Chapter One - Gifted
Our secrets, hidden safely behind the stones and mortar of our private little prisons,
keep us in and others out. Breaking down those walls is hard and often futile work. You have to
be willing to get dirt and blood on your hands.
The sun is coming up over the houses on the next street. Any moment the door of the main house will creak, and Ethan will creep out into the half-light of dawn. We have been here in the old lady’s garage apartment over-looking her pool for a week. We're here because of Ethan and his twin sister, Elena, but I have yet to meet them. I’m not allowed to "know" them. This is my mother's rule.
My mom, Rachel, is a shrink of last resort. People hire her to solve the problems of the kids that they never wanted who are now fucking up their lives. My mother’s job is to save these desperate parents from their kids or maybe she's supposed to save the kids from their parents. I'm not sure she even knows which it is.
Finally, the door groans, and I lean closer to the glass. As Ethan moves away from the house, he glances over his shoulder like he has done something terribly wrong. He walks haltingly like a little boy held too tightly in check. His hair falls around his face in soft light brown curls with gold highlights that catch the rising sun. Even from this distance I can see that his features are delicate, sweet cherry-red lips against white skin, a small turned-up nose, a gently sloping jaw, and soft, sad eyes like a Botticelli angel. He strips the towel from his waist and abandons it on the deck. I watch the muscles in his slight shoulders and the curve of his back in the instant he takes to lower himself silently into the water. He moves quickly like a tiny animal, fragile and skittish. I find it hard to believe that he is my age, 17. A slow ripple runs the width of pool as he disappears under the water. He is there and gone so fast that I can almost believe that he is a figment of my overactive imagination. In my journal I've named him “Mouse.”
This is the opening I have waited for. I grab my running shoes from beside my bed and slip through the half-opened door. I'm confident I can get out without waking Rachel because last night she stayed up watching the movie that was supposedly written by her celebrity crush for the thousandth time. She complains about how facile it is, how people don’t just suddenly recover from life-long trauma like that, but she loves it anyway. I think she secretly wishes that one of her patients would open all up to her and reveal their deepest secret pain, and then suddenly the kid would be able to have the life that he was meant to have. All her hard work would come to good, and someone would be forever grateful to her. The sordid reality that she can't accept is that her job amounts to the extraction of secrets. In the process maybe she helps one or two patients a little, but she isn’t ever going to forge some bond and intuit the very thing the kid needs to hear to make his walls crumble and his fear dissolve. I know she thinks she can, but she can’t. Stone and mortar cannot be melted by fire or tears.
I slip past her door and down the stairs to the kitchen. I’ll put my shoes on once I'm outside. I turn the dead-bolt slowly, keeping it from clicking. Breathe. Turn the handle and open the door part way, so it doesn’t groan. All that's left is the screen door.
I freeze. The small question floats down from upstairs. I contemplate ignoring it.
“Sage! What are you doing?”
“Going for a run, Madre. Back in a flash!”
I hear her hesitation. She wants to stop me, but she knows that it will only delay the inevitable. “You know the rules,” she finally sighs.
“You bet!” I say cheerily. I don’t wait for her to change her mind. On the porch just a few feet from the edge of the pool, I bend to slip on my shoes without untying them. As I stand up, Ethan glides in to the wall and surfaces. Our eyes meet for a moment before he looks away. The water dripping on his face gives the impression that he is crying. I lift my hand and give him my sweetest grin, but instead of smiling back, he frowns and swims away. He reaches the opposite end of the pool, and in one easy movement he is out of the water. In the instant it takes me to inhale and speak, he has scooped up the towel and the screen door has banged shut.
“Another time then, Mouse,” I say to the air.
I walk slowly to the end of driveway, hoping he’ll change his mind and come back out, but he doesn’t, so I keep my word and head up the street at an easy lope.
My mother tries to keep her client files put always unless they are actually in her hand. She’s thinks she got a lock on security, but half the time she's so preoccupied she couldn't find her head without a map. Makes spying easy, too easy almost. Once she was out walking, and she left her keys on the table. I was able to read Finn’s file, part of it anyway.
