THE CAROLINES by Douglas Hill
SEND THAT TO KAY? Kay? It made no sense. Kay was pleasant, but pedestrian.
It was for her birthday and theirs, the next Friday, and was meant to cut her free. For a week Caroline had watched the crystal travel from New Orleans to the Mountain: a shipping store, warehouses and truck terminals, the big truck hauling a metal container that was filled with cardboard boxes. And finally, Roberto’s little brown delivery truck here at the Mountain. It was here today.
The crystal was their gift to Kay, who needed it, as Caroline needed Kay, though she had no idea why. Because the serpentine pool said so.
When Kay was 33, Ed performed lat pulldowns in front of her StairMaster at the gym for ten minutes, injuring his back, though not badly. After a few months he decided to move in, and she let him. He was a finish carpenter, good with saws, so he should have been good with his hands, but he had no sense of modulation. He was her first lover.
Now she was 36 and he had left for LA. This should have been an edge-curled Band-Aid falling off: he was too little fun for love, and too much gut for lust. Kay knew this, yet she missed him. It was her fault. She had been urging him—he said pressuring—to stretch a bit, add a little adventure. Apparently he had relented.
He left her a toolbox of worn tools and duplicate tools, a thoughtful and pathetic gesture. She gave it to the hospital thrift shop.
Still, Kay missed him. She fell asleep watching cable in an armchair; the bed was too big, bigger than before Ed, and no warmth at her back in the cold, thin air of the season. Her bathrobe was stained, mostly raspberry, with yogurt, her only refrigerator food. She deserved the slovenly badge. She had to punch her arm and threaten worse just to get her ass out of the apartment and down the street to open the store. She did not shower daily. Kay hoped that none of this was evident at the store, though she was not about to ask.
She owned The Pette Shoppe, but a “pet shop” is a definite thing, and this was not that. No animals for sale, nothing at all for cats or fish or birds; she sold only those things that a dog’s owner, up at their rich-bitch condo for a weekend or a week, would imagine Prince or Snooky might hold in high regard. Embroidered cushions in rattan bed-baskets; oily four-legged sweaters knitted by Scottish women on Scottish islands; and a line of shampoos and rinses that was way more comprehensive than what they had over at The Magic Scissors, where she got her ends trimmed. And her specialty: healthy, delicious, homemade dog treats, in a range of flavors and sizes. It was odd, making goodies she wouldn’t have eaten during the Siege of Leningrad. It was like being a vegan butcher. She baked them in the back room, so instead of the biting odors that soak a normal pet shop, sawdust and fish and urine, there was a cozy kitchen smell. And a wet-customer-dog smell when it snowed or rained.
It was the sort of store a nice person would run. When strangers came in they looked around and smiled broadly, and Kay smiled back, broadly, the hearty country proprietress. They assumed she loved dogs, and she let them. Sometimes, to further a sale, she lied a Lab into existence. Black, Charley, fourteen, had a limp. Arthritis. No, the vet was set on NSAIDs, but that’s so sweet of you to suggest. Have you seen our treats?
She used to wait tables, which she hated. Still, the shop had started the long way around. First with a big batch of dog cookies, inexpensive Christmas presents well received and therefore repeated the next year. The other waitresses talked her into doing a card table at a craft fair. Then Ed put together a cart that she towed to festivals: jazz, beer, bluegrass. And finally, because he argued her into it, the leap to the shop.
It faced west, toward the Mountain. The two glass prisms hanging in the window reshaped this afternoon’s sunlight, tiny rainbows fluttering on shelves and floor. She’d gotten them locally. For several months a foolish store down the highway had offered Swarovski to the giant SUVs roaring to and from Santa Monica, Newport Beach, and Encinitas. When it went broke Kay bought her two.
She had time to contemplate the colors. The shop was never full, and empty too often, as today. This was a poor living and a boring life, without Ed. Walls, windows, and doors were all thick against pulsing windy winter cold, and the sounds of the world, a world away. Silent cars drove by, silent people walked by. The blood in her ears pulsed audibly. Today was her birthday, marked by a single card, surprisingly stupid even for her sister: thirteen dogs holding alphabet balloons, spelling “Happy Birthday.”
No card from Ed.
The bell danced on its spring above the shop door, as Caroline held it open for LC (Little Caroline). The wind blew them in with a couple of dry leaves. The crystals swayed. Cool: company, not just customers.
They came into the shop twice a week for treats, and became friends. Oddly, they all had the same birthday. Kay had learned this two years ago—one day just LC came, wanting a nice water bowl, a birthday present for her mom, “for the strays.” An odd present, but it said pleasing things about mother teaching child, and Kay wrapped it carefully and curled extra ribbon. Although she didn’t like dogs, it was nice that someone looked after those gone feral.
