Richard Charles Schaefer
Carrie knew that the call reporting Grandmother’s death was a prank. The details were too similar to the short story she wrote—and read out loud—for her 9th grade writing class, and the voice on the other end of the phone was too similar to Bennett, who was in that class. She’d be an idiot not to recognize a lie she wrote.
It struck her, now, as morbid, maybe a jinx, to write about the death of someone living, but the assignment was to write about “your deepest fear”; Carrie’s was the death of a loved one and, bypassing the untouchables—herself, her mother, her sisters, her best friend Anne—Grandmother’s death was the closest Carrie could imagine.
But the moment she hung up the dorm payphone, Carrie trudged up to her room on the second floor—the payphone was in the basement, under the stairs—to get a quarter, then back down to call her mother. She was the only one in the dorm without a cell phone, and on Friday night there was no one around to loan her one.
“Well,” her mother said, after advising that, yes, Grandmother was very much alive, “it was flirtation.”
“What was?” Carrie asked.
“The prank call.”
“Oh,” Carrie said, “I don’t think so. He’s just mean.”
“Mean people flirt too,” her mother said.
“Shouldn’t you be a little more disturbed by this?”
“Should I be?” her mother said. “Are you?”
“I don’t like it…”
Carrie hadn’t talked to her mother on the phone very much since the first weeks of school; she’d gone home for a few weekends, but recently she’d been to Anne’s home more than her own. This weekend, however, Anne was visiting her grandmother in Connecticut.
“How are Betts and Alex?” Carrie asked.
“They’re with their father at the moment, in Boston. A Girl Scouts’ banquet. I would have gone, but you know how the other mothers are about me…”
“If they’re in Boston, maybe Bill could pick me up and I could come home for the weekend?”
“Of course, if you want to,” Carrie’s mother said, not bothering to hide her surprise.
Carrie didn’t hide hers either, when she said she wanted to.
Betts got out of the front passenger seat and hugged Carrie, then moved into the back, next to Alex, who was sleeping. Carrie got in the front, and Bill waited for her to strap her seatbelt.
“Thanks for picking me up,” Carrie said, as Bill started to drive.
“No problem,” Bill said. “I know we snuck in right under the wire to check you out before curfew.”
“Those are just rules,” Carrie said.
“Exactly why we have to follow them,” Bill said, campaigning to be president of the Republic of Step-Dads.
“Well, thanks. So,” Carrie said to Betts, “what was this banquet all about?”
“They sent all the scouts in the state who sold the most cookies to this special dinner,” Betts said, “but it’s all people we don’t know.”
“Your mom said something about a prank call?” Bill said.
“It was nothing.”
“She said it was someone flirting with you. That’s not a nice way to flirt.”
“I don’t think he was flirting. And if he was…” Carrie stopped; Bill was the last person she wanted to talk to about this. Even when Carrie went out of her way to try to agree with him on something, he’d tweak his opinion and make it sound like they didn’t agree. Carrie wasn’t enough of a cliché to say she didn’t get what her mother saw in Bill, but she was agnostic about his virtues.
“But if you wanted to show your mom the story you wrote, she’d appreciate that.”
“I don’t have it with me, but maybe,” Carrie said.
“Well, not if you don’t have it with you,” Bill said.
“Right.” Carrie rested her head on the window and looked out at the campus. A month ago, she and Anne had noticed a lonely window under the eves on the hall outside of the gymnasium, and had made it their mission to find the room that corresponded to it. The closest they got was a windowless attic full of old camping supplies. Insulated in the nauseating new-car smell of Bill’s Jeep, Carrie couldn’t see the window at all.
“Wait,” she said, “is this a new Jeep?”
“Got it two months ago. Didn’t your Mom tell you?”
“I don’t know,” Carrie said.
“Well, she told you about it.”
“Alex and Betts are sleeping in your old room, and your new room isn’t finished yet—we’re storing Grandmother’s furniture in there, too. We can move the girls onto the sectional,” Carrie’s mother suggested.
Carrie looked at Alex, standing in the kitchen, dazed and barely awake enough to stay upright.
“No, the couch is fine,” Carrie said.
“If this weren’t last minute…” her mother said.
“Wait, why do we have Grandmother’s furniture?”
“If she gifts it to us now, we don’t pay taxes on it when she dies.”
“What!” Carrie said.
“She’s just planning ahead. Her doctor said she might need eye surgery, but she’s as healthy as ever.”
“You scared me,” Carrie said.
“That call really shook you up.”
