by Erin Swan

Focus on the girl. Head bent, her eyes in turn focused on the page. Eleven, maybe twelve, her legs crossed, the rough carpeting of the hotel library scratching at her ankles. Her pale cotton trousers a little too short, her sweater nubbled with overuse, her glasses, too large and too pink, resting on a nose still waiting to lengthen and grow. Hair tucked behind her ears, one slick strand brushing her cheek. The last time she washed it was in the sink, her mother’s hard hands struggling, with little success, to un-knot the tangles, the girl’s neck cramping against the sink’s stainless steel edge. Her body gives off a slight odor, troubled sleep mixed with damp earth, an odor of dormancy, of March just after the snow has melted.

She is sitting on the floor between two armchairs. An elderly man with bristled cheeks dozes in one chair; the other one is vacant. The rest of the library is empty. It is February and a dreary rain taps at the windows. The lawns outside are silvered with it, old patches of snow pocked into submission. Beyond the lawns and the putting green and the carriage roads, the lake heaves slightly, like a man turning in his bed. She remembers that lake in November. It was different then, its little waves more melancholy than tumultuous, licking, licking at the shore, though the weather was the same. The rain had been tinkling all around her, and she had sat in a gazebo and stared at the lake and its waves, and she doesn’t remember if she had been wearing a jacket or not, but she remembers being cold, and she had sat there and maybe she had cried and maybe she hadn’t. Mostly what she remembers is the water and the lick, lick, licking of the lake at the shore.

The book in her lap is featureless. A blank black cover, cloth-covered and soft to the touch. Pages without mark or notation, browned at the edges with age, set with close type, black letters scrunched together into a maze that she has been picking her way through step by step since she discovered the book in late December. Post-Christmas, her throat still sour with guilt over declaring it was the best Christmas ever because her mother had given her the stuffed bear she had been coveting since she was eight, and then the look on her mother’s face, and that slow horrible afternoon of the drawn shades and the reeling of the old super-eight projector, the pathetic flicker of home movies against the living room wall. Placing the bear on her dresser, where it sat all winter, its glass eyes gradually dimmed by dust.

And then discovering the book, one day with nothing to do, wandering into the library that her father had designed, idly browsing the shelves, her fingertips tripping over copies of Heidi and The Farmers Almanac and Danielle Steele novels, before they tripped over the blank black binding and stopped. She had heard of the book before, dimly, as one might, or might not, remember a dream upon waking. She knew nothing of what it was about, but she had heard the title and liked it, and it was the title that made her pick it up. Settling herself in an armchair, the library as devoid of people then as it was now, she had read the first few pages, painfully, adjusting her eyes to the small print and lengthy, overly structured sentences. Not much, just a description of a small town in Kansas, its people, its geography, its buildings as they were in the 1950s, drab and unassuming. Not what she was looking for. But at the end of page 5, there it was. A brief mention of shotgun blasts and lives lost, four of them, one by one by one. So she kept reading.

Late afternoons or weekend mornings would find her there, after the tiny, excruciating humiliations of school or straight from the hollow tick-ticking of the clock in her Saturday living room. She would trek up the hill from her house, past the barns, the stables, the pen where sometimes she would stop to feed the horses, their breath hot and close on her palm, the carrots or apples she had pilfered from the fridge crunching in a very satisfying way between their big horsey teeth. Brief moment of happiness, standing there with the horses who hadn’t been moved to the valley for the winter, the tough ones, the drays and the mules, their coats shaggy with snow and the whisper of ice all around. Then back on up the hill, up to where the hotel crested the ridge, its stone and wood and glass humped up there on the mountain like a beast half in slumber, its eyes flicking open like lamps turned on in a room. Slipping in through a side door, padding past the black-and-white photos in the long hallways, pictures of people in high collars and long skirts, the shadow of death at their backs. Then maybe the gift shop, where she would slide her allowance across the counter in exchange for a bar of chocolate, something to make the tangled black type slide more easily into her brain.

Finally the library. Raspy, olive-green carpet, the orange luster of the walls, the crissed-crossed wooden ceiling she remembers her father pasting together so delicately in the model he would present to the hotel board. The warm yellow lamplight an antidote to the bluster of the white winter sky outside. The bookshelves, and the book, its black spine the bland blankness of someone who has made a career out of lying, always waiting there for her, the slip of paper poking out where she had marked her page.

She never took the book home. She wasn’t sure why. It didn’t seem right somehow, like when they used to bring shells home from the beach in Cape Cod, the way they lost their luster once dried. Besides, she didn’t want to read it all the time. Most of the time it was boring, in that dreadful mind-numbing way adult conversations were boring, people a foot or more taller than you talking over your head about sports or politics. Long convoluted descriptions of the town of Holcomb, the land beyond, the personal history of the Clutters. She only kept going because of the shotgun blasts, because of course with guns comes blood, and for her, with blood came recognition.