“Happy — ” Kay started.
“— Birthday!” they all three said, and LC and Kay laughed.
Kay pulled a tray of Bacon Bones and Liver Chip Cookies back from the display case.
Kay dropped the treats into a bag. “Just ten minutes out of the oven. Everything good? How’s the house business?”
“Good! Got a new listing last week. That big house up on Alpine Drive? I was buyer’s agent on it, year before last? They’re selling.”
“Probably couldn’t take the drive. I wouldn’t.” Tourists were nuts. This was a nice place, but six hours each way?
“Absolutely. But we’re all glad they do.”
LC hid behind the open rack of dog leashes and chains; they hung like a bead curtain in an old hippie doorway. She fingered them, clicking. It was dissonant; the chains were pretty but cruel, and LC was still a little girl with a long black braid.
LC’s face peeked through. “Kay!” Then back, hidden behind the chains.
Kay laughed. Taking her time growing up. Good. Kids deserve that. “What, honey?”
“It’s Halloween in two weeks.” The girl picked a chain off the rack and slid it through her hands, then coiled it on a shelf, playing, shaping it into a triangle with her fingertip.
“That’s right! What are you gonna be?”
“A witch. With my hair in a bun and granny glasses and a pot to put the candy in. And maybe dry ice for the steam. And a broom, of course.”
Caroline shrugged a crooked smile. “Of course. No pointy hat and green skin?”
LC rolled her eyes.
“Well, I like it. That’s a very original witch.”
LC walked up to the counter, serious now. “Kay?”
“We’re having a party tonight, up at our house. Nothing much, just us. You want to come? At seven?” LC sounded so like Caroline. And Caroline tipped her head a little and smiled, her face endearing warmth.
Well, that was the sweetest thing! And a small adventure. Kay had never been inside that house. A big blue and white gingerbread Victorian in a town insipid with river rock and stained cedar. It had been built to Caroline’s design. Ed worked on it, said it had seven species of wood, and cast iron fixtures. He’d never worked on an interior that full of nature. “OK. Thanks! But you have to let me bring some wine.”
Caroline took Kay’s hands and squeezed. “Just bring whatever you want.”
“I’m glad you’re coming, Kay.” Now in LC’s voice there was an almost-adult invitation. The two Carolines had stepped closer to her. Kay wasn’t sure how much intimacy she could handle right now, but she’d try. Better than falling asleep to Friends reruns, or longing for guys she was too shy to talk to.
Autumn rolled by Caroline as she drove to town, and she fixed on it to get her mind off the Goldwaters. A screen of aspens hid the creek that ran along the road. Their vertical leaves turned autumn-brighter each day, but starting at the inside, next to the trunk; at wild windy moments the still-green outer leaves whipped aside, unveiling yellow and gold hearts, and a few rich red. Many had completed the shift, and their fire traced the Mountain’s creeks, climbing to the cold caldera. Driving, Caroline focused her ability. She tasted the needles and fruit of a fat juniper baking in the sun on the other side of the Mountain; and acrid marigolds in a window box two miles south of town. And a slice of sour cherry pie capping a late lunch at The Chimney, wolfed down by an orthodontist from Irvine.
Halfway down the hill a torn white plastic bag fluttered against a garbage can, and trash had leaked onto the pine needles. A dirty tan dog was halfway into the bag.
Caroline pulled onto the shoulder fifty feet past it. Normally LC would have stayed in the car, turned around to watch. But not today. “Your turn now, kiddo.”
This was much harder than Caroline had thought it would be. LC shouldn’t have to, not yet. She was so young, and isolated at middle school, not part of any clique, no friends as far as Caroline could tell. It wasn’t a friendly school. At home, when LC wasn’t gathering their materials in the woods, her headphones connected her brain to her Mac or iPad. In the past year Caroline had stopped knowing LC’s mind.
LC got out. Caroline handed her two big dog treats and stayed in the car. She tried to force her face forward, to let LC do this without help.
LC extended a treat and clamped her teeth together. She walked slowly toward the dog, then paused. It was a chow, maybe, the way its tail curled, but too thin to look like one. Chows were big and could be mean, but she wasn’t really afraid. She didn’t want to get started with this yet, is all. She was still a kid, really, so she liked her mom to do stuff. What was wrong with that?
She walked again. Her foot bumped a fir cone, and the dog backed out of the trash bag, away from her, growling. Shit. She was clumsy. She was not good at this. She never would be, she’d be a dental hygienist or something. Chows could be mean.
Mom rolled her window down. “Just imagine what you want, LC. See it in your mind, right in front of you.”
