I see us at the Commons, the memory so vivid I can still smell the freshly mowed grass. We sit at the base of the George Washington Monument, squeezing close for shade, our legs stretched out before us in the long afternoon shadow. We are ditching our Sociology Seminar, and Kara is filling every space with nervous chatter, and when she laughs her black bobbed hair shakes like a skirt at her shoulders. Locke keeps suggesting that we should go. ‘No!’ Kara and I say together. It’s too late. Too late. And then the three of us are laughing again, exhilarated, bolstered together in our defiance.
We are not comfortable with it. We are rule-followers. This is new to us, and our courage comes from each other. I lean over and kiss Locke. Hard on the lips. We explode in more laughter, and snot spurts from our noses. Kara repeats the kiss, and we are limp with our howling. I ache with the remembering.
I roll from my bed to the floor and lean back against the wall, the way I leaned back that day in Boston. I had friends. Good friends.
Mother is at the Netbook when I enter the kitchen. She is talking to Father. I have talked to her little more than I have to Lily in the past few days. She is busy and distant. Lily is in the pantry rattling boxes.
‘Morning,’ Mother says and returns to her conversation with Father.
‘Jenna?’ Father calls.
‘Morning, Father,’ I say.
‘Come here, Angel.’
I stand behind Mother and look over her shoulder so he can see me.
‘You’re looking good,’ he says. ‘How are you feeling?’
‘Any lapses? Pain? Anything unusual?’
‘Good. Good.’ He repeats himself a third time, and I sense he is filling time.
‘Something wrong?’ I ask.
‘No. Not at all. I think your mother wants to have a talk with you, though, so I’ll be going. Talk to you tomorrow.’ He clicks off.
A talk. She frightens me with her control and sureness. I don’t want to talk, but I am sure we will. Claire commands and it happens.
‘Sit down,’ she says.
Lily walks out of the pantry and leans against the counter, her own busyness suddenly gone out of her. Mother looks like she is going to regurgitate last night’s dinner.
‘You’re starting school tomorrow,’ she says. ‘It’s only at the local charter. It’s the closest one, so you can walk for the days that they meet. Their emphasis is ecosystem studies, but there is nothing I can do about that. It will just have to do. The others are too far, too crowded, and too—well, they simply need too many forms that we can’t provide right now. You’re all registered, and they’re expecting you. Unless you’ve changed your mind about going to school.’
After a long pause I realize her last sentence is a question. ‘No,’ I answer. ‘I haven’t changed my mind.’ I am still backtracking, trying to absorb everything she has thrown at me. School? Tomorrow? I thought it was out of the question. How did this happen? I pause in sorting out the turnaround, and I finally notice her.
Her eyes are glassy puddles. Her hands rest in her lap, weakly turned upward. The steady stream of words has ended, and she looks spent from the effort.
‘Are you happy?’ she asks.
I nod. Is it a trick? This is not what she wants. What is she really trying to do? ‘Yes. Thank you,’ I say. She pulls me close, and I feel her uneven breaths against my neck. Her grip is tight and I think she won’t let go, but then she pushes back my shoulders and she smiles. The limp hands tighten, the eyes blink, and with a deep breath she summons the infinite control that is Claire’s.
‘I’m meeting with carpenters this morning, but I will talk to you more about it this afternoon.’ She hesitates for a long moment, then adds, ‘The rain’s stopped. Why don’t you go out for a walk while you can?’ Her face is pale.
A walk, too?
I can’t respond. All I can think of is the gilded figure hanging on the wall in Lily’s church. Mother’s lifeblood is flowing out of her.
‘Thank you,’ I say again and head for the door, but before I leave the room, I see Lily close her eyes at the kitchen sink and her hand brushes her forehead, her heart, and finally each shoulder.