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by Greg Girvan
Mira is snorting Splenda with a Pixy Stix straw. Because she thinks she looks like a drug-addled starlet, she believes she can convince the three elderly women sitting across the aisle that she is snorting cocaine. Fanned out evenly across the King’s place setting in front of her, between the Goofy Riddles and colorful Kiddy Puzzles, are the four lines remaining from the seven or eight she cut a few minutes ago with her father’s driver’s license. And hunched over them, her pale face contrasted decadently by black sunglasses and her long sable hair swept to one side and skimming the olive Formica table as she guides the blue-and-white striped straw over each line, sucking up every grain of Splenda into her nose like a vacuum, she does indeed resemble a cocaine fiend.
I sit across from Mira in the booth, unsure how to react, my face burning from humiliation. Other patrons are shooting disgusted glances—the three elderly women took disdainful notice immediately—and, seconds ago, the hostess behind the front cash register gave a threatening glare.
I flick Mira on the wrist. “Please, just eat.”
She slides a finger under her nose to check it from running. “What’s the matter, Scholarship—am I causing you indignity?” (She calls me Scholarship because I won a 2003 Lions Club partial-tuition scholarship, to be used when I start at Clarion next fall.)
I bow my head in despair, breathing in the strong aroma of coffee, bacon, toast. When Mira began tearing corners off yellow Splenda packets and dumping sucralose by her untouched omelet, I doubted she’d follow through. Mira enjoys pulling practical jokes to test one’s gullibility, pranks she typically aborts if they stray toward negative consequences. But this time she hasn’t quit and it appears nothing I say will dissuade her.
I look over at the hostess to see if I can gauge how close we are to being kicked out and, as I suspected, she’s staring hard at us—an emaciated old black woman, her body so frail and brittle-looking that if she fell I believe every bone in her body would crumble like chalk. But her chiseled face and stern expression signal otherwise. “We’re about to get booted,” I tell Mira.
“Like I care.”
Normally, I wouldn’t tolerate this. Despite my deep infatuation with Mira, I’d walk out and leave her alone to make a spectacle of herself. Today is different, though, because we’ve just come from her father’s funeral.
“Wanna do a line?” Mira asks in a grating voice, strident enough for people in surrounding booths to hear. “A little buzz before noon is always good for the soul.”
“No one’s buying your routine,” I tell her. “Who, besides maybe Tony Montana, would do that much at once?”
She inserts the tip of the Pixie straw into the nostril opposite the one she’s been using and begins snorting again, this time even louder than before. I’ve started to sweat. I can feel moisture collecting in the pockets of my underarms and my white button-down shirt has begun sticking in spots. The fact I’ve outgrown this suit (the only one I own) doesn’t help. My parents bought it for my Confirmation two years ago—Sears’ finest: a navy-blue polyester blazer with ersatz brass buttons, a two-dollar burgundy tie and itchy gray wool slacks so short anyone looking can see a white ringlet of ankle above my black socks.
Mira, on the other hand, doesn’t have to worry about sweating: To mortify her mother, she wore a petite, décolleté black dress that looks more like a seductive evening gown than mourning attire. If not for the time, people might assume we’re on our way to a dance.
“You going to eat anything?” I ask. Mira’s omelet quit steaming some time ago; the ham and green peppers protruding through its translucent surface have congealed in cooled grease. “If not, let’s go.”
Mira snorts the last line of Splenda. “Woo!” she says shrilly. “What a rush!” An involuntary quiver warps her face. She stares at the three elderly women. “It should be the law,” she says, half-yelling, “that everyone over sixty must get addicted to coke! With a little boost, maybe they’d quit holding shit up all the time. Especially Traffic!”
The din in King’s falls silent. People stare.
“That’s it,” I whisper. I leave fifteen dollars by my plate and start to stand. But it’s too late; the hostess is already approaching our booth. Her angry face looming over us, she launches into a scolding tirade, chiding us for our terrible manners and calling us no-good juvenile delinquents. In conclusion, she bans us from King’s for life; or at least, she quickly amends, until Mira and I reach a level of maturity that we can sit in a social setting and eat like civilized adults.