Name: Euan Finnian Mulcahy
Referral Source: Criminal Court
I only had time to glance at the top page before she realized that she hadn't taken the keys and came back. No matter. I wasn't caught and besides, Finn would tell me the rest, and when he did, the triumph would be that much sweeter. My mother would never get him to tell her his secrets, but he would tell me, eventually.
I met Finn six months ago at our previous apartment after his third appointment with Rachel. I made sure that I was taking out trash at 2:50 when he was leaving. I wore a little strappy handkerchief top, ripped jeans shorts, and no shoes. I smiled shyly, he nodded, and watched me walk down the driveway and back up to the house. Since then, when Finn’s appointments are over, he circles around the block. On the next street over I jump on the back of his motorcycle, and we ride out to the lake.
Sometimes we jump from the cliffs naked into the freezing water and giggle as the fish nibble at our white flesh. Sometimes we make out, and I can look into the deep water of his eyes and pretend that he can see into the blackness of mine. I like to sweep his shock of straight dark hair across his ruddy cheek and kiss him where his skin dimples when he smiles. It would be easy to pretend we could someday be in love, except for the absent way he looks away as he pulls me in.
My mom is clueless. Finn is wily; he knows how to string her along. He’ll feed her just enough to keep her thinking she is getting somewhere, so she keeps him out of jail. But with me . . . I let him think he’s working me, but I'm in control.
I wonder if he'll be meeting her here, at the old lady’s house now. I hope Rachel hasn’t referred him out to take on the twins full time. I’ll have to look in her planner. She never locks that up.
The sun is fully up, and heat is already beginning to weigh heavy on the day when I make my way back into the yard. The old lady, the twin's grandmother is bent over plucking dead flowers from their stems and tossing them into a heap. She moves quickly with purpose, a strong woman who flatly refuses to age. I have to admire her in a way, even though she hired my mother to solve her problems. How bad could they be? Mouse certainly couldn’t cause her too much worry. It must be the girl that makes all the trouble, I decide. Maybe she does drugs or gets violent and that’s why my Mouse is so scared. Iron Lady looks up from her task and waves a flowered glove at me, attempting a hard smile. I wave back noncommittally and push open the door to the apartment.
My mother is dressed and ready, puttering in the kitchen. She hands me a glass of juice that I down in two swallows.
“How far?” She asks.
“I don’t know, three miles maybe. It’s too hot, and it’s not even July. You out of here already?”
“I have a few minutes.” She pauses. I wait for the inevitable question. She takes a sip of coffee and sets her mug down on the table. Tap tap tap on the side of the mug with her thumb ring and inhale, then, “Did you meet Ethan or Elena yet?”
“I know the rules, Mother.”
“You can meet them, Sage, you just - “
“Can’t know them!” I finish for her. ”What would be the point then? You meet people so you can know them. That’s how it is supposed to work.”
A moment of silence passes, so she rises from the table to pour me a mug of coffee. She is gathering her thoughts, always so careful about constructing her arguments, preparing her oratory to have the correct spin. She wouldn’t want to do me any damage. I might never recover, after all.
“The people I work with are not like you.” She begins with an old standby. Build me up to emphasize the divide, discourage rather than disapprove. “I need to keep my life separate so the work is about them, not about me.” That’s a good one. Make me a partner, complicit in the crime of prying open their walls. “You need to respect my work by keeping a careful distance.” As though distances between people can be wrought with such purpose. As though she keeps any “professional” distance.
Keeping my voice measured and eyes completely engaged with hers, I say, “Sure. Do your job. I won’t interfere. Promise, Mama.” Our old lovey name gets her every time. She smiles back at me, appeased. We drink our coffee in companionable silence while I steal glances at her planner, and she enters and crosses off appointments. Finn isn’t on her schedule this week, but his dad’s number is scrawled in the margin, so I memorize it. This is a bit of unforeseen luck. Now I can call Finn; I don't have to wait for him to show up here.
A sharp rap on the door makes me jump. It’s the old lady. “Hey, Rachel,” she calls through the screen before my mom can open it.
“Lily, come on in."
“I can’t stay but a minute. Just wanted to invite you and your girl over for supper tonight. Give you a proper welcome.”
Quaint! I am property without a name. My mom reads my grimace.
“Sage and I would really like that. What can we bring?”
I must be dreaming. She accepted a dinner invitation that includes me and clients. I can hardly breathe waiting for the other shoe to drop.
