She blinked. Sunlight drilled into her eyes like little nails. Her head throbbed.
Cheap fucking beer.
She rolled over, burying her face in her pillow. A beam of light warmed her back. The room was stuffy. Too cold at night for an open window but she felt the murky air clogging her nose now.
Finally she opened her eyes. Fake brown wood panelling. Faded pillow case. Big-eyed ballerinas looked back at her from their frames just like they had since she was little. The fake seam between the fake planks was rough under her finger.
She sat up slowly. Her clothes from last night were folded on the chair. That was…better than usual for her. She’d even managed to find a T-shirt to sleep in. After a moment she remembered Bobby’s sleeping bag. Maybe that was why. Too fucking gross.
She staggered into the kitchen, gulping water out of the tap. When the ache in her mouth was satisfied she leaned on the counter. The frilly eyelet curtains were water stained. They tried to stuff towels into the frame to soak up condensation but it never seemed to work. Across the ten feet of indifferent lawn the neighbour’s piss yellow trailer wall bounced the sunlight back at her. She rubbed her eyes.
She winced. Her mother appeared, wrapped in a robe and slippers. Her short, blond bob had formed wild spikes that she was trying to smooth. Marianne thought the colour made her look older, but she’d spent a fortune on it.
“You stink like a brewery.”
“Sorry. I just needed water.”
For a second it could go either way. Then her mother’s expression collapsed. Her fingers clutched at her robe.
“I can’t believe you. It’s so inconsiderate! You promised you’d help me. You know how hard it is for me. I’m really trying and I need a little help. You know we have to work together.”
“Sorry. I’m sorry. I’ll go shower.”
“And wash those clothes! You aren’t even supposed to be drinking yet.”
“It was other people, Mom. They just spilled.”
Her mother’s expression hardened. “I know you’re lying. Give me some credit at least.”
Her protests followed Marianne to the bathroom, breaking off into muttering. She stood under the water, trying to scrub away the memory of Bobby’s filthy sleeping bag. Or the memory of Bobby. Or Bobby last night. She didn’t even know anymore.
What does it even matter?
She pushed the vinyl shower curtain out of the way and found the aspirin bottle. When she tilted her head back to drink a piercing pain shot through the side of her neck. She poked at it gingerly.
“What the hell.”
The fan whined. She brushed her teeth, waiting for a patch of the mirror to clear. She leaned over the small sink, pulling her hair out of the way. There was a dark bruise, and what looked like toothmarks.
She hid out in her room while her mom got ready for work. There was a rhythm to it. The coffee, the cigarette, the shower and hair and makeup.
There was a soft tap at the door.
She peered around the door. Her expression was soft. Marianne let out a cautious breath. “Hey.”
She sighed. “I’m sorry about before, okay? Just…first thing in the morning I wasn’t expecting to have to fight that fight.”
“I didn’t think I stank.”
“You don’t. Now.”
She forced herself to smile.
“You got work tonight?”
“No. We were going to go to a movie.”
“That sounds nice.”
“I really…I only had a beer. I mean it.”
“I trust you, sweetheart. I just don’t want you getting into trouble.”
“I know. I won’t.”
“At your age it only takes one slip up.”
“I know, okay? I’m not going to make a mistake.”
Her mother looked hurt. Before it could turn into anger Marianne sighed. “I’ll figure it out.” She smiled. “You look great.”
“Thanks! You never know when someone important is watching! Can you do the laundry? The pile is getting pretty high.”
The washer made the wall shake. She put in a CD and stretched out, listening to the player whir until the music smashed over her. Just anger. Just rage, pulled out of her chest like the band knew her. Anger to shake the whole place, until she wanted to scream.
I have to get out of here.
The washer rumbled to a stop. She dragged the laundry into the plastic basket. The dryer was on its last legs. It might last another winter if they didn’t use it much. For now it was wet cotton slapping her in the face as she wrestled it onto the line.