Mira smirks and slides out of the booth. “Like we’d hurry back to this dump.”
The hostess sets her jaw firmly and points toward the restaurant’s glass front doors.
“That way?” Mira laughs mordantly, pointing at the doors. “Are you sure it’s that way?”
Before she can say more, I grab her elbow and usher her sniggering body down the aisle. We exit to applause and jeers.
I don’t say another word until we are in the car. I stick the key in the ignition, buckle my seatbelt and refuse to even look at her. “Enjoy making a first-class fool of yourself?”
“Aw, I thought you’d find it appealing.”
“Appalling is more like it.” I start the engine and let the car idle for a second before putting it in gear. Mira punches the lighter and takes out one of her Camels. “Window,” I remind her. We are in my mother’s Neon and she forbids smoking in it. I borrowed her car for the funeral and need to return it within half an hour or she’ll be late for work. If that occurs, weeks will pass before I’m allowed to use it again.
I wheel out of the parking lot and onto Seventh Avenue, the main street of Amockwi Falls. Mira switches on the radio, tunes it to 105.9, The Y, and blasts the volume to Staind’s “Outside”.
I can’t think of anything compassionate to say, so I just drive—the sky above sharp blue, not a cloud in sight. Garish sunlight flickers everywhere, bouncing off all the moving and parked cars and flashing blinding-white light from glass storefronts. The air, though tinged with exhaust and diesel, then French fries and fast-food grease as we pass McDonald’s, smells richly of spring.
Mr. Kosinski died four days ago. He was returning home from a long haul, driving through rain and dense fog on Route 19 in West Virginia, when his eighteen-wheeler crashed head-on into an RV. After crumpling the RV, his rig jackknifed, flipped on its side, slid seventy yards (I picture sparks, a loud metallic screech), then tumbled over an embankment. The Amockwi County Times’ reported he “died instantly of blunt force trauma to the head and chest.” Mira contends, however, that her father survived for fifteen minutes, clinging to life at the bottom of a ravine, a state trooper holding his hand as he slowly bled to death internally, awaiting paramedics.
I’m inclined to believe the Times’ article over Mira’s sensationalized version—though she could be telling the truth. Yesterday, on the pretext she was going to school to escape the solemn environment at home, she drove instead to the site of the accident, over two hundred miles south of here. At the Summersville, West Virginia State Police barracks, she spoke with an officer who had worked the scene. This ‘Adonis-like trooper’ expressed his sympathy then explained in detail what the initial investigation of the collision had yielded thus far. He had her sign some forms and handed her a banker’s box containing Mr. Kosinski’s personal effects. After that, Mira persuaded him to escort her to the exact location of the accident. Because the highway was remote and dangerous, the trooper kept their visit brief and wouldn’t let Mira exit his car. But she didn’t protest. After they returned to the barracks, she thanked him and drove off, as if heading back to Pennsylvania. A couple miles north, she pulled into a large Sheetz and smoked a joint in the busy parking lot. Then she drove back to the spot of her father’s death, where she parked on the shoulder and walked along the berm, inspecting skid marks as cars whizzed by at sixty-plus.
Because Mira hadn’t returned home by 4:00—an hour past the time she should have—her mother phoned our school to see if she’d stayed after for some reason. (Mira is a frequent recipient of detention, so it didn’t seem unusual.) When a receptionist told her Mira hadn’t attended school, Mrs. Kosinski and other relatives visiting for the funeral became frantic. They called all Mira’s friends (including me), and finally, since no one had seen her, the police. The anxious wait lasted until just after 8:00, at which point Mira pulled in the driveway and sauntered into the house as if nothing happened. When she refused to explain where she’d been all day, things turned ugly. Her mother and uncle yelled at her and told her she wasn’t the only one affected by her father’s death, that she needed to quit being so selfish. Her uncle called her a bitch and tacked on other nasty comments as well. Mira screamed back, telling them both to go to hell. Profanities flew in abundance. Finally, Mira relented and revealed where she’d gone. The stunning revelation quieted everyone. In its wake, Mira stormed into her room, slammed the door and cranked up her stereo loud as it would go.
