Spire in the Woods/6
My parents woke up on the morning of December 28th, 1999 to a quiet house. Nothing unusual about that, they were typically the first ones up. My mother made coffee and my father turned on CNN and got on the treadmill. My brother woke up next and my mother made him french toast. She made some for me as well, figuring I could reheat it whenever I came down.
It was a couple of hours before my absence was felt. No big deal. They figured it was vacation. They might as well let me sleep in.
Then, around 11 o’clock they got a call from Mr. Fletcher. He was in a bad mood.
“Did Nathan stay over at your house last night?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Well, if he did, wake his ass up and tell him he’s in trouble.”
My mom covered the receiver with her hand and hollered for my dad to go wake me up. That’s when they found out I was missing.
When Fletch and I showed up in the driveway two hours later, I’d say my parents were more annoyed than angry. My parents weren’t strict disciplinarians. I’d slept over at Drew DeLuca’s without consulting them on more than one occasion, and while they were never exactly thrilled with me, they trusted my judgment and preferred letting me exercise that judgment to being woken up by a late-night phone call looking for their permission. When they found my bed empty, they had figured we’d stayed up late playing video games or, at worst, watching Skin-e-max movies, over at some friend's or another's, and were just too tired to drive home.
Fletch’s parents weren’t so understanding. They’d called everyone Fletch was friends with, then called my parents looking for the names of my friends.
“Nathan, you better get your butt home,” my dad said. Then he held his thumb and forefinger up about an inch apart and added, “Your dad sounds like he's about this close to going through the phone book in alphabetical order looking for you.”
He was trying to be funny, but Fletch and I weren’t in much of a mood to laugh. We exchanged one last tired look, both knowing things were going to get worse before they got any better, and parted ways.
I stood on the front steps of my house with my father watching Fletch drive off down the road.
“Boy, am I glad I’m not him right now,” my dad said.
He didn’t know the half of it.
“Dad, we, uh...I have to tell you something.”
They didn’t yell and they didn’t scream, but the days of my parents trusting my judgment were over. I had stayed out all night without permission, driven deep into another state, and gone out onto unfamiliar, recently frozen ice, in the middle of the night.
“That was stupid. That was so stupid.” My father got up from the table and headed for the phone. He’d never been good at sitting still when he was agitated.
“Why were you even in Amherst?” my mother asked.
“We wanted to visit Sam,” I mumbled. I’d never been a particularly good liar, but Fletch and I had agreed to leave Rob’s suicide notes and the Spire in the Woods out of our story. Fletch was convinced that if his dad caught even the faintest whiff that his son believed in ghost stories, he’d be stuck on meds as fast as the nearest psychiatrist could write the proscription.
My mom stared straight at me. I couldn’t hold her gaze and pretended to be interested in the french toast she’d reheated for me.
“That could have been you. Do you understand? That could have been you that fell through that ice. And with no one around...” My mom was too choked up to finish her thought. I wanted to comfort her but I didn’t want her to look at me.
“Yes, you have a patient there named Kerry...” My dad stuck the phone under his chin and asked, “What’s Kerry’s last name?”
While my dad was concerned for Kerry he was also motivated by self-interest. I could hear it in his voice. He had spent the first ten years of his career working in litigation at the law firm of Ropes & Gray and believed in the importance of CYA. Covering Your Ass. It didn’t matter how slim the chances were that Mrs. Peterson would attempt to hold our family (or the Fletchers) accountable for what happened to her daughter— that risk was unacceptable.
“If you need any help,” he said, once he’d gotten Mrs. Peterson on the phone, “you know, around the house, driving Kerry to school...” He was feeling her out. Trying to get a sense of whether or not Mrs. Peterson blamed us for what had happened to her daughter. “Maybe dealing with the insurance company, or hell, I don’t know, if you need a little help with the medical bills. Whatever you need. Just say the word.”
He also wanted to dangle that carrot. He knew Mrs. Peterson wouldn’t be able to cover Kerry’s emergency medical care out of pocket, and he doubted slicing meat at the deli counter in Market Basket conferred with it amazing health insurance. Mrs. Peterson would need help, but it would come with strings attached.
Looking back at my father’s actions, they seem cold, and maybe they were; but isn’t protecting their kids what good fathers do? Don’t they protect their children even when their children don’t particularly want to be protected? Had Mrs. Peterson a vengeful bone in her body, I’d have deserved the brunt of everything she could muster.
Despite my exhaustion, I had trouble falling asleep. I kept thinking about Kerry. She was in the hospital and it was my fault. I hadn’t talked her into anything, but I had involved her. I’d brought her along and now she was the one lying in a hospital bed with her mother crying over her.