So now Mom thought LC was scared. Great. Her lungs were shallow. “Hey, dog.” But it didn’t come out as sweetly as she wanted. She was tight, trying too hard. He was terrified. She stopped herself. They taught this in study skills class last year, how to relax. You slowly exhale every bit of air, then fill yourself, slowly. Three times. Then make your body heavy, a piece at a time, starting with your head. She didn’t have time now for the whole thing, but she got down to her shoulders. That was a great class.
Quiet, just above a whisper, sing it to him: “Heeey, boy.” Breath so soft that down would float motionless in front of her lips. The dog took a half-step, paused, sniffed toward her. The calm in her voice nudged him to her and he walked without suspicion. This worked better than Mom’s seeing-it thing; this was her own way. “Hey, dog.” LC felt him feel the calm. He was a wonderful dog. He took the biscuit, worried it against the ground, swallowed too quickly, with a moan.
“Tough life out here, huh, boy?” She stroked his ears, his thoughts moving up through her hands. His mouth hung open. He was old, and it hurt to swallow. He had run away from a man who came home drunk some nights and kicked him. It made her throat tighten and her eyes wet. “That’s bad. I’m really sorry. I’m so sorry.” Some people fed him, but they left in days; mostly he ate garbage, and he hurt every night when it got cold. He hurt all the time. He wanted peace, and he looked right into her face to say it.
“And the snow’s coming. You can taste it, huh?” The dog whined. He licked her hand elaborately. She gave him the other biscuit and scratched his belly.
She was still a kid. She could do some of the things Mom could do, but she shouldn’t have to rush into everything. She was going to be in charge of growing up and make everything work out. Not like every one of the grown-ups. And not like the Mountain teens, either, with their weed and meth and beer. Tourists came to town to party, and the local kids fell in with them, and got totaled. They thought they were so bad. Dumb shits. LC had pretty much given up on finding a BFF until college.
But now she could do this. Which would have been a problem, with a best friend.
The bell writhed and Roberto backed in, boxes stacked from arms to nose. Incredible ass, incredible hamstrings. Kay hadn’t noticed before, which felt sad.
“Roberto, you’re still gonna wear those shorts after the snow comes.”
“I figure us middle-aged UPS drivers owe something to the world.” He eased the pile of boxes onto the counter, and Kay signed his electronic clipboard. “We’re America’s new sex symbols. Is that pathetic, or what? There was an article in Time.”
She suddenly felt foolish and mute and smiled to the side of him, nodding. She felt, very stupidly, that flirting was cheating on Ed.
On his way out he paused, the crystal fairy lights shivering across him, as though he felt their touch and lingered in it. Then he remembered his afternoon pace, waved, and left.
Through the window, Kay followed him to the truck. Middle-aged, bullshit. Must be mid-thirties, same as her, and plenty of gym time. A Greek statue flexing around town in a brown uniform.
Yeah, right. Those were stupid thoughts. She did not go to things; they came to her, and not often, and not very good ones. In this town all the good ones were taken, and the bad ones were very bad. And the mediocre ones left.
She got out the utility knife and sliced the boxes. But the biggest was armored with heavy tape, and a customer came in; she tucked it under the counter to open later. It was warm. Roberto must have the truck heater up, the hot air pouring onto his meaty legs and up into his shorts.
She felt a little better.
Caroline pulled the sign and the tall metal stake from her trunk: Homes by Caroline / Service by the Best! She picked a spot next to the Goldwater driveway, held the stake in her left hand, and carefully rapped a small sledge against the top of it. It fell over. She tried again, and it fell over.
She picked it up. “LC!” Who had already run inside, so Caroline took possession of a moment; a deep breath, and she fondled the Mountain’s roots. There was never time to just be, to put things down and just be.
Achievement was a choice. She alone controlled, dictated, her own happiness. She had the ability to make her own future. There was no “slow market,” no “shoulder season.” No. Those were excuses.
She still paid lip service to that foolishness with the other salespeople, who floated with the tide, whose failures were her opportunities. But winners make their own weather. On the plaques in the sales office lobby, 54 of the last 62 slips of bronze carried her name, pleasingly identical. And inside her office, on the wall: her Tree of Success. Every new project was a Stem. Every achievement was a Leaf. And every Leaf meant a Challenge overcome.
Winners win. She’d taken the White Diamond four years in a row. She would close it again this year. Definitely, with this sale. Her thoughts flipped through her closet. Yes, a new dress for the Realtor’s Ball. The Century 21 people, sulking at their center tables. Oh, yes.
LC raced outside, looked, grinned, and held the stake; not safely, below the sign, but above it, a quarter-inch from the top of the stake. The steadiest place. Just like when she really was a little girl. As they joined their eyes and smiles, not looking at the sign, Caroline slammed down the sledge with both hands.