When I called at 9:00 to ask if she’d returned, her uncle answered. He started in by giving me the third degree. He wanted to know if I was involved in Mira’s ‘little excursion.’ I told him I knew nothing about it, which was true, but he responded in a disbelieving tone and went on a rant about how much Mira’s actions upset his entire family. “We don’t need this shit right now,” he said. In the background, I could hear the thundering bass of the Nine Inch Nails, blaring as though through a wall. The music grew louder and louder, and I pictured Mira’s uncle walking down the hallway toward her room. A second later, I heard pounding on a door. “Mira!”
“Fuck off!” Mira screeched.
“Phone, Goddamnit! It’s that Ezra kid.” A few seconds went by. “You want this—or not?”
I heard a click, then the music in dual echo.
“Got it,” Mira said hoarsely. Then: “I SAID I got it!”
“Jesus Christ,” her uncle mumbled in resignation. There was another click, and the music became suddenly clear and distinct.
“Who else, Scholarship.”
“Right. Dumb question. Just called to see if you were okay.”
“Fantastic. Having the time of my life.” She sounded groggy. “Anything else?”
“I was just wondering where you disappeared to.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“Well, I am worried.” I waited a few seconds but received no response. “Come on, Mira.”
“I want to be left alone right now.”
“Oh,” I said. “Sorry for bothering you.”
I expected her to either hang up or say something else sarcastic. Instead, she apologized and began recounting her trip, explaining how she needed to see for herself the exact spot where her father was killed, as if she required proof he truly perished there. She said she brought back a memento, a shard of broken glass she found among the debris along the berm on Route 19. “I used it to add some new art to my collection,” she said, followed by a disconcerting little giggle. “Right above my heart.”
I knew what she meant but chose not to respond. Mira is a self-mutilator. She relishes in carving herself. I’ve seen the scars on her forearms and calves. “Lots of people get tattoos,” she once told me. “A cicatrix is more personal.” Many of the indelible etchings on her body serve to commemorate negative occasions. Other times she cuts herself just to prove she’s alive. She keeps a razorblade in her wallet for that special day—meaning the day she will end it all.
Following the elliptical disclosure of her latest disfigurement, Mira abruptly switched topics and began enumerating the scathing comments her mother and uncle had made upon her return. As we spoke, she began slurring words and I could tell she’d taken something. She often pilfers Vicodin and Percocet from her mother’s cache of painkillers (Mrs. Kosinski has endured several arthroscopic surgeries for bad cartilage in her knees), and soon she was spewing nonsense. As she maundered on, the cadence of her voice faded gradually, becoming serene and barely audible.
“Get some sleep,” I said. “I’ll see you tomorrow at the funeral.”
“I am,” she said. I heard her breath against the phone as she yawned. “I’m glad you called. Sorry for being such a bitch.”
“You need anything, call. Even if it’s four a.m.”
“Now he’s gone I feel I could sleep forever.” Her voice had become a garbled whisper.
“Then close your eyes.”
“They’re closed. Wish they’d stay that way forever.”
Her phone clattered and the line went dead.
As we approach Mira’s neighborhood, she quickly turns down the radio and tells me not to take her home yet. “Let’s go to the park and smoke that joint I have.”
“No way,” I tell her. “I need to get the car back.”
Mira stares gloomily through the windshield. “Then drop me at the park. I’ll smoke it myself and walk home afterward.”
This worries me. After the funeral, when Mira announced she was riding back to her house with me, her uncle took me aside and told me not to let her out of my sight. “She’s a little wacko over this. So, please”—his big hand gripped my shoulder— “straight home. Okay? And don’t let her do anything, you know, stupid.”
Once we were in the car, though, Mira refused to go straight home. She said she needed time away from the “grief mongers.” So, I let her talk me into King’s. By now, after the stunt she pulled yesterday, members of her family are probably alarmed she hasn’t returned.
I drive on with burgeoning concern. “I’d rather take you home.”
Mira lights another Camel. “No way.” She opens her purse and, cigarette dangling from her lips, rummages until she retrieves a crumpled sandwich bag, the joint wrapped tightly inside. “No way I’m attending that morbid soiree.”