As a Catholic, you’re taught that God created us as rational beings. You’re taught that He gave us the dignity to initiate and control our own actions. That He imbued us with the ability to hold our own counsel so that we may choose our own paths***, and that we alone are responsible for the fruit that our choices bear.
I didn’t believe that everything was part of a plan, and the people that did, the people who saw God’s hand in every mundane, earthly event, from athletes who credit Jesus for their ability to hit a curveball, to teenagers invoking the name of the Lord to secure a date on a Saturday night, drove me crazy. I had never accepted predestination. How could we have free will if, like clockwork, everything was preordained to happen?
I believed these things. I did. But lying there, thinking of the Petersons, I couldn’t stop myself from wondering if God was teaching me a lesson. I’d been taught that God doesn’t cause car accidents or tornadoes, but in that moment, I felt that God had broken the ice beneath Kerry’s feet to punish me for both doubting His existence and having stolen a glimpse of the secret knowledge no one but God was meant to have.
I cried and whispered Hail Marys and Our Fathers to myself until I was finally overtaken by exhaustion.
Dim light filtered in through my blinds. The windows in my room faced south and in my semiconscious state, I wasn’t sure if the sun was rising or setting. My stomach growled, but I couldn’t bring myself to get out of bed and face my parents.
The bells tolled.
I sat bolt upright in my bed. The room was still and silent and yet I could hear the bells as they continued to call out the hour. Two...three...they were beautiful, but I didn’t lose myself in them as I had on the shore of the Quabbin. Four... They sounded like a song stuck in your head.
Five... They stopped. I was still lying in bed. Either I had never sat up or had lain back down without realizing it.
Had I heard them, or had I remembered them? At the reservoir, we’d heard them toll eleven. Had it just been a dream? I sat up for what may have been the second time, and looked at my clock. It was five.
In the past two days I’d only slept for three hours, but I couldn’t handle being alone in the dark. I went downstairs and spent the rest of the night studiously avoiding eye contact with my family.
Thankfully, I didn’t hear the bells again that night.
The next morning, bright and early, my father drove me over to Kerry’s house. My parents had put together a care package for Mrs. Peterson, a large basket filled with food so she wouldn’t have to cook, gift cards from our local gas station to offset the back-and-forth to the hospital each day, and a few books to read in the waiting room.
When she opened the door, Mrs. Peterson was so grateful that she cried. Once she’d regained her composure, the two of us got into Ecto-1 and headed out on the two-and-a-half hour drive to Cooley Dickinson Hospital. My dad had volunteered me to go and keep Mrs. Peterson company. He may have had an ulterior motive, but this was something I wanted to do. Something I had to do.
The drive was awkward. Under the best of circumstances, as a teenager, spending time alone with one of your friends’ parents was always a little uncomfortable and these were far from the best of circumstances. As I learned on the drive, Kerry was in a coma.
Although Mrs. Peterson got virtually none of the medical terms correct— her only real exposure to medicine came from have watched a lot of ER— I managed to get the gist of what she was saying. As Kerry’s heart rate slowed, so had her breathing. Her blood had failed to supply her brain with the oxygen it needed to run. And it was this lack of oxygen that probably contributed more to Kerry’s blue coloration than her body temperature.
The doctors had given Mrs. Peterson only one tiny piece of good news. Because hypothermia lowers a body’s metabolism, it reduced the likelihood that the oxygen deprivation had damaged Kerry’s brain. That was it. That was what we were pinning all our hopes on. That the cold which nearly killed her had also slowed her brain down enough that it hadn’t noticed it was suffocating.
When we arrived at the hospital, Kerry’s mom led me to her new room. I could tell from the looks the staff was giving her along the way that Mrs. Peterson was not their favorite person. Maybe she’d been a pain in the ass the day before, but I didn’t feel like that was it, not exactly. The nurses were giving Mrs. Peterson the same looks the kids at school gave her daughter.
In movies and television, people frequently comment on how peaceful coma patients appear. They say, “it’s like they’re asleep,” “they look like an angel,” or “it reminds me of when they were a baby, and I used to hold them.” I don’t know if that was Mrs. Peterson’s impression, but it certainly wasn’t mine.
Ordinarily, Kerry wore a lot of concealer to cover up her acne. At some point between plunging beneath the ice and having saline pumped in and out of her stomach, most of it had disappeared. She had a tube running into her nose, though I’m not sure why; a heart rate monitor on her finger; and an IV in her arm. And that was to say nothing of the frostbite.
Along with the big toe on her right foot and most of her left foot below the ankle, which we couldn’t see beneath the blanket, ice crystals had formed in two fingers on her left hand and the thumb on her right. The blood trapped in her fingers swelled them almost to the same thickness as her wrists. They were red and raw. It was difficult not to stare at them.