“Just bring yourselves and maybe some wine if you like.”
“Absolutely,” Rachel says.
“Well, I got some errands to run. We’ll see you ‘round six then,” she says to me.
“Sweet,” I say as coolly as possible to suppress my elation.
Iron lady harrumphs, but I know adults love when you talk to them like they’re kids too.
“I’ll walk back over with you, Lily,” mom says putting her mug in the sink and scooping up her stuff. “Stay out of trouble, Kiddo. Oh, and maybe you could think about helping with the unpacking if you have nothing better to do.” She kisses the top of my head, and the door bangs shut before I can formulate an appropriately sarcastic retort.
I can’t believe my luck! Tonight begins my foray into the minds of the mysterious twins. Suddenly, I remember I have a call to make.
Finn’s father answers the phone, and I hang up without saying anything. Who knows what my mother tells these people about us, and it would be disaster if he recognized my name. “Sage? As in Dr. Evan’s daughter, Sage? Why in the hell would you . . . ?” It could get ugly. At least there was no chance of him recognizing this phone number on his caller ID. The line was here when we moved in, so the display name would be Paige, the old lady’s last name. And what are the chances that he’d know her?
With no Finn adventure in the offing for the day, I get on the phone and talk to Jo for a couple of hours. Jo Zinn has been my BFF since kindergarten. She knows my warts, and she still talks to me. I consider that about as close to a miracle as can occur in this less than magical world. Jo has street smarts, and she is gorgeous in a tough girl kind of way. The weird thing about Jo is that what you see is what you get. I have yet to run into a single wall with her. But she isn’t just like that with me. That’s what the whole world sees. Maybe that is the biggest mystery of all to me. Maybe that’s why I talk to her everyday even when she is half way around the world visiting her dad for the summer. I need to know that there is world out there without secret prisons, and I need her to save me from breaking bones when I smash into all the walls in this world, maybe especially my own.
“Let it go,” she advises. “No good will come of this.”
"Let it go? This is the most fun I’ve ever had at this game."
"Really, I don't trust this guy and I don't even know him."
"You aren't listening, Jo Jo. I'm in control here."
"You aren't listening, o-wise-one. Can you say playing with fire? No pun intended."
“Ha. Ha. Ha! Stop worrying. I don’t want him; I just want to break him like a horse.”
“Before your mom does?”
“Interesting idea. A horse race. I like it!”
“You aren’t gonna win.”
“You wanna bet?”
"And encourage you? Not me! Really, Sage."
"Really, Jo Jo. Last word!"
"Sorry. It had to be done."
We invented "last word" in the 4th grade. It has kept us from getting really mad at each other for eight years now. It could be the secret of our friendship. I tell her about the twins and dinner that night with the Iron Lady. She is as stunned as I that my mother accepted the invite. “Careful with that, too,” she warns. “Your mom is up to something. I'd bet on it.” Then she has to go for piano lessons.
My mom comes in around 5:00 looking a little like Saint George after his first round with the dragon. She trudges up the stairs and turns on the shower without even stopping to give me the usual ten minute check-in quiz, thereby piquing my curiosity even more. What could be happening over in that house that would make Saint Rachel champion of the mentally scarred come back with her tail between her legs and well, mentally scarred? She comes down twenty minutes later almost completely herself again.
“Help me find the wine,” she says.
“Sure. So . . . how’d it go today?” I ask a bit too brightly perhaps.
Mom stops rummaging in the narrow pantry and steps out from behind the door.
“Sage,” I recognize her we-need-to-get-a-few-things-straight tone and sit down at the table. She joins me and continues. “This is not a game.” Ooh she’s already hit a cliché, not on her game tonight at all. “Lily’s family has been through a lot. Please . . .” Her voice trails off.
“Please what, Madre?” I’m curious, but also a little uncomfortable. It’s not like Rachel to be at a loss for words.
“Just practice some sensitivity. Okay?” Her phrase ends in a sort of sigh, and I don’t know if she is done or not, so I wait a beat.
I’m about to get up and retrieve the wine from the cupboard where I unpacked it when she adds, “especially with Ethan.”
“Okay.” I repeat a little more forcefully because suddenly I feel like I’m being accused of something. “Anything else?” I ask.
