“Tell me the story.”
“It’s two in the morning Seth,” she answers, and I can picture her rubbing her eyes, maybe looking up at her Garfield clock. It’s one of those cheap, stupid ones, with a tail instead of a pendulum and big green eyes printed on the face.
“Please?” I say. “I can’t sleep.”
Now she’s sighing – I can hear the hiss of breath through the receiver – and leaning her elbows against the counter. She’s in the kitchen, perched on one of the barstools she upholstered herself, maybe toying with a whiskey glass left out from the night before. She lives off campus, in the kind of house people always rent to college students like us – empty, no decorations, with old but sturdy furniture. The kind of house that seems terribly empty at night. All her roommates are asleep, of course; it’s just her up, alone, shadows stretching into impossible shapes and distances until it’s a huge, indistinguishable mess, everything blurred. Light and dark, shapes and space, morality and immorality…
“Okay whatever,” she mumbles, half under her breath. And she tells me the story. She tells me about how, when she was seven, maybe eight years old, she saw this kid get beat up on the playground.
“There was a red barn in the middle of our sandbox,” she says, “and it had all four walls, so the teachers couldn’t see into it.”
“Yeah. I lived near a college with a lot of developmental science programs – child-rearing, things like that – and my mom sent us there because she didn’t like the public schools. They had a lot of alternative stuff, a lot of new-age theories. Like instead of giving a kid a time out, you should let him throw a fit because it would help the other kids develop problem management skills. Stuff like that. It’s kind of stupid, looking back, but I had fun.”
I can hear the smile in her voice.
“These two kids, Nate and… Josh? Jake? I can’t remember their names, but they cornered another kid in the barn during recess one day. He was one of those painfully shy kids who ends up being a phenomenal soccer player or something, but he was only eight then and not good at much of anything. I don’t remember his name, either.”
She inhales, thickly.
“I’d climbed a tree that recess, I remember, and was sitting up in the branches. It wasn’t very high, but I could see through the window if I turned the right way. I saw the two boys go in, and….”
“They joked with him a little at first. And then they started pushing him, and kicking sand in his eyes. I remember the look on his face so clearly. He was so scared, so panicked; he kept looking at me….” She is silent for a long moment, and I imagine that she has held the phone away from her mouth, to hide her shallow, ragged breathing.
I remember darkness.
“They got him down on the ground and started kicking him – hard, like they were really trying to hurt him. Like he’d done something wrong, and this was all a punishment. I wondered about it, of course I did; I wondered if he’d done anything worse than existing, than breathing, than being there, but I never did find out. I never said a word about it to anyone, actually, and neither did he. The bell rang and they came out of the barn, I came out of the tree; we went to class, everything business as usual.”
I remember the coolness of sand underfoot.
“I guess so,” she said. “I don’t remember feeling particularly torn up about it.”
“But you sounded –”
“Like I should sound. Like I’ve made myself feel. Back then I didn’t feel bad about it at all, just curious. I remember wanting to see if the he had any bruises, if they’d broken any ribs.” She laughs a little. “It’s completely awful of me, I know, but that’s how it was.”
“It’s not awful,” I said. “You were a kid; you didn’t know any better.”
I remember two boys looming up in front of me.
“I was eight. Hardly a kid anymore.”
“I guess, but still…”
I imagine her drumming her fingers against the countertop. I imagine her getting up to fill the whiskey glass with water, her small hands cupped around it. Of course, I don’t really know if she’s doing those things; maybe she’s in her bedroom, leaning against her pillows with her feet curled up beneath her, or maybe she’s out on the porch, smoking. Maybe she’s not even at home. Maybe I called the wrong number, and this whole conversation has been a bizarre mistake.
I almost want it to be. Everything she told me happened years ago, of course, before we’d really met (in high school, our sophomore year). I hadn’t known her then, hadn’t even known she existed, but it still feels like she’d betrayed me.
She sighs, shifts the phone in her hand.
“Well you got your story, Seth” she says, “I’m going back to bed.”
“Oh, yeah. Course,” I say, and we exchange a few more pleasantries. Right at the end though, as I’m about to hang up, she speaks again.
I pause. “Hm?”
“You know I… oh, nothing. I’ll see you later.”
I hang up slowly, my fingers taking longer than usual to find the right buttons.
I imagine her looking up at her Garfield clock – broken, now; you can only ever know the time in hours – and pouring a glass of whiskey from the bottle at her elbow. I imagine her hanging up the phone, her small, soft, sinner’s hands lingering for a moment against the cradle.