Mrs. Peterson believed that even in a coma, Kerry could hear us and proceeded to relive seemingly every moment of her daughter’s life. Mrs. Peterson was not a gifted storyteller. In her mind, nothing was too trivial, from the time she ‘caught’ Kerry washing the dishes with cold water, which is apparently something you shouldn’t do, to the time they went to Applebee’s for her birthday and both forgot to tell the server, then wondered why they didn’t get any cake.
But what her stories lacked in content, Mrs. Peterson made up for in sentiment. She couldn’t touch Kerry’s hands, so she held her daughter’s upper arm as she spoke.
“I’m sorry I’m not home more. I’d like to be. I would. I know how hard school’s been for ya, maybe it’d have been easier if I was home more. I dunno. But you’ve done so good, baby. And college is right there.”
If Kerry was able to hear her mother, it wasn’t outwardly apparent. Her face didn’t twitch, her eyelids didn’t flutter, even her pulse on the heart rate monitor held steady.
“Remember in middle school? You...you never thought...” As Mrs. Peterson began to break down, she grabbed my wrist and pulled me to her daughter’s bedside. Forcing my hands to replace hers on Kerry’s arm. “You never thought you’d get a boy to like you, but look who’s here.”
My cheeks burned. I didn’t know if Kerry had told her mother we were dating or if Mrs. Peterson had just gotten the wrong idea about us, but either way I couldn’t correct her. Not there. I had had enough trouble rejecting Kerry when we were alone in Greenfield. The thought of rejecting her again, this time in front of her mother, and stealing from Mrs. Peterson whatever sense of pride she derived from her daughter having a romantic life, was more than I could bear. There’s a special place in hell for people who humiliate children in front of their parents.
I was very aware of my hands resting on her arms. She was so much warmer than the last time I had touched her. I’ve never been quick on my feet. I had no idea what to say, especially with Mrs. Peterson thinking I was Kerry’s, what? Boyfriend?
I took a page out of Mrs. Peterson’s playbook, and stood over my unconscious friend and recounted meeting her on the hike and a few anecdotes from class. I tried to muster up something more sentimental, but it wasn’t until I pretended it was Alina laying there in front of me that any words came. “I can’t stop thinking about you. I wish we could talk. I’d do anything to make you better.”
Lost in the little scene I had created for myself, I leaned down and kissed Kerry’s waxy forehead.
Mrs. Peterson put her arms around me and squeezed. I looked at the tears in her eyes and wondered if I’d done her a kindness by playing along. The lie seemed harmless enough. Kerry probably just wanted to save face with her mom. Maybe make her proud. Let her think her child was happy, for a change. But eventually the truth would come out. I wasn’t attracted to Kerry. It’d be nice if I was, but I wasn’t.
I also resented being blindsided. If Kerry had asked my permission, had said, ‘look, this is embarrassing, especially after Greenfield, but I need your help making my mom happy. Is it OK if I tell her you’re my boyfriend?’ I might have said yes. But she hadn’t.
The whole charade made me feel gross.
Alina’s family returned from Shawnee the following morning. I would have liked to have been outside their house waiting for her when they arrived, but I was still a month away from getting my driver’s license and my parents weren’t exactly in the mood to help advance my social life.
I left a message on the Aminev’s machine in the morning around ten. I called again at noon and one, but hung up both times before the machine began recording. It was the strange poker game you play when you’re in love for the first time. You feel like you’ll die if you don’t speak to the object of your affection as soon as possible, but you know how crazy you’d seem if you filled up their answering machine with increasingly redundant messages.
That afternoon felt like an eternity.
She called me back shortly after five, and even though I was sitting directly next to the phone, I let it ring twice so she wouldn’t know I’d been sitting directly next to the phone.
“I missed you,” I said.
“Oh...thanks.” She sounded tired. Maybe she hadn’t gotten that much sleep before driving home, or maybe she was drained from therapy. Either way, it wasn’t exactly the reaction I was hoping for.
I wasn’t sure what I wanted to tell her about my trip to the Quabbin, or, rather, I wasn’t sure how to tell her. The whole idea of going was to alleviate her guilt. Having heard the bells, I knew that the story was at least partially true. There was more to the Spire in the Woods than the side effects of an anti-depressant. But I also knew that Alina wouldn’t take the news of Kerry very well. For that matter, I wasn’t taking it all that great either.
“How was Maine?”
“Too short. I’m trying to convince my parents to drive us back up, if not tonight then tomorrow, but my dad’s sick of driving.”
“Mmh.” I wanted to tell her everything, but it had to be face to face. If she took it hard I couldn’t comfort her from halfway across town. Not properly.
There was a long silence as I weighed my options. When she broke the silence, her voice sounded small and young and distant.
“Did you...did you find the Widower’s Clock?”
“I...uh...do you think you could come over tonight? After my parents go to sleep?”
There was another silence, though not as long as the last one.