She sighs again, and I know there is more, but she opts out of a confrontation. “Let’s find the wine. I don’t want to have to run to the store.”
Very strange indeed. I put the bottle on the table and then head upstairs to brush my hair and change into a skirt. It’s important to make a positive first impression. I decide against make-up. Wouldn’t want the poor boy to think I’m coming on to him. I put on the tiger-eye bracelet that my mostly-absent father gave me for my seventh birthday. My mother refers to it as my talisman, but not without a trace of bitterness. When I get back down, my mother is already on the tiny porch, clutching her bottle of merlot. She smiles nervously and moves so I can get out the door. “Sometimes I wish I still smoked,” she says, but maybe not to me. I put my arm through hers, and we walk past the pool to the door that Mouse disappeared so quickly behind this morning.
Before Rachel can knock, the old lady is there. She gives us both the once over before letting us in, and I almost expect her to retract her dinner invitation if we don't pass inspection.
“Well, come on in,” she finally urges as if we were the ones delaying our entrance. My mother puts her hand on my back, ushering me in first. I haven’t seen in the main house yet. The kitchen is comfortable and old fashioned with slate floors, yellow walls, a large farmhouse table and warm wood counters and cabinets.
“Nice place,” I say.
The old lady is pleased. “Did it all myself,” she brags. “Laid those stones and built every scrap of cabinetry. Even made that table and those chairs.”
“Incredible,” my mother chimes in. I wonder how she doesn’t already know this.
“Have a seat, you two. Dinner ’ll be ready in just a few minutes.”
Instead of sitting down I wander over to the archway between the kitchen and the living room, hoping to catch a glimpse of the infamous twins. No one is there, but the room is impressive with its high-beamed ceiling and sparkling clean wide-planked floors. A wide staircase curves down into the room. I can hear voices above that tempt me to go look, but before I can take a step forward, Iron Lady is beside me.
“Please, sit down. I’ll show you the rest of the house after we eat.”
My mom meanwhile has opened the wine and is pouring two glasses. She hands one to the old lady and throws me her "best behavior" look. I sit.
“Would you like a glass of lemonade, young lady?”
“Thanks,” I say. The suspense is killing me, so I turn my eyes from the door to ask, “So it’ll be just the three of us eating then?”
“Don’t be ridiculous!” A musical voice comes from behind me.
I jump because it seems impossible that anyone could have appeared there in the space of time that I had looked away.
“So we finally meet, Sage.” The girl continues, extending her hand to shake mine. “Rachel has told us all about you!”
“Uh. . . Oh, hi,” I manage to stammer. “Interesting. Rachel hasn’t told me a thing about you. It’s Elena, right?”
My mom is frowning at me. She hates when I call her by her first name in public.
“She apparently told you my name.” Her eyes are cerulean blue and her hair the warm golden brown of a lion’s coat. It’s cut short so that it curls a little around her ears and just down her neck, stopping at the nape. She’s at least a head shorter than I am and dressed in a gauzy white blouse with long sleeves that billow out at the wrists and jeans that cling to her tiny waist and hips.
“Hi, Rachel,” she says warmly to my mother, who then gets up, walks over to her, and embraces the little thing like an old friend.
“Where’s your brother?” The Iron Lady’s cold voice breaks the cheery little spell Elena cast upon her entrance.
I watch the girl shrink and wonder if she might disappear if the Iron Lady speaks again. “He says he’s not hungry.”
A storm brews in Iron Lady’s eyes. “We have guests, and he will join us. Either you bring him down or I will!”
I look at my mother, half expecting her to intercede, but she’s studying her glass of wine like the secrets of the universe lie at the bottom.
“I’ll get him,” Elena breathes, and she’s gone just as suddenly as she arrived.
The old lady sets a stack of plates piled high with silverware and cloth napkins in front of me.
“Stop gawking and make yourself useful, girl,” she snaps.
My mother gets up from the table and follows Iron Lady back to the stove. “What can I do to help, Lily?” she asks, and I wonder if she’s talking about the cooking. I take advantage of the moment to gulp some of her wine. It burns a little in my throat.
“Nothing much to do, but thanks, Rachel.” Her voice has lost some of its ice.