“I’m fine, I just don’t want anyone to die. Ever.”
“I can’t wait until your new room is done, you’ll love it.”
Carrie grew up in this two-bedroom house, but now they were building an addition to make room for everyone. The existing house was partially torn up like a surgery patient left pinned and anesthetized while the surgeon took a vacation. Carrie’s stuff in her “old room” was draped in sheets to keep construction dust and her step-sisters away from it. A tarp covered the hole in the wall that lead into the unfinished addition. She didn’t mind the prospect of sleeping on the couch in the neglected but intact living room.
According to an old “What do you want to be when you grow up?” assignment hanging on the fridge, young Carrie wanted to be a botanist. She’d always felt that flowers existed partially outside of time, despite their brief lives; she wanted to dive through their centers to whatever was on the other side of their blooming promise. Her interest in the science of botany, though, ended when she discovered that she was severely allergic to bees.
Since then, Carrie had devoted herself to sketching flowers from afar, trying to pin their immortality under the tip of a pencil, with enough success that her drawings, plus her incompatibility with public school, got her into the arts-focused private high school she was now attending.
Over winter break, Carrie had been disappointed to find that Betts, with Alex nodding agreement, thought that it was a reform school, and not the progressive haven Carrie described in terms of no interest to a fifth and third grader. Carrie’s mother had expressed bemusement that Betts knew the phrase “reform school” but offered no defense of the actual institution.
Now, while Bill put the girls to bed and showered in preparation for bed himself, Carrie sat close to her mother on the couch and showed her new drawings in her sketchbook.
“This one,” Carrie said, pointing at an ink drawing of a female nude. Her subjects’ faces always ended up with one or two extra lines over-articulating their mannequin jaws. Her teacher called it “hyper-real.”
“Basically,” Carrie said, tracing the drawing with her finger, “the idea is that there are more lines in the world than what we see. Light is just lines, connecting other lines. Our eyes are the termination of thousands of lines. If you squint into the light, you’ll see…”
“Dust, probably,” her mother said. “Around here, anyway. I try to keep up, but…”
“Well, I just wanted to show you these,” Carrie said.
“They’re wonderful. It’s clear you’re so happy at school, which makes me, as a mother, so proud.” She sounded like an insecure supervisor, reiterating her title to a wary customer.
“And how’s Anne?”
“Are you seeing any boys?”
“No.” It felt like the wall lamp was getting dimmer and Carrie, empathetic to all things mercurial and light, was feeling dim too. She couldn’t believe she’d tried to show her mother these drawings now.
“Bill just got out, I think I’ll shower before bed too,” her mother said. More than two showers a week had started to make Carrie feel like, instead of washing her body, she was washing her body away.
“Okay, Mom, good night. I love you.”
“I love you too,” her mother said. “I’m glad you’re home.”
Carrie sat still in the living room darkness trying to decipher the sound in the kitchen—the direction of the footsteps, which cabinet was opening—while her eyes adjusted enough to see who was there. It was Alex, gulping down tap water like she had just emerged from three days in the desert rather than a few hours asleep. Carrie didn’t want to scare her by speaking, but after Alex put the glass in the sink, she stood in the doorway to the living room, swaying.
“Alex?” she said.
“I had a nightmare.”
“Want me to turn on the light?”
“I’ll just sit.”
“Sure.” Carrie bunched up her blanket and kicked it onto the floor as Alex joined her on the sofa.
“Do you ever have nightmares?” Alex asked.
“I didn’t think you did,” Alex said.
“What was your dream about?” Carrie asked.
“My mom,” Alex said.
“Oh,” Carrie said. What could she say? This wasn’t a “vampires aren’t real” situation; Alex’s mother was dead. Everyone said she died in a fire because that was simpler than explaining that she died with a fire in her, carrying it like a secret for a week after the kitchen blaze that destroyed most of Bill’s old house. It made it sound like she died pinned under a burning beam, as opposed to sleeping in a hospital bed, but it was the terminology Bill used so everyone else did too.
“She always picked us up from school,” Alex said.
“Now we take the bus.”
“Is Sheila still the driver?” Carrie asked.
“I don’t remember.”
“What happened in your dream?” Carrie pushed.
“I don’t remember.”
“I’m going to be here all weekend. Want to do something tomorrow?”
“I’m going to Leigh’s house.” Leigh was one of Alex’s friends from her old school. Carrie thought about how other boarding students talked about their hometown friends like they were cooler than anyone at school, all big-time drug dealers and musicians, but Carrie couldn’t imagine any of her friends from middle school remembered her now.