“It’s, well, it’s not really the sort of thing you tell someone over the phone.”
I stood by my window looking out at the front lawn, its yellow grass illuminated by a couple of our tackier Christmas decorations. The wind shook the dead branches of the tree that grew next to our driveway. Something about the scene reminded me of the Quabbin and the sound the ice makes when it’s quiet. Cuh...cuh...cuh...
It was nearly midnight, and I wondered if Kerry would dream of the bells. Being in a coma might not be so bad if they sounded as lovely in sleep as they did in real life. There have been times in my past when I’ve been lonely, and considered the virtue of trading the world for a lifetime of dreams.
Today, I’d make that trade in a heartbeat if it meant never hearing the bells again.
Headlights flashed into my window, interrupting my thoughts, as Alina pulled her little Beetle into my driveway. I crept downstairs to meet her. Despite everything that had happened in the last couple of days, I couldn’t help but feel excited.
She was shivering when I opened the door and didn’t appear to have showered that day, but she looked so beautiful, framed as she was by the Christmas lights surrounding our door, and with the porch light behind her head casting a glow around her. It was like she was separated from everything dark and dead outside.
I hugged her. She hadn’t worn a jacket, just the sweats she probably slept in during the winter. She stood stiffly as I rubbed her back and arms in an effort to warm her up. I figured she was nervous about what I’d tell her but was still disappointed she hadn’t greeted me more enthusiastically.
I led her into the kitchen and set about making us a couple of mugs of instant hot chocolate. Alina leaned against the island behind me, but that didn’t last for very long. Before I’d even gotten the mugs into the microwave, she was pacing and chewing nervously at her lower lip.
“So what happened?” she asked.
I handed her a mug.
“Do you wanna sit?”
“No, no, I sat enough today.”
I brought her into the den, which was further away from my parents’ bedroom. The embers in my father’s woodstove still glowed brightly and I added a couple of small pieces of kindling.
“Please. Please tell me what you found?”
I told her. I told her everything. How cold it was. What Kerry and Fletch had been like. What the smell of the smoke reminded me of. I told her about the sound the ice made...and I told her about the bells.
“They were heavenly. But...it...it wasn’t just the sound. They fed something inside me. You know that part of you, that voice in your head that kinda experiences what’s happening and sees through your eyes?” She was looking at me as I spoke, and I could almost see the part of her I was talking about behind her eyes.
“Like the soul or whatever,” I continued. “It was like the bells enveloped it and gave it everything it ever wanted. Everything that it was missing. For me, it was you.”
It was a bit embarrassing, describing to her how the bells had reminded me what it felt like to lie beneath her, but how else could I have conveyed the contentment in their presence and the need in their absence? The bliss and the longing.
It was romantic too, I thought. What could be more flattering for Alina to hear than my admission that my purest desire was to lie close to her, to feel her body against mine? That it quieted my soul. But she didn’t react as though she were flattered.
Alina stared straight into the stove at the flames consuming the wood and said nothing. It took me a moment to realize what she was probably thinking. She was also what Rob heard in the bells, what quieted his soul. She was his bliss and longing.
Even if she never wanted to be.
We sat in silence for a long time and watched the wood burn. Then I told her about how we had pressed on. And about what happened to Kerry.
Even though it wasn’t her fault, I knew Alina would blame herself for Kerry falling through the ice, just like she had blamed herself for Rob’s suicide. It was the sort of negative feedback loop a person gets into when they’re depressed. Everything's their fault. What I hadn’t considered was how much I’d blamed myself.
Beyond answering a few of my parents’ questions about how Mrs. Peterson was doing, I hadn’t told anyone about my return trip to the hospital. For that matter, I hadn’t really told anyone how I felt seeing Kerry turning blue, or struggling to warm her up on the floor of Fletch’s car. Telling Alina about it opened up the floodgates inside me.
Alina let me speak until I couldn’t get any more words out. Then she slid along the couch to my side, wrapped me in her arms and held me like a child. For a moment I felt ashamed. I had never judged other guys for crying, I had sat beside Fletch when he was overcome by grief, but this was different. Kerry hadn’t died. And I was with Alina, who I wanted more than anything to think of me as a man.
I felt so small.
She ran her hand up and down my back. Little by little, I became more aware of her and her closeness to me than I was of my emotions. My face was cradled against her neck. My cheek brushed hers as I moved to look up at her. Her eyes looked as though she had been crying too.
I kissed her and it was like the first time, with her lips slow to respond. Slowly, we inched our way back onto the couch until I was lying on top of her. It felt like the bells.
My hand traced its way down her arms and over her shirt. My pulse beat faster than it ever had before. I was acutely aware of my body, how it felt, where it was in relation to Alina’s, but had lost all conscious thought, aware of nothing but touch and pulse