My mom comes over and rearranges the silver. I can never remember which side the forks go on. Probably because I eat most of my meals over the sink. By the time we’ve poured lemonades all around, the old lady has placed the steaming lasagna on the table along with homemade bread and salad.
“Looks great!” I say, suddenly starving. My mother and I sit down, but Iron Lady walks past the table and through the living room to the bottom of the stairs.
“Our guests are waiting!” She yells with a warning note. Then she marches back to sit at the head of the table. “Let’s just give them a minute,” she says to us.
My mother faces the open doorway, but I can’t see through it from my angle. Iron Lady is directly in line with the door, so I watch her breathe heavily as though she’s counting. I crane my neck, but my mother pokes me in the ribs, forcing me back into my seat. Then just as I expect Iron Lady to blow a gasket, I hear footsteps on the stairs.
Elena comes through the door first and behind her holding tightly to her hand is my “Mouse.” No one moves or speaks as Elena takes the seat across from me, and Mouse sits across from my mother and beside his grandmother. Elena’s eyes travel to each of our faces expectantly, but Mouse keeps his shining eyes on her. He is almost visibly shaking.
“Shall I serve, Grandmother?” Elena says smiling nervously.
“Ethan,” Iron Lady addresses the boy. Slowly he shifts his gaze to the old woman. “Say hello to our guests.”
Mouse swallows and looks tentatively at my mother. “Hello, Rachel.” His voice is sweet and melodic like his sister’s but lower. It makes my heart pound in my neck.
“Hi, Ethan. Thanks for joining us.” My mom's voice is the one she used to talk to me when I was little. I don’t remember when she stopped using it, but I’m startled to hear it now. My head is spinning a little trying to figure out what’s going on here. “This is my daughter, Sage.”
He glances my way but only for a fraction of a second before he looks down at his hands. “Hi, Sage,” he mumbles into his lap.
I have no idea how I’m supposed to respond, and I’m contemplating one of the several off-beat sarcastic greetings I have perfected for awkward occasions, but I hesitate too long. Everyone is suddenly staring at me.
“Okay, okay . . . Now that we have all been introduced to death, can we eat?” I mean to lighten the mood, but I come off sounding like a brat. This whole scene is so weird.
Thankfully, Elena stands up to serve, and I notice that Mouse is still clutching her hand. Very gently she uses her free hand to extract the other. Mouse looks like without his hold on her, he might fall.
The food gets served somehow without further comment. It gives us all something to focus on during the long silence that follows. The clinking of silver on china is almost deafening. I rack my brains for a conversation starter while wondering where the famous Rachel repertoire has gone.
Iron Lady’s voice makes everyone jump. “So you are a senior this year, Sage?”
I swallow my mouthful of food without chewing it fully. “Umm, yes. Finally, a senior.”
“You don’t go to Elena’s school though, do you?” I look at Elena and Mouse. Why would it be her school and not his, I wonder.
“Where do you guys go?” I ask Elena.
She smiles her magical smile. “I’m at Lawrence. Where are you?”
“Bell. You’re seniors, too?”
She pauses to glance at Mouse. He hasn’t eaten a bite, but he keeps rearranging the food on his plate with his fork. He looks up when he realizes we're watching him.
“What?” He asks Elena like she’s asked him a question. They sit silently looking into each other’s eyes. I can almost hear the conversation they must be having, but an eerie silence hangs over the table.
My mother is observing with her therapist eyes, and Iron Lady is watching me, critically.
“Not a trick question.” I use one of my mother’s favorite lines.
“Elena's a senior,” Iron Lady says.
Another lengthy silence ensues, but this time I use the lull to study the twins. Ethan’s translucent grey eyes are trained on his plate. Elena’s eyes keep darting between her grandmother and Ethan. I can’t decide which of them is more nervous. Iron Lady looks from my mother to me and back again, avoiding any chance of eye contact with the twins. Perhaps one or more of us say, “Please pass this or that,” but by and large the meal is finished in silence.
“Is everyone ready for dessert? Everyone except my picky grandson.” Iron Lady’s voice is thick with annoyance.
Elena throws me an apologetic look. Mouse looks like he wants to crawl under the table. Inexplicably, I want to do something to draw him in, make him feel better.