“We can play videogames, if you want,” Carrie suggested.
“No, I’m going back to bed,” Alex said.
After Alex went back upstairs, the darkness felt anemic, lacking the iron thickness of true night. Before long, she felt the pressure of sunrise in her sinuses; she tilted her head back, hoping to stop the flow of morning a minute longer, but dawn pooled in her throat and she ran out to the back yard to release it under the grey sky.
The backyard looked like scraps of yesterday they forgot to throw away before bed: the pasture where horses used to run, the barn with empty stalls and feral cats stalking the hayloft. Bill had cut all the low branches off of the tree Carrie used to climb, because they were growing too close to the addition.
Carrie returned to the couch; she draped a blanket across her hips and another over her face, hoping that the heat and darkness would lull her to sleep. But as she finally dozed, Bill came down to start his morning routine. He attempted to do so silently, but a quietly flipped light switch doesn’t reduce the brightness of the light. Carrie sighed, sat up on the couch, and accepted his offer of instant coffee.
“Were you outside?” he asked, noticing the unlocked back door. Growing up, they’d only ever locked it if they were going out.
“Barely,” she said. “It’s cold out.”
“I believe it,” Bill said. “Normally I’d turn the news on now.”
“That’s fine,” Carrie said.
Bill pointed out the blood on her face. She scraped her lip with one fingernail.
“I must have gotten a bloody nose. It happens when the air is dry. I didn’t get it on the couch,” she said. The actual cause was probably the dog fur deeply embedded in the sofa, but Carrie wasn’t going to bring that up.
“The heat isn’t working in this bathroom, I’d recommend washing up upstairs.”
She could feel Bill waiting for her to show some sign of embarrassment or apology, but it was just blood. Eventually, he turned the TV on, and Carrie got up.
Carrie was glad Bill had picked her up, because her mother, who avoided leaving the house whenever possible, would have complained about the drive. She knew that her mother’s Saturday would be spent fabricating tasks to fret about, and Bill would spend the day completing them. Alex was going to Leigh’s house, which left Betts, who wouldn’t wake up for a couple of hours.
In the meantime, Carrie grabbed the books in her backpack—The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, recommended by her painting teacher, and Wuthering Heights, in case she didn’t like Murakami. She considered going to the sun-room—built on the wrong side of the house to get any sun—but it was furnished with uncomfortable patio furniture.
So she headed upstairs to see the situation in her bedroom with her own eyes. Betts was tangled in her blanket, asleep in one bed, Alex in the other curled up around a novel about dragons.
Carrie stayed in the doorway for a moment. She heard the shower running in the hall bathroom, then stepped into her room; Alex didn’t move—she was asleep on the open book. Carrie tightened the straps of her backpack and tiptoed toward the opening into the unfinished part of the addition. She peeled one corner of the blue tarp back and crawled under.
They had put in floorboards since the last time she was in here. Once they finished the walls and stained the floors, it was going to be dimmer in here, but now the nude wood soaked up the light like a secluded beach. Carrie wiped sawdust on her pants as she stood up, found a good corner to sit in, and opened her book.
“Were you checking out your new room?” her mother asked.
“I didn’t mean to fall asleep,” Carrie said.
“We looked everywhere for you.”
“Except the addition.”
“The tarp was still pinned, I didn’t think you could have gotten in.”
“Well,” her mother said. “What if they’d been working? You could have gotten hurt.”
“How? Anything. Anything could have hurt you.”
“Don’t disappear again.” Carrie’s mother squeezed her arm. “I meant to ask, did you shave the sides of your head because Laura did?”
“I saw her at Star Market.”
“I haven’t seen her since eighth grade. That’s not why I cut my hair.”
“It looks good on her,” her mother said.
“Gee, thanks,” Carrie said.
“Of course you look good. I don’t need to tell you you’re beautiful.”
“Okay,” Carrie said.
“Laura said she misses you.”
“I told her you’re doing well.”
“I’m not supposed to tell you, but Dad’s taking us to Disney next year,” Betts said.
“Is my mother going?”
“We’re all going. Even you.”
“Why aren’t you supposed to tell me?” Carrie asked.
“Dad said you’d freak out.”
“I don’t know. They have a hotel that trains go right through. Do you think that’s true?” Betts scrunched her forehead.
“The monorail,” Carrie said. “I don’t get why I’d freak out about it.”
“You just never know,” Betts said. It was a phrase Carrie had heard Bill say many times, but odd coming from a fifth grader. “When you ran away this morning, they woke me to look for you.”