On this day in February, she has reached the part where Susan Kidwell pleads her way into the funeral home and then instantly regrets it. The girl’s leg is cramping under her, but she ignores it, her cheeks warming, her lower lip getting damp. Red velvet dress, plaid shirt, navy-blue suit and dress, and the heads of the four, swaddled like babies in thick white cotton, twinkling with a “glossy substance” like “Christmas-tree snow”.

The girl’s breath comes fast, then slow. She finally un-tucks her leg and stretches it out in front of her. Her head falls back and her eyes fog over.

Her mother had asked her if she wanted to see him. No. No, she had said, because she somehow realized that it would be an image burned into her retinas for life. She was afraid of his eyes, although her mother said she had closed them. She was afraid of the blood, too, but more afraid of the eyes. Even so, she had imagined them all the long night that followed. Open and staring, suddenly inhuman. She wasn’t sure which was worse, actually seeing the eyes or imagining them. Like what was worse, seeing your dead friend’s bullet-shattered head or imagining what it looked like under those sheaths of cotton.

She closes the book, places it back on the shelf. The old man in the chair snores softly. The dreary rain continues to tap drearily at the windows. Sunday afternoon. Her brother will be at work on the boat docks outside, clearing out the skis and readying the paddle-boats for spring. Her mother will be home, perhaps with a bottle of wine, perhaps with only the empty window for company. She is done with the book for the day and now there is nothing to do.

The hotel hallways are quiet this time of year, holiday crowds gone, spring crowds yet to come. They are beginning afternoon tea in the lounge; she can hear the tinkle of cups, the chime chime of teaspoons. Dimly, she ponders the idea of cookies snatched off the platter, but that will not close this particular gap that has opened within her. Instead, she drifts towards the central staircase, the one that winds and winds its way up through the hotel’s inner cavern.

Up the steps, banister smooth under her palm. Past the lakeside parlor where they held the memorial service. Brief bitter memory of walking out of the bathroom with her baby blue dress accidentally tucked into her tights, the burn of humiliation threaded through the grief. Up, up the stairs into the shadowy echoes of the upper hallways, where the guests are even sparser and old rumors of ghosts huddle in the corners.

There is a maid’s cart parked by an open door. She can see the housekeeper inside the room, tucking a fresh white coverlet around the mattress. Her back is turned, her head averted. The girl snags a bar of soap from the cart, slips it into her pocket, then one more for the other pocket. Continues, the whisper of her tennis shoes on the carpet the only sound other than the rain. Dark green wallpaper, oriental carpet, the deep burnish of wood around the doors. Tap, tap, goes the rain. The bars of soap weigh in her pockets.

She does a quick tour of the whole floor, up one end and down the other. Along the way, she finds one more maid’s cart. Two more soap bars and the end of a croissant left over from someone’s breakfast. Stale, but buttery and good nonetheless. Her tennis shoes whispering on the carpet. At home it would be as silent, but she would be trapped in her room, where the wallpaper is riotous with yellow flowers and the floor is piled high with the detritus of her entire childhood: ancient tea sets, action figures with their faces melted off by lighters, a half-finished copy of Little Women. The stuffed bear on top of her dresser surveying the scene with indifference. At least here there is space to roam.

Back at the central staircase. Winding down and down to the first floor, a straight empty drop down between the steps. Leaning against the railing, she peers down. One guest passes down below, then another. Afternoon tea is in full swing. Even from up here, she can hear the tinkle of spoons against the cups, the crescendo of voices rich enough to afford fresh white coverlets and croissants for breakfast.

She fishes in her pocket and then leans further over the railing. The soap slips from her hand, straight drop down, plummeting like a man to the floor, but it doesn’t bleed, and it doesn’t have eyes, and when it lands, it bounces slightly and then lays still, just a white speck on the carpet.

No one looks up or seems to notice. She drops another one, then the third. The fourth one she holds on to for a moment, briefly imagining it hitting someone. The rubbing of the head, the bewildered look up. Where did that come from? Why did it hit me and not someone else? She caresses it with her fingertips, then lets it slip. Straight trajectory, then that little bounce, and the stillness. Four white squares lying on the carpet down below. Eventually someone will notice them and wonder, but not yet. Eventually she will go back to the book and read on, but not today. Eventually she will get to the part where Nancy’s head exploded like a melon all over the wallpapered wall and Mr. Clutter choked on his own rippling blood, and she will remember the sound of his fists banging, banging against the bathroom wall as the cancer exploded like a melon in his chest, erupting from him to stain the bathroom with a memory she will never be able to shake, so that she will insist on having her hair washed in the kitchen until they finally move out of that house. The cramp in her neck from the stainless steel edge, the odor of dormancy rising from her like the lawns outside come March.

Damp earth under the rain, the strain of grass roots against the surface, the flutter of her pulse in her wrist, her own blood pounding in her ear.

© 2010 Erin Swan. All rights reserved.

About the Author

Erin Swan holds a BA in Creative Writing from New School University and an MA in English Education from Columbia University. Her poems have been published in the Cuirt Journal in Galway, Ireland, as well as in local journals in Woodstock, New York. She has worked in publishing, taught English in South and Southeastern Asia, and is currently teaching literature and writing in a New York City public high school.
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