It was fun searching through Mom’s empty houses. LC found the girl’s room again, and was pleased that its emptiness retained the very soft gray elephant. LC had liked the elephant and had told it to stay. Now it was the only thing in the room.
Stuffed animals were a baby thing. But why not? Mom said she could still play with things for a while. Mom wanted her to stay a little girl and to grow up, too. LC had started her period now but she hadn’t told Mom; the conversation seemed impossible, and LC already knew all about it from Wikipedia.
The girl’s bedroom had its own bathroom, like LC’s. In a drawer she found a makeup kit, still sealed in the Rite-Aid package. LC and her school sort-of-friends did makeovers on their sleepovers; she was getting pretty good. There was base and eye shadow. And some lipstick, and gloss for a second layer. And mascara; Mom would hate that, she’d think LC was using someone else’s mascara and would get an eye infection. Excellent.
Caroline was there to primp the house. She followed her checklist in sequence, from kitchen to office to master suite. She was content, and plenty of that came from the imminent commission.
1520 Alpine Drive was big and expensive and very custom, and Caroline had helped the Goldwaters into it two years before; it was her largest commission that year. Henry and Laura Goldwater and their sweet daughter, Maya, drove up together to hunt down their mountain retreat. Two long holiday weekends, leading to an excited Christmas vacation signing papers and reveling in the empty house. They came again soon, meeting a van full of furniture, aging stuff from the city house. They’d go on a buying spree for new things down there. Lots of people do that. Their first dinner guests were the Carolines, big and little.
But now the Goldwaters had reversed course, and the house was back on the market. Naturally, they hired Caroline as agent. She figured a month to find a buyer, and the Goldwaters wanted a 30-day escrow. This would push her to a fifth year of record earnings.
It had taken only one little nudge, easy stuff. Henry was a jerk, and Ashleigh, an intern at the investment bank, was momentarily alone. She was the perfect choice: sexually experimental, post-Princeton-BA, pre-somewhere-incredible-MBA, involuntary-erection gorgeous, and she even liked golf. Caroline had watched Ashleigh watching Henry throughout a meeting, fingering the tips of her hair where they touched her shoulder. Ashleigh was bewildered by the attraction. She had never wanted an older man, but was drawn into him by scent or taste. She didn’t like it in herself at all.
Laura would obviously grow from the breakup. Mother and daughter would bond at a crucial stage in the girl’s life. Laura would use the alimony checks to go back and finish her dissertation. And she’d trade up from Henry. Best thing in the world for her. Hell, even Henry would make out; he’d get to boff a twenty-three-year old. It would only last 180 days, but he’d have the memory and, with his money, another woman soon enough. “Selling isn’t something you do to someone; it’s something you do for them.”
This had become so easy. She should let herself have more vacation time.
The mountain house was one too many; they had two mortgages in the city now, the Santa Monica house and Henry’s condo. Henry had called two days ago and she’d faxed the agency agreement. He had already had the furniture moved out, which wasn’t optimal, but Caroline could sell that house anyway. It was all clicking along nicely.
Clearing the master bath, Caroline found a brush with hairs of Laura’s color and length caught in the bristles. She filled the sink with hot water and floated a hair on it. She focused. She smiled down at Laura, and then Henry and Ashleigh.
Then Caroline recoiled. One night early in the breakup the lid blew off the margaritas and Xanax, and Laura swallowed a month’s worth of pills. She woke up fifteen hours later, strapped to a hospital bed and learned, usefully, that it’s quite difficult to kill yourself with benzos. She wouldn’t give the nurses Henry’s cell number, and the resident finally had to let her go with a psychiatric referral.
A week later Laura’s Cayenne steered itself into a freeway overpass, but fine German engineering preserved her, and sympathy flooded in for the “accident.”
Caroline was shaking.
Three times was a charm. Laura had found a doddering doctor who would prescribe barbiturates to help her sleep, just the minimum, and she stockpiled. She had just picked up the third month’s supply, which put her over the top. Tonight, two big bottles of pre-mixed margaritas and an ice bucket would be mounted on the travertine deck of the Jacuzzi tub. And some toast to steady her stomach; Laura was aiming for permanent sleep, not choking to death.
And Maya, injured by Laura’s first two attempts and aching for her dad, had started to pluck out her hair; pacing herself, a few strands in each class, then cutting loose at home. And she had started slitting her skin with a curved blade mounted on an X-Acto knife; the insides of her thighs. She was eleven, just a year younger than LC, and now she lived in her room, like her mother. She would not live to be a woman.