At the playground, Mira steps out and closes the door without saying a word.
“I’ll take the bus to your house after school,” I tell her through the open window.
I watch her stroll around the tall gleaming slide and sit on a black canvas swing. She lights her joint and begins moving languidly back and forth, a hand on one of the chains, eyes cast down. I toot the horn and give her a wave as I exit the small parking lot, but she doesn’t look up.
I have yearned for more than friendship with Mira for quite some time. Yet, afraid of jeopardizing our relationship, I’ve made no moves. The only intimate encounter between us occurred last week, a day before her father died. We were alone in her house, sitting on her bed, smoking a joint. I’d never tried marijuana but at that moment decided to concede all values in order to be with her. The lone window was open; her black curtains billowed in a damp breeze. Uncomfortable, I scratched at her black quilt and studied the sordid teenage-angst graffiti she has painted in silver and fierce pink on the black walls of her room: pentagrams, contorted tongues, cow skulls, gravestones, daggers dripping blood, a penis pierced by a sword and other macabre images. Mira inhaled on the joint and took a long final hit before flicking the tiny roach out the window. Then, unexpectedly, she pushed me back on the bed and straddled me. She pinned my wrists above my head and blew marijuana smoke into my open mouth. As she brought her face close, I thought we would finally be together. But when I tried to kiss her, she pulled back, her half-opened eyes regarding me with a sort of pity. “God,” she said in a demeaning tone. She blew hair off her brow, fell off me, rolled onto her side and faced the wall. Minutes later, she left the room. When I went out she was sitting on the couch smoking a cigarette and watching MTV. Humiliated, I snatched my mother’s car keys off the coffee table and said adios. “Later,” she said. Her eyes never left the TV.
Coasting down Sepp, the street I live on, I spot my mother sitting on the front steps of our house. Looking flashy in a lilac pantsuit and scarf (she works behind the jewelry counter at Macy’s and thrives on appearance), she stands as I pull alongside the curb and begins marching briskly down the sidewalk in medium heels. I tune the dial to one of the conservative oldies channels she likes and leave the car running.
“Tristan Rossini just called,” my mother says reprovingly, her face flexed with distress. “And he was not at all in a good mood.” She speaks in the same indicting tone she reserves for saying “the police” or “Mr. Rockwell” (my high school principal), both frequent callers recently concerning the behavior of my brawling, larcenous younger brother.
I have walked around to the front of the car and can feel my eyes flitting back and forth as my mind searches for a face to go with the name. “Rossini?”
My mother reaches the curb and stops in front of me. “Where have you been? And where’s Mira?”
I look over the red hood of her Neon and fix my eyes on the blue sky reflected in the windshield. “She refused to go home. She’s really distraught.” My mother stares at me furrow-browed, waiting for a more thorough explanation. “I dropped her off at Fetterman Park.”
“That’s great.” My mother lets her purse slip off her shoulder and catches the straps with her hand. “Sounds like everyone at the Kosinski’s is in a panic.”
“You better take me back to the park,” I say.
I intended to change out of my suit so my mother could drop me off at school—I’m supposed to take a calculus exam, sixth period—but instead hop into the passenger’s seat. My mother sniffs at the air, no doubt detecting smoke instantly, but says nothing. On the way to the park, she asks about the funeral. I lie by telling her the service went well, though in reality Mrs. Kosinski sobbed through most of it and had to be helped back to a shiny apple-green Lyons’ Funeral Home Cadillac after the interment.
Before we even pull into the graveled lot, I see the park is empty. “I hope she went home,” my mother says.
I stare at the red floormat between my shoes. “I should go to her house and make sure.”
“No shit,” my mother says, pissed.
Mira lives in a tan doublewide a half-mile south of the park, in a neighborhood that skirts the edge of town beyond the neatly mapped residential section. The roads here don’t have curbs and either curve off into the woods or terminate abruptly in dead-ends at the edge of the gully above Morado Creek. Small ranches and trailer-homes with tiny yards line the roads; mailboxes stand on posts at the ends of driveways.