“I didn’t run away,” Carrie said.
“Why’d you come home if you were just going to disappear?”
“Sorry they woke you,” Carrie muttered.
Carrie and Anne had memorized each other’s phone numbers the first night of school because, even though they were in a dorm together, a friendship didn’t feel official without a numerical exchange. Now Carrie took the cordless phone into her mother’s bedroom—they never came here during the day—and dialed Anne’s house.
“Carrie? Thank God,” was the first thing Anne said.
“I know,” Carrie agreed.
“I thought you were staying at the dorm this weekend.”
“I thought you were going to be in Connecticut.”
“Then why did you call?” Anne said. Then, not waiting for an answer, “I’m glad you did.”
“This girl Laura I was friends with in middle school, she was into, like, Christina Aguilera, and now she has an undercut. It makes no sense.”
“Everybody liked that song about the genie. And girls look better with undercuts.”
“I guess. It’s just weird. She had really long blonde hair. And rode horses.”
“That describes my cousins. They’d be disowned if they shaved anything. Except their lips.”
“Eww,” Carrie said.
“What else is up?”
“It’s weird here,” Carrie said, lying on her mother’s mattress.
“Am I ever going to get to go there?”
“I hope not,” Carrie said.
“I’m totally going to come there. If I could drive, I’d come now.”
“Then we couldn’t be talking.”
“No, my parents got me a cell-phone. Because of rapists, they said.”
“I don’t want you coming here. Unless it’s to break me out.”
“If I were going to show anyone, it would be you, but… Oh, I didn’t tell you what Bennett did. That’s why I’m here.”
“God, I hate him.”
“He prank called me. My mother said he probably has a crush on me.”
“Your mother’s naïve.”
“She means well.”
“Does she?” Anne asked. “That’s such a typical ‘boys will be boys’ attitude.”
“Apparently my family is going to Disney,” Carrie said. “My sister told me, then told me she wasn’t supposed to tell me.”
“Secret Disney trip? Neat,” Anne drawled.
“They were worried it would upset me.”
“I figured. What did Bennett say when he called?”
“He told me my grandmother was dead.”
“Like in your story?”
“I’m surprised he was paying enough attention to remember.”
“He did get most of the details wrong. Why didn’t you go to Connecticut?”
“It’s complicated, but I’ll tell you, if you have time.” Anne said. “You’re alone?”
“Of course,” Carrie said. Actually, it was the first time in 24 hours that she didn’t feel alone.
During the call, Anne invited Carrie to spend the summer in Connecticut. When Carrie expressed skepticism about the offer, Anne made her hold on while she ran through the house to find her mother, who confirmed the invitation.
“A lot of horse girls,” Anne said breathlessly when she returned, “but maybe you’ll inspire one to get an undercut and ruin her cotillion.”
“What if I get homesick?”
“A terrible sickness, but curable,” Anne said, in a fake British accent. “When the proper medication is administered in rigorous doses.”
“Who’s that?” Carrie giggled.
“I don’t know. He sounds like he’d have a big mustache. And drink laudanum.”
“Definitely,” Carrie said. “I won’t have to ride the horses, right?”
“You grew up riding horses,” Anne said.
“That was different,” Carrie said. “It wasn’t by choice.”
“We’ll stay in a huge house with a porch that goes all the way around it and all of the rooms smell clean. And a garden like you’ve never seen. And the ocean is right there so if it’s really that bad we can gather rocks in our pockets and walk off the pier.”
“My mother might say no,” Carrie said.
“She’ll say yes,” Anne said. “I can sense these things. Like how I can sense that you’re wearing that shirt with the crow on it.”
Carrie looked down at her chest. “Lucky guess.”
“Not a guess, a sense,” Anne insisted.
“Okay, fine. But can you sense what I’m thinking now?”
“My ability comes and goes. It’s an affliction, more than anything,” doing another character, maybe a gypsy palm reader.
“My mother thought I had run away, earlier. Because I’d found a quiet corner to read in.”
“A quiet corner is hard to find,” Anne said. “There are lots of them in Connecticut.”
“I’ll talk to my mother.”
“Just ask her.”
“So go do it.”
“I’ll wait,” Anne said. “Wait, bring the phone with you so I can listen. I need a reminder of her voice for when I’m doing it.”
“That’s the last thing you need,” Carrie said, but did it anyway.
Even through the muffled phone, Anne could hear the obvious relief in Carrie’s mother’s voice as she said yes to Connecticut. She decided she’d leave that out of her impressions.