This was terrible, evil, monstrous, the worst thing in the world. This was not how these things worked out. This never happened. Caroline stood, horrified, staring at the sink.
She wrapped the hair back into the brush, carefully, as it had been. She wiped clear her tear-tracks with the heel of her hand. She touched up her makeup in the mirror and had to pause and breathe so she wouldn’t cry again. She was weak, arrogant, an idiot. She had to turn this back.
It was slow all afternoon in the shop, and Kay was increasingly glad of the invitation. Definitely a little wine. She’d pour it on her blues. She was sick of the emptiness of shoulder season, between the mountain bikers and the skiers. She was sick of not deciding what she wanted.
Caroline was so much in control of her own life; she knew what she wanted, and she went out and got it. Kay could learn from that. But maybe the invitation was less than friendship, a polite one-off out of pity. Word about Ed would be around by now; she had to be careful not to make a fool of herself. She did that a lot. She wondered where he was. Somewhere in LA, looking for work. Or looking for another woman.
She hoisted that last big cardboard box onto the counter and cut it open. It was still warm, which was odd. Buried in a vast mass of shredded newspaper was a foot-wide cube of dark wood. She lifted it out, heavy as metal, and a scent flowed into the shop; mushrooms, and ginger, and a man’s body after a workout. A large splinter of wood, oddly jagged, held closed a blocky iron hasp. She opened the box.
A crystal nestled in a hollow of black silk. It had to be natural, or roughly worked, just a stick of rock with six sides that didn’t quite match. A couple of inches across, maybe four inches long. Almost clear, but with a spiral of gray smoke, and something sparkling at its center; even on the counter, which was not in sun. A thick, crude, black iron hook penetrated one end. Weird. Hooks on crystals were delicate.
The glass and iron were warm.
Kay had not ordered this; Roberto had made a mistake. She should call UPS. She went to the window and held it in the late sunlight. It didn’t just make rainbows; it reflected, too. The side facing Kay filled with her face framed in fire, concentrated sunlight streaming from the top of the Mountain.
She turned it a millimeter and the reflection flickered into Ed, unloading an electric saw at a jobsite in LA. A job, so he’d be staying there. He looked unhappy. Lonely.
She ached, but she did not need that right now. She turned it again.
Strong men, and the shop filled with people. This was better. It was coffee in the morning, stepping into a good day. She picked out Roberto. She noticed herself inside her clothes; they felt like the paper covering a Christmas present.
She hung the crystal in the center of the window, between the others, lower. The three of them made a triangle pointing downward; the Mountain reversed, as if reflected in water.
To hell with calling UPS.
Mom had been really pissed about the makeup that morning. Weird. And she dropped LC at home without talking and went off on errands. Maybe she was in that same place all over again. Something. Grown-ups were so weird.
The dog was waiting. LC sent him up the hill to the “playhouse,” an exact replica of the real house, but twenty feet long. Steel bowls of kibble and water were set out on its porch.
She stacked her Friday homework at the far end of the kitchen table. Mom still made her do it there; she didn’t trust LC up in her room. Maybe after the birthday, Mom said. Jeez. LC flipped on the Mac, logged into her school’s system, and checked her homework list.
She thought about the dog, not eagerly. When she’d finished her algebra problems she guilted herself into work clothes and the rubber apron, and up to the playhouse. He was standing, soft and calm; his chest was still, and his eyes asked again. She paused on the path, he stood quietly, the door opened, and he went in. She followed him.
It was time. She was pretty sure she was ready. It was part of growing up, of being able to do the things you wanted to do, and she had to start some time.
An hour later she came out. Science next, her favorite subject. Science plus abilities equaled strength. Mom’s sales training slogans were silly. First, though, wash up and throw the clothes in the machine, and she had to start making dinner. There just weren’t enough hours in the day.
Now in the first cold months there would be more dogs than in the summer. The snow would come soon and the dogs would step carefully in the tire tracks on the driveway, so no prints would point to the house or the playhouse. Then later in the winter the strays would be dead, and mostly coyotes and squirrels would come, and snakes that Mom would lift from their holes. Deer in the spring, and then the dogs would start again. It was so cruel to abandon a dog.
LC finished her homework and stirred the stew. All by herself, her first time. It was a big stew, plenty of lean meat. She was older now, doing more adult things. You had to wash your hands with soap right after mincing the habaneras in case you touched your eyes. Bay and cilantro floated on the pink-white froth, and the kitchen was humid and rich and meaty.
She loved the kitchen best of the rooms in the house. The huge iron stove, ancient. Cherry wood cabinets, stone floor, cedar ceiling. Stone on the counters and covering the wall spaces between the cabinets. Iron kettles and pots and pans. A big pine table with three chairs. A cast iron sink glazed red.