Parked cars, crammed bumper-to-bumper, stretch along both sides of the road in front of the Kosinski’s home. On the small front lawn, kids wearing church clothes are throwing around a yellow-and-black Nerf football in the bright sunlight. “I’m running late,” my mother says, halting at the end of the driveway. “Give Mira and her family my condolences.” She pecks my cheek, then drives off, leaving me standing beside a silver mailbox on a rusted pole.
As I start down the sidewalk, a girl in a dark blue snowflake-pattern dress gives the football a punt high in the air. It lands in the upper boughs of a pine at the front corner of the yard and rattles end-over-end down through needled branches before a boy waiting at the bottom catches it. “Smear the queer!” the girl who punted hollers. As kids in the yard converge on the boy, I knock on the glass storm door. The white interior door stands wide open and I hear voices but can’t see anything beyond the reflection of the front yard. A dark shadow appears in the lower half of the glass. The door swings open and a little girl in a brown dress, taking a bite out of half a sandwich, scuffles by me and runs onto the lawn. I catch the door before it closes and step inside.
“Well, well,” a gruff male voice bellows over the murmur of other conversations. My eyes haven’t fully adjusted but I recognize the harsh timbre as that of Mira’s uncle. By the time my vision clears, he’s standing in front of me. He has removed his tie and loosened the upper buttons of his white dress shirt, exposing the thick black hair on his chest. In his left hand, he grips a glass of red wine. “Mira afraid to come in?”
I look around the room at other people holding discussions on the shaggy green carpet. An elderly woman, watching CNN on the Kosinski’s picture-tube TV, reclines on the couch in front of the mostly empty cheese plate on the coffee table. Hardening cubes of Swiss and cheddar surround gleaming slices of pepperoni. Mrs. Kosinski sits at the kitchen table with some women I saw at the funeral. The light is on back there and, even from this distance, I can see her dark, puffy eyes and vertical streaks on her cheeks where tears have ravaged her make-up.
Mr. Rossini slaps me hard on the shoulder with his free hand and leaves it there. “You kids go out for a good time after the funeral?” His Brooklyn accent, more pronounced now, causes me to wonder how much he’s had to drink. He glares at me with feral brown eyes.
“She thinks everyone’s mad at her.”
“She’s a keen observer.”
“She’s sorry about yesterday.”
“I’m sure she is,” Mr. Rossini says, his dark Adam’s apple twitching. “I’m sure she’s real, real sorry.” He takes a swig of wine and slowly slides his hand from my shoulder to my tie, wrapping his fingers around it and pulling me toward him. “Why don’t you go get her ass in here,” he says, leaning into me.
A little quiver lets loose along the side of my neck. I scan the living room again and notice Liz—the only other friend of Mira’s who attended the funeral—smoking a cigarette near the hallway. Decked out in a velvety black dress, her frosty blond hair feathered in an ancient Farrah Fawcett wave, she looks ridiculous. “Maybe Liz can coax her in,” I offer quietly.
Mr. Rossini’s eyes narrow into ominous slits. “Forget it,” he says, releasing my tie. “I’ll get her myself.” He drains the rest of his wine and sets the glass on the coffee table by the cheese plate. The elderly woman gives him a commiserating smile and reaches out her arms for a hug. “Francesca,” he says, bending to kiss her cheek. He whispers something in her ear that makes her laugh, then bumps by me and out the front door.
I rush over to Liz, who doesn’t notice me until I’m standing beside her. “Ezra,” she says, her pale face slack and expressionless, an indication she’s most likely stoned out of her gourd.
“Any idea where Mira might be?”
She dabs out her cigarette in the glass ashtray she’s holding and funnels an upward helix of smoke from the side of her mouth. “I figured she was with you.”
“I dropped her off at Fetterman Park, forty-five minutes ago.”
“Interesting,” Liz says, gazing indifferently around the room.
I stare at the six or seven barely visible moles that form a sickle-shaped constellation on her right cheek. “We need to find her.”
Liz faces me with glazed blue-gray eyes. “And leave this wonderful gala?”
I try to force a smile but find myself unable.
“I guess I could use another pack of smokes,” Liz says.
