me. . . “ she whispered. David didn’t hear. He was staring at her, expectantly, his eyes their usual empty black.
“What? What do you want?”
“You know you really screwed up tonight. Mom’s going to make your life hell.” she looked at him, at his at-ease soldier posture, his strong, square shoulders, and the unsmiling shadow of his mouth, “You really shouldn’t have said that stuff.”
“I know.” she said softly.
“I mean, things are easier if you just play along. It’s bullshit, but you have to learn to play along.”
He sighed. It was a long, hollow sound, empty and defeated. It was as though he’d poured more emotion into that single breath than he had into any of his life in the past few years, “I mean, look on the bright side. It’s only five more years. Than you’re out of here. So just play along.”
“Yeah,” she let herself laugh a little, “Easy for you to say, you’ve only got a few months left.”
“Yeah. Well.” he shrugged, then turned to leave, “Jane?”
David’s voice was soft and low, authoritative but gentle. She wondered when he’d become such an adult, “It does get better.” He closed the door lightly behind him. No, she wanted to say, it doesn’t get better. It was different for you. You’re a boy and you had dad. No, I don’t believe you. I don‘t want to play along. But she didn’t say a word. Instead, she tucked her face against her hands and gazed out of her window at the world around her. The air was just starting to smell like autumn, promising, full of burnt golden leaves and orange candy corn. Above, the moon was just on the edge of its fullness, and in another night there would be no stars, no Orion dancing across the firmament. But tonight, Luna shared her domain, the sky was alive and thoroughly blonde, everything more brilliant through the edge of Jane’s eyes, the same way Dylan’s hair formed an almost invisible halo around his head. She took a deep breath and inhaled the night and felt numb to it all and below her, her stockings continued to wave in the wind, a chocolate-colored banner of defiance in the cool clean night.
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