She and Mom had grown the herbs in the summer, and dried them. They always had, ever since they came here. It was a short summer up here. In the spring there were mushrooms, that lived with the pines. They had to take these themselves for it to work. Like the dogs. Just dinner, though; everything else came from the supermarket.
The meat bubbled up and down, brown and strong. She had diced the kidneys small, but the pieces still made some spoonfuls sharp. Mom always kept those in her mouth a moment. Maybe LC would like them better now. She had sautéed the meat before adding it to the stew, something she found on the Net.
The meat made you strong. He had still been strong. She would be strong.
On a normal day, Caroline delighted in Lake Jimmy.
In a basin just west of town, clustered around the Mountain, were twelve lakes of ordinary striking beauty, threaded together with creeks and waterfalls. They supported metal picnic tables, boat launches, maintained trails, and bathrooms; several had marinas with canoes and paddleboats. Cabins and condos circled them. The lake developments were the town’s summer economy, as the Mountain was in winter.
But not Lake Jimmy. No amenities, no road, barely a trail. Evenings, after LC finished her homework, she and Caroline walked up to it, under the north side of the Mountain, a steep hundred yards above their home. Anyone could go to it, but hardly anyone ever did.
Caroline sat on the log remains of a lodgepole pine, and LC sat pointedly on a different log twenty feet away. The sun, behind the Mountain, faded into red and affected nothing. But just above the eastern hills the full moon feathered onto Jimmy’s water, between the shadows of black trunks and empty limbs. There were no needles on the trees that remained standing at this lake.
She shouldn’t have let herself get so emotional about the cosmetics. It was just that Laura Goldwater . . . God! What the hell was Caroline going to do about Laura?
And being a mother. LC was twelve, thirteen tonight. Her period had started; she’d swiped half a box of Caroline’s tampons the week before. Middle school, the middle, the tipping point. College in five years. Her little one was edging into maturity, and Caroline didn’t know how to help. Today she wasn’t sure that she knew much of anything.
Maybe she should have given LC a father. Well. She shouldn’t make bad worse. The Goldwaters were not LC’s fault.
“You probably don’t want me to, and I understand, but if you’d like a little help with your eyeliner and gloss? And I can show you how to blend your eyeshadow.”
LC sat for a minute, then moved to Mom’s log. She drank her Mexican Coke, the kind that was made with real sugar and came in those heavy old-style bottles. Her science teacher wanted her to look closely at simple things. Carbon dioxide made thin lines of bubbles on the inside of heavy Coke glass, and caused global warming, and fed plants. And it was the gas that made the lake so beautiful.
She glanced at Mom, who didn’t seem to notice, and then mirrored her little sips. A small sip of anything was almost as good as a big sip, and you got a lot more of them. Grown-ups thought that way. It made sense. She was glad Mom had made up with her. That was grown-up, too, when you made up first.
When an adult made up first. “Grown-up” was a kid’s word. LC was doing more and more adult things. She was cooking tonight, her first time, and she had invited Kay, who was nice. And Kay would come; LC could see that much. An adult friend. LC could share things with Kay, things she was learning. Teaching an adult would be so cool. That was part of being one, too.
Caroline’s Coke concealed two shots of Myers’s rum; the dark sweet scent popped from the CO2 bubbles, which also floated out of the lake and out of the ground near the lake. For five years the carbon dioxide had seeped up from the fire, through the cold granite of the Mountain, pushing oxygen aside. Every tree within a hundred feet of the shore stood dead or had fallen already, their roots strangled by the innocuous gas which should feed them.
If you dug a pit and slept, your nap would last forever. A calm passing, though. Laura Goldwater would like it.
Laura and Henry selling that house would put her over the top. Not selling it would kill her year, the first time.
Well. Winners make their own weather. Caroline unlocked her abilities, gazed into the Coke, and pushed very, very hard. In half a minute Maya went to Laura, asking for help with the poster board for her science fair project. That would take until ten at least, maybe eleven. Laura screamed at her to go away. Great. Their last words together. That made everything better. And that was the best Caroline could do by herself.
Kay frowned at the darkened shop. It could be fine, it could be fun, with plenty of customers. Not now. She was going to need kick-ass turnover during the holidays just to keep it open. She’d be damned if she’d go back to waitressing for Pam at The Chimney. Maybe LA. She’d miss the Mountain in the summers.
She got the bottle of wine. An old Australian Shiraz; the clerk had said it was choice stuff, tourist grade. It was $57.50, but maybe Caroline would know it was good. Which showed how bad things had gotten, that a single evening with a friend and her daughter made her feel like this.