We sneak out through the side door into the garage—a recent addition Mr. Kosinski completed just last month—and head swiftly up the far side of the driveway, ducking behind cars to elude Mr. Rossini.
Liz drives a beat-up burgundy Beretta with a cream-colored interior. I scratch at the numerous cigarette burns on the seat as we cruise, windows down, toward Monacatootha Mall, where we hope to find Mira at C’s Pool and Pizza. After two hours of fruitlessly searching places we thought she might have gone—the cemetery, Rink’s apartment (her weed connection), local coffee shops, even the library—on a hunch, Liz finally called Stu, a bartender at C’s, who said Mira was there.
“Wanna hit this?” Liz asks, trying to hold her breath at the same time. She sets her lighter and jade pipe on the console between us. Her eyes have been on the rearview mirror, more than the road, since we left the Kosinski’s. I grab the bowl and lighter and pretend to take a hit as we pull into the mall parking lot. We’re barely out of the car when Liz’s cell rings: Mrs. Kosinski, with a barrage of hysterical questions concerning Mira’s whereabouts.
“Ezra and I are looking for her now,” Liz says, leaning against the trunk. On the other end, I can hear Mrs. Kosinski’s frenzied voice. “I’m sure she’s okay, Rita. That girl needs a cell phone! Don’t worry. Ezra and I will find her.” Mrs. Kosinski demands to speak to me. I hear her words distinctly and shake my head. Liz stares at me, dumbfounded.
I start across the parking lot.
“Rita,” Liz says. “My battery’s dying. I’ll have to call you back from a payphone.” The phone bleeps and Liz’s heels clap along the pavement as she hurries to catch up with me.
Entering C’s, we spot Mira through the hazy smoke, sitting on a stool in the corner behind the last pool table. “Cancel the Amber Alert,” Liz says. She takes out one of her Kool’s and goes through the archway into the bar to ask for a light from Stu, the college bartender she has a crush on. Knowing she’ll keep flirting, I walk toward the rear of C’s, meandering my way through pool players (stared at for the anomalous suit I’m wearing), and sit on one of the torn black vinyl stools next to Mira. She faces straight ahead, pretending she doesn’t notice me. A pint of Bacardi lies on a brown paper bag on her lap. Asking how she acquired it would be pointless. “Wonderful vanishing act,” I say. “You okay?”
Mira removes her sunglasses and, for the first time today, I see her brown eyes. In the dim light, obscured by neon reflections, they gleam like tinted windows. “Please, don’t ask again if I’m okay.” She takes a drink from the bottle, leaning her head back against the tobacco-stained drywall above the walnut wainscoting. She holds the liquor in her mouth and lets her cheeks puff out, then swallows with effort.
Intending to say something consoling, I utter the worst words possible: “You should be at home right now. You’re hurting your family.”
“Fuck them,” Mira says, hopping off her stool. She takes another drink and hovers over me as though she might throw a punch. “Come here to rescue me, Scholarship?” Her thin lips tremble before collapsing into a sneering half-grin. “Should’ve known you would.” She boots a metal leg at the base of my stool. Then she crumples the paper bag, whips it under the table and stomps angrily across the pool hall and out into the mall’s food court.
Liz, paying attention only to Stu—who has served her a drink, even though he knows she’s underage—doesn’t notice Mira’s departure.
I tear at the grimy yellow foam projecting through the cracked vinyl on my stool; then, fool that I am, decide to go after her.
At the center of the mall, a knee-high fieldstone wall surrounds a wide diamond-shaped fountain. Twenty-five minutes later, after searching all the moderately crowded halls and stores and passing by it for the third time, I find Mira sitting on the ledge toward the southeast corner, her naked feet dangling in blue coin-filled water, chin nestled against her shoulder as though she’s dozed off. I sit awkwardly next to her, half Indian-style, one knee on the ledge extending toward the fountain and one foot planted firmly on the terra cotta floor. “You awake?”
Mira stares blankly at the geyser in the center that erupts punctually every twenty minutes.
“Why don’t you leave me the fuck alone,” she says in a depleted voice. “I can’t deal with anyone right now. Please, get it through your egg-headed skull!” Her speech has become slurred and I’m worried she ate more of her mother’s pain pills. She lifts her cheek off her shoulder, eyes barely open. “Just go.”