“So, Ethan, do you swim on a team?” It is my only point of reference with him. All of a sudden I am in the spotlight again. Iron Lady’s motion is suspended, and my mother raises her eyebrow. I feel like I need to explain myself somehow. “I see you . . . him . . . In the mornings . . . sometimes . . .” I hear my own voice trail off.
Mouse sits up a little taller and even glances at me a couple of times. “I . . . I like swimming,” he manages.
Ethan smiles a little, and I feel like I have accomplished something huge.
Then it all falls apart. Elena gets up to clear the plates, and my mother nudges me to help, so I get up and move around to the other side of the table until I am standing behind Mouse. As I reach over to take his plate, I register the heat radiating off of his shoulder. He has on a long sleeved white shirt like his sister, and I think, he must be awfully hot in that. In that instant, he absently reaches down and rolls up his sleeves, first the right arm then the left as though he has suddenly realized that he is indeed a bit warm. Then time simultaneously speeds up and slows down. His left forearm is covered with an angry red burn scar that runs from the elbow all the way down to his fingertips. I gasp involuntarily. Ethan pulls his sleeve back down to hide the scar and looks up at me. His eyes are so childlike, begging for comfort or acceptance.
For some unfathomable reason I reach down and put my hand on his shoulder. I barely have time to consider how delicate his bones feel under my fingers before the ground begins to tip and the room spins, my perspective shifts oddly, and it feels like I am sitting at the table across from Rachel with panic rising in my throat. The skin on my left arm burns, and I desperately need to get out of that room, the spinning sensation intensifies along with a sharp pain in my temples, and I’m standing over Ethan again.
He jumps up like I've set fire to him. His sudden movement knocks his glass to the floor where it shatters and splashes lemonade and ice all over me. Shocked by the flying glass and the cold hitting my legs, I drop the stack of plates. They clatter and crash on the stone floor in cacophony of chaos.
Elena crosses from the sink to Ethan’s side as he melts into big frightened tears. Iron Lady’s brows are knit in disapproving frustration, but she doesn’t move from where she stands serving the apple pie. My mother by contrast flies into a flurry of righting the wrong even before the pieces have stopped flying. By the time I can move again, Ethan and Elena are gone. I can hear Mouse’s sobs from another part of the house, and I wonder what alternate universe has just collided with this one.
While my mother and the old lady are bent over cleaning up the mess, I circle around to the other side of the table to finish my mother’s wine in a single gulp. And then like the other “children,” I make my exit. Slipping out the door, I cross to the far end of the pool that is shadowed and private. I slip off my sandals and sit with my legs dangling in the cool water.
Just breathe, I tell myself, but my heart is beating like I've been chased, and I can’t think. The wine burns in my gut now, my temples are imploding, and the world is still spinning a little too fast. I wish I had thought to grab the bottle. Across the pool through the screen door I watch my mother and Iron Lady bustling about. In the window above them, Elena and Ethan sit facing each other. I tear my eyes from their scene and focus on the ripples I make cross the pool with my feet.
My pulse is returning to normal when Elena suddenly appears and sits beside me.
“Sorry about all that,” she offers in her musical way.
“What exactly are you sorry for?" I ask.
"My brother, my grandmother, the whole thing. I don't know." she takes off her shoes and sits down next to me.
"Shouldn’t I be the one apologizing?” It comes out like an accusation.
“What for?” She levels me with her blue stare.
“I made your brother cry, broke all the dishes, caused this mess!” Her obtuseness frustrates me and my temples are pounding harder again.
“Ethan will be fine. He just doesn’t like to be touched.”
“You think?" She doesn't offer any more information, so I blurt out, "And what’s up with the school thing?”
“Ethan’s home schooled.” Her voice stays even and calm; it's maddening.
“Any particular reason?” I ask after a beat.
“Ethan will tell you if he wants you to know.”
I’m seething, but I don’t know why, so I stop talking and try to concentrate on the water.
Then the freakiest thing of the whole strange night happens. Elena puts her hand on mine. In an instant all the anger, guilt, headache, and nausea evaporates. Like magic it's gone. I look up into her cerulean eyes and jump away.
“What the hell did you just do?”
Elena smiles with tired eyes, looks down, and says, “I have this gift.”
© 2013 by Susan Michalski. All rights reserved.