Maybe she should just call and cancel. There was no way not to look a fool. Well, the hell with it. The wine would plaster her emptiness for the evening.
On the way out she paused at the window, untied the new crystal, and hefted it. The weight on her palm pleased but didn’t satisfy, and she squeezed it hard, the weight and heat. The crystal was still warm from the sun. She pressed out the heat and it trickled down warm. She was young, on grass in the summer sun under a pomegranate tree, juice squirting hot and sour inside her mouth when her teeth crushed a pip; and when she tore open a fruit and held it high and crushed the juice into her mouth, it dripped into her mouth and onto her lap and soaked her lap. It was hot there, too.
She relaxed her hand. It was stamped with the crystal’s edges. Her skin had learned something she couldn’t resolve, like a sound remembered from sleep.
On the shelf where LC had coiled it, the chain flashed moonlight across the black shop. Maybe Kay would take the crystal, to show it to Caroline and LC. That was silly. But she slipped the chain through the crystal’s hook; it fit exactly, almost pulled itself through. LC had known this. Caroline, probably, had known this.
Kay wrapped the chain three times around her neck, loose and cold, a necklace. The crystal was light now. Her lips touched her patterned palm; she traced the lines with the tip of her tongue. She felt the crystal teaching her body and wondered what it was learning.
Caroline followed the path up and around to the back of Lake Jimmy. She let the pool appear. Fifty feet above the lake, eight feet wide, a rough circle. It seemed to boil. A spring of hot water and carbon dioxide, sister to the spring under the lake, had carved the pool. Its dark green serpentine rock was much older than the granite Mountain on which it crouched. Mud spread around the pool for half a dozen yards, then a circle of pines, but none between the pool and the moon rising over the lake.
None could, but not from the gas; that flowed down to the lake.
In the forest, serpentine soil is found by what it kills. Most plants die in it; some survive; a few thrive. Here grew only pitcher plants: cowled, hungry, dense above the mud. Secretly a single plant, meshed together beneath the soil, they pretended unfamiliarity, each coppery cobra hood facing away. They were entirely carnivorous, extending further each time they dissolved an insect. Serpentine starves ordinary flora, but these feasted on meat.
Whenever the moon was gibbous or full, Caroline and LC’s bare feet polished a pine-needle path between the trees. Then through the pitcher plants lay a line of river stones, foot-long, smooth stepping stones to keep the pool clear.
The lake was for contemplation, the pool for celebration.
LC came up with her stew, wooden bowls, wooden spoons, and a corkscrew. Tonight the Mountain’s water flowed fast and hot. The gas sparkled as they slipped into the pool, naked in nature’s champagne.
Kay knocked on Caroline’s door. She waited a minute, knocked again. Maybe around the back. If they weren’t here she’d go home and drink the whole goddamn bottle herself.
No answer at the back door, either. She fondled the crystal. A distant laugh answered another laugh, from the darkness where a path went up into the trees. Laughter, and she wanted it; and suddenly she needed the night breeze to flood her skin. She dropped her jacket on the back steps.
Her feet strode in faith, trusting trail wherever the darkness wasn’t thickened by the black of a tree; stepping over cones and sticks she couldn’t see. Passing a Jeffrey pine, she tasted its butterscotch bark. And the smooth brown branches of each manzanita stroked her thoughts; and she rolled in her mouth the three sweet nuts hidden inside every fruit of every chinquapin bush.
An open circle: a small wet meadow filled with strange plants. Kay hesitated at the boundary of forest and bog, but there were Caroline and LC in a pool, bright in the moonlight, grinning up at her. They were beautiful. Their braids floated in black arcs, almost touching but still open. They were perfect as a pair, and then they shifted into two sides of a triangle, open to her.
The place transformed the moonlight. Blue filaments shot off the roiling water onto the rock walls that wrapped it, onto the lake below. It lit the women—LC seemed more than a child here—in long sparks.
“LC cooked dinner. First time! It’s delicious. Come eat.”
Kay’s body said that entrance would be acceptance, and she stopped. She breathed motionless through her open mouth so nothing would change. They waited.
She set the bottle at the pool, stripped, and sank into the water, thick and warm, wearing the crystal on the chain. She felt easy now, in a new orbit. A ring of women in a circle of stone, hidden by circles of rock and trees.
LC handed her a wooden bowl and spoon. Kay ate slowly, her tongue fondling the meat. The stew warmed and strengthened her. Caroline opened the wine and they shared it from the bottle, with a little sip for LC, who said it tasted like pepper. She took a second sip, and a third, and Caroline took it away. When Kay had scraped the bowl she was ready. She was again that girl who’d left her family’s home, eager to join the world.