The bottle of Bacardi leans against her purse on the ledge between us, guarded by her heels and cigarettes. By her leg lies a shard of glass, the piece I assume she brought back from the site of her father’s accident. Fresh blood coats the jagged two-pronged end of it. I lean forward enough to peer down at her wrists and (greatly relieved) see she hasn’t slashed them.
“May I admire your new artwork?”
Mira’s shoulders twitch in a feeble attempt at a shrug. “Go home and do some study.”
“Come on. You already have me in trouble.”
“Just fucking leave.”
“After you show me.”
Mira slaps the knuckles of her limp, left hand on one of the wet fieldstone rocks, palm up; blood gleams on all five fingertips hanging over the edge. Small red beads begin dripping into the shimmering blue water. Each cut could use stitches, especially the divot in the thumb that appears wide and deep. But when I ask if she wants to go to the hospital, she goes off on a drunken tangent about how she prefers to cultivate scars without medical attention.
“Christ,” I say. “You need committed.”
“A lady came in the bathroom while I was doing it, threatened to call security.”
Half hoping to see an approaching security guard, I scan each of the four bright hallways that intersect at the fountain. Mira dips her bleeding fingertips into the water and winces. “Now that’s the ultimate, the truest of all sensations.”
“I hope you’re kidding.”
“No, Scholarship, I’m not kidding.” She swirls her fingers in a slow rhythm, trailing smoky ribbons of blood in a figure-eight pattern. “I’m talking about nerves, exposed nerves making direct contact with the external environment, the elements. Pain. Pain’s the only real connection between a being and the universe.” She lifts her hand from the water and shakes it violently. “But I forgot. You’d know little about that. All your knowledge comes from books.”
“I get it. You’re the type who’d rather be tortured and then killed, instead of just killed.”
“Fuck off,” she mumbles.
I start to reply but a thunderous discharge of water from the fountain interrupts me. I watch as the middle tower of its fleur-de-lis spout surges higher and higher, soaring sixty feet toward the domed, reticulated glass ceiling. It lasts thirty seconds. Then the geyser suddenly snaps off and the enormous white tree collapses in a cataract of discoidal globs that fall through the air and explode in great splashes across the blue pool.
“Wow,” Mira says mockingly, grabbing the Bacardi.
I glance down the long west corridor toward C’s, the staticky splashing-water sound still effervescent in my ears. “Ready to go home?”
“Already told you. Not going that morbid soiree.”
“The longer you refuse to go home, the worse it’ll get.”
“Wow.” Mira takes a drink. “You’re about as insightful as a bucket of worms.”
“Your mother and uncle have probably called the police by now.”
She laughs. “Be afraid! Be very afraid!”
I try another tack. “Let me taste that.”
Mira gazes at me through drooping lids. “Yeah, right.”
I reach out my hand. “Please? One sip.”
She hands me the bottle, reluctantly, as if worried I’ll never give it back. I study the black bat in its red circle on the label then take a big drink that burns my lips with its caustic sweetness. “Whew!” I let out an involuntary gasp. “Good stuff. Harsh yet smooth.” I glance at the mutilated fingers resting on her lap. “You’re getting blood on your dress.”
She yawns. “Like I care.”
“I know you’ve tried explaining it before, but why again do you do that stuff to yourself?”
“You’d never understand,” she stammers. “Why you even give a shit?”
I stand the bottle between us. “Because I care about you and want to understand.”
She rolls her eyes. “Like I said. Connects me to universe, makes me feel more alive. Can’t explain it, really.”
“Doesn’t it hurt?”
She shrugs. “That’s what I focus. The pain. The realness. I concentrate on sudden changes it causes in the mind, the way it...” She looks at me, to verify I’m listening. “First time I ever did it, I used my nails. My mother grounded me for something, so in my room blasting Slipknot, next thing I know, I’m gouging my forearm, blood oozing everywhere. Felt like a relief.”
“You’re right. I’ll never understand.”