When it was done she leaned against the sun-greyed pole, wiping her hands on her jeans. Behind the trailer park the sand hill rose up steep. Skinny pine trees clung desperately to the top. Their roots were bare, hanging down like spindly claws. There was a nice breeze blowing, with only a little pulp mill smell. The house they’d lived in before her dad died was out west of town. It’d been…
She did her makeup and walked to the bus stop; she could loiter around the mall until it was time to meet for the movie. By the time she nursed her coffee cold Charlene and a few other friends were already at the theatre, and Bobby. He was laughing at some joke, and for a minute he was so gorgeous she felt her heart surge.
The pain in her neck throbbed. She’d wrapped a scarf around it. It was going to be pretty obvious though.
Charlene spotted her and waved. “I have your ticket, already. Let’s go!”
Charlene dragged her to the concession after they got in, offering to treat her.
“It’s all right.”
“At least a coke or something.”
She gave way, watching her examine the candy.
“I didn’t realise he was coming.”
“Oh, we met up at the restaurant. I didn’t think you’d mind.”
She pushed down a little wave of envy. She couldn’t have gone out to dinner anyway. “I thought it was a sort of girl’s night.”
“God, Mare, what do you want me to do, tell him to go home? What happened last night anyway?”
“Then what’s the problem?”
She shrugged. “Nothing.”
She tried to arrange to sit apart but he eased into the seat beside her with a cute smile. All through the movie she felt the brush of his knee. When his hand landed on her thigh she stretched her neck. The bolt of pain reminded her that she was still mad.
“It wasn’t as good as the other ones,” Bobby shook his head as they left.
“It was still pretty cool.”
“I liked the first one best,” Charlene piped up.
“Yeah, it was great, wasn’t it? Everything’s just a rip off now.”
She pulled her jacket closed, listening to him talk about how meaningless everything was. His truck was at the edge of the lot. He and Charlene fired each other up, debating like they were movie reviewers while she shifted from foot to foot, hoping he’d give her a ride home.
Charlene’s smile shrank a little when Bobby put his arm over her shoulders. She didn’t shrug him off or move away. She couldn’t decide how she felt about that.
He drove her home. The green light from the dashboard made him look like a ghost. He looked like a zombie.
He looked over. “What?”
She shook her head. “Nothing.”
“You’ve been weird all night.”
She saw the light of the trailer park glowing between the trees. “Don’t go in.”
He pulled over to the edge of the road. The truck thrummed as it idled. It was an old beater that he was working on fixing up. It was more real that way. Meaningful.
“You think your mom doesn’t know?”
“Just…to be safe.”
“Of course she probably knows, since you gave me a huge fucking hickey. You know I don’t like that.”
She hated them and always had. Saying it like that would make him mad and she didn’t feel like fighting. Instead he just looked confused.
“What are you talking about?”
She pointed to her neck, feeling it throb again. He reached over and pulled her scarf off, she braced herself, but he was gentle in the end.
“I didn’t do that.”
“What do you mean? What does it look like to you? A mosquito bite?”
He shrugged. “I sure don’t remember doing that. Maybe it was whoever you left with.”
“You took off.”
“You didn’t bring me home?”
“I woke up at the pit. I don’t think I saw you after I went to get a beer.” It finally seemed to occur to him that there was a problem. “Maybe you should lay off the drinking if you’re blacking out.”
“Wow, okay. You don’t have to be a bitch.”
“Me? You couldn’t even bother to take care of me.”
“I did. Then I went to get a beer.” She rolled her eyes at his smirk. “You didn’t seem messed up when I left. How was I supposed to know?”
“I didn’t come home with Charlene?”
“I already said. No one knew where you went.”
She’d only had a beer or two, and barely any weed. The last thing she remembered was pulling on her jeans. She never blacked out.
He looked over. “You got home, though, right, babe? Nothing happened?”
She pointed at her neck.
“But like, you know…”
“I don’t think so.”
“Cool. Just make sure it doesn’t get infected or something. I heard mouths are filthy.”
She gave him an awkward kiss goodnight and hopped out, shivering at the sudden change from warm to clammy cold. On the driveway she stopped to watch the taillights vanish. The uneven rumble of the engine trailed away. A dog barked once or twice then fell silent.