She slipped the crystal from the chain.
Caroline’s need was greatest. She sat erect and wrapped the crystal into the shell of her hands, eyes closed, mind free, and she prayed hard to the strength building among them. When she opened her eyes the glass was clearer than air. Laura would get out of the bath and flush the fucking pills. Now. Go, do it. Yes!
It was easy now, with Kay.
Laura and Henry would start back together; he’d learn to cook and shop and he’d slowly trade the guilt for love, hers and his. Laura would have a small, satisfying affair. He would know and say nothing, and not feel that this balanced it, but rather that he had started it and this finished it. Maya would get a boyfriend, score seven goals in a state final lacrosse game, and leave her hair and thighs the hell alone. And they’d pull the Mountain house off the market. Coming up every month would be part of the recovery.
So. No leaf of Achievement, no slip of bronze on the office wall. The Century 21 team would smile pityingly as she went up to accept third place in the White Diamond. They would think she was weakening.
They had no idea.
There was so much to teach Kay. She could do so well with that little shop.
Kay took it next. The crystal spun images at her touch. She turned it gently, until she saw Ed.
In his truck, creeping north in a line of cars. He was heading here. He needed a haircut. He wore the shirt she liked best. He was coming back. He was tense and unhappy, worried about her.
She stroked him, and his neck relaxed. She loved him. But she pursed her lips and blew on him as she might have blown on a dry dandelion. Gently, to feel each seed separate itself, hard enough to make it fly, blew until the last clinging strand joined the real wind. He grinned, and looked at his watch, and changed lanes. He’d get off at Wilshire, go into Westwood, find a bar. A woman with short red hair was sipping a rum and Coke, looking to be found. He stretched his length back against the seat, as far as the truck cab would allow, and rubbed his neck. He felt easy, the first time since he’d left. Goodbye.
She turned it again. Smooth stretches of the skin of men she knew, muscles swelling in use: biceps straining against a dumbbell; the curves of quads flowing, climbing a hill; glutes in cycling spandex. And, especially, hands and forearms. Her favorites. Roberto’s big forearms in short brown sleeves—easy, content, the sturdy heft of a heavy box. She touched the glass to her lips. He decided to take a hike up the Mountain on Tuesday, his day off. Hit the Scotty’s Pass trailhead at 8:30.
So Kay would close the store that morning. She’d be a half mile up the trail at 8:30. Resting on a rock, and surprised when she saw him, but her pack would hold a picnic. And a blanket. Just the thought of writing the little note for the shop door was erotic. She was growing new nerves.
And the shop would be busy now, too. Very busy. Rich people would tell each other about it, inside-dopesters, and their friends would come. This was erotic, too, the money in the register drawer, the pleasures it would buy.
Finally LC. She knew right then, finally and for sure. She wasn’t little; she wasn’t “LC.” She could be Caroline, if she wanted; or maybe Carrie. Even Lina. Or . . . not Carol; that was old. And Carrie was that silly movie. Lina. Holding the crystal to her chest, she slid under the surface and lifted her feet, touching only water. It was like the Christians being baptized, where you got a name, maybe. She burst up, wiping water from her eyes and mouth: “I’m not LC any more.”
“I’m Lina now.” Mom and Kay both laughed, but Mom shrugged and nodded and she gave LC—Lina—that really proud Mom smile, that looked almost sad but meant she was holding in happy tears. Kay bowed to her and shook her hand, said the new name. They would be best friends. Lina would have a lot to share with her.
She waved her arm, skimming the crystal where the water met air, dancing flecks of moon across Mom, and Kay, and herself. She leaned back against the green stone, laid the glass between her breasts. She held her face to the moon, floating toward it.
What life? A Ph.D. in neurophysiology, then being a professor. Somewhere with a forest. Three kids who’d have a real father, not parthenogenesis. He lived in New York. Brown hair, 5’ 11”, thin and strong. She could see him pretty well. Steve. First he needed to finish high school and become a pediatrician. He’d sail. They’d meet at Harvard. She’d have friends there, a lot of people like her.
He’d start lifting weights tomorrow. And get a book about boats.
She saw other things in the crystal, but maybe Mom could hear. She’d think about them later. A woman had secrets, and she had secrets. Soon she would be stronger than Mom, who was strong. Lina would use science, and her abilities, and do what nobody else could do. An adult could do that.
DOUGLAS HILL dropped out of two colleges, roughly during Woodstock and the first moon walk. Recovering, he spent 30 years working on the Internet, and became vp of product management and marketing at half a dozen California companies. In that time he wrote thousands of pages of this and that and published a book on computer networks. But he tossed all that aside to study lit and creative writing at Franklin and Marshall College.