“One time dug so deep felt like I released something important from my past.” She laughs. “I mean it, serious.” She picks up the shard of glass, stares at it. “For a second, all the deadness in the world disappeared. I felt incredibly alive. I mean alive! Should try it sometime.”
“Thanks, but no.” My neck has kinked from being craned toward the fountain for too long. I stand and stretch. “You do realize you can’t spend the whole day drunk at the mall.”
Mira stares straight-ahead, eyes slanted, watery.
I put my hand on her shoulder. “Mira?”
She lays the shard of glass by the mutilated hand on her lap. “I can’t go back there.”
“Why? Everyone at home—your mother, your uncle—they’re all worried about you.”
“No,” she says in a thick voice. She picks up the bottle, takes a drink. “You don’t know.”
“Know what, Mira?”
“Never mind. Fuck.” She stares up at me with a doleful expression. “Forget it.”
“You’d hate me.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“Seriously, you would. I hate myself for it.”
“Mira, whatever it is, I won’t hate you. You should know that by now.”
Her eyes close. “I can’t.”
“It’s up to you. I’m listening.”
“I tell you, I do,” she slurs, “you promise, I mean promise, big-time, never tell anyone.”
“Okay,” I say, sitting back down. “I promise.”
“I mean it, Ezra. This it. I swear—kill myself you ever do. No joke.”
“I’ll never tell anyone. Promise.”
She stares into my eyes.
She takes a gulp of rum, swishes it around in her mouth before swallowing. “I’m glad he’s dead.” She flings the blood-tipped piece of glass into the blue water. “So glad. You have no idea.”
“Glad?” I lean back so I can see her face better. “I mean, why?”
She lowers the bottle to her lap. “Horrible shit he’s done to me.”
“Things you don’t do with a daughter, okay.” She flashes a shy glance then stares down at the water. “Please, don’t make me spell it out.”
Immediately skeptical, I look up at the blue sky through the dome that looks like a falling net of glass. But tears have begun trickling down her cheeks and I realize I believe her.
I try to wrap my arms around her but she pulls away. “Please, don’t. Just—please, don’t.”
I put my hands on my knees. “Sorry.”
“Fuck. I’m ruined forever, Ezra!” In an inebriated rush, and crying now, she tells me—her words so incoherent at times I can’t understand her—how it went on for years, how she thought no one would ever believe her, that her mother doesn’t know. After that, she looks away, stays quiet.
Unable to summon any consoling words, I stare at her pale distorted feet in the blue water.
“When my mom told me he died, it was like the sun exploded. I felt myself being sucked into this huge black hole—into nothingness, into this.” She wipes her eyes. “Not even sure who I am now. He robbed me. Of everything. My pride, my dignity. He took it all with him.”
“Wow, Mira. I’m so sorry.”
“Even this doesn’t work anymore.” She lifts her bloody fingers in front of my face.
“Maybe it means you’re already free,” I say, trying to play the astute therapist.
But Mira backs away, agape at my ignorance. “And some college gave you a scholarship.”
I look down the long corridor toward C’s again.
“If being free means being lost and alone, guess you’re right.”
“You’re not alone, Mira. I won’t stop being your friend.”
“You’ll think different of me.” She shakes her head. “Already do. See it in your eyes.”
“That’s not true. I’m just stunned right now.”
“Or you don’t believe me.”
“I do believe you! Who would make that up?” I want to tell her how it clarifies a lot—the jaded cynicism, her non-stop defensiveness, the sullen detachment, why such a beautiful girl seldom dates.
“Doesn’t matter.” Her eyes, moments ago vulnerable and full of despair, have turned cool and resigned. “You’re gone in a few months anyway. New friends, a new life.”
“Clarion’s not that far.”
“Far enough,” she says. “But, hey, it’s cool. People move on.”
Dismayed by the deadpan certainty in her voice—with its implication that our relationship will never develop into the romantic one I’ve yearned for; that, worse yet, we will inevitably drift apart—my mind goes blank. Already I can sense her pushing me away, searching for new ways to escape her pain, for a solace love and friendship can’t provide.
I hear a double metallic click. Seconds later, the fountain erupts again. Feeling utterly helpless, I watch Mira take another drink.