She started back, gravel crunching underfoot. The trailer park was hidden by a thin stand of trees. Their shadows stretched across the drive in inky black bars, playing tricks on her eyes. The manager tried to keep it tidy but the tall grass was creeping in along the sides. It dipped and swayed in the wind.
She heard a rattle, like gravel sliding down a hill. The ground slipped away beneath the heel of her boot. She turned. Stones were visible in the stripe of shadow. The longer she stared the deeper the black became. The bright streaks between trembled, fragile. Her skin crawled, like she was up high.
I haven’t even had a drink.
A breeze swept up, swirling through the grass. For a minute she thought it felt like a hand, fingers twining through hers, tugging her along one bright beam, towards the slim and dusty pines. The ground broke apart, the black shadows widening into gulfs on either side. Between the trees, far away and still close, she saw a flickering light. It danced out of the way every time that she thought she was close enough. She frowned and walked forward, trying to figure out what it was.
The barking of the dog caught her attention. She looked over her shoulder, wondering how far she’d come. There was a little glow, she thought, where the trailer park was.
That doesn’t make any sense. There’s no path here. I should have reached the intersection by now.
It sounded close by her ear, but no one was there when she turned. The wind tugged at her hair, nudging against her back like a cat.
She knew herself to be walking, but it felt effortless. The trees folded out of her way, giving her tantalising glimpses of the light. Another one came, gleaming faintly blue, and another, that was a blushing pink. All the time she walked she could hear echoing fragments of her name, full of so much love and desire that she started scrambling to catch up to the speaker.
She came to a broad clearing. In the centre was a tall black cottonwood tree. Around it there were seven wisps of light. They wavered, sometimes brighter, sometimes dim, like they were under water. The pale seed puffs swirled like snow, more than the tree should shed, spinning on a wind much stronger than she felt. The air felt gently alive, vibrating against her skin. Formless music danced through the leaves.
After a very long time she finally saw a man standing under the tree. He was first only an outline, taking on shape and detail the longer she looked. His long, black coat swept down to the ground. He had blue eyes, she knew, and wavy brown hair. His smile was heartbreakingly sweet. She felt a strange frozen lump in her throat, and she swallowed back her tears.
“You know my name.” She meant it as a question.
“Your name precedes you.”
“You’re important, Marianne.”
Pleasure filled her, and something else. Pride. She thought it was pride.
“No. No, I’m not.”
“But you are.”
His voice was gentle. She thought he sounded British. Yes, it was British.
“I’ve never met a British person before.”
His smile grew briefly sharper. “Older than that, my dear Marianne. Time destroys all things, even me.” Then he was sweet again. She hadn’t realised her heart had been racing until she felt it slow. “That is why you’re so very precious. The light in you is at its very brightest. Marianne.”
The way he spoke her name made it sound important. Not some hand-me-down thing.
“I’m not really. I’m not anything special.”
“You know in your heart that isn’t true.”
“No, it’s only…no.”
“You don’t have to lie to me. No one is here but us.”
“It doesn’t mean anything. Nothing does.”
“Who told you that? Come now. It isn’t true at all. What you say to them to survive has no place here. This is a place of dreams.”
“Where am I?”
He laughed. He spoke a lot. She knew that. His voice floated through her brain like music without words. She strained to understand, leaning forward when she couldn’t make her feet move. She thought he explained, but it slipped away.
All throughout it the seven lights teased in and out of view. She watched them, feeling an odd longing to go join them.
“You’re not stupid, whatever they say.” His voice whispered in her ear, but he still stood under the tree. “Go. Dance with them.”
She swayed forward, then shook her head. He laughed.
“I understand. Will you come back? Tell me you will.”
“I can.” It felt like a mistake. Why did she do it? Why did she agree? But when he smiled she felt a smile on her own face.
“I can scarcely wait. Ah, the sun. Off you go, my dear.”
“How do I come back?”
“I’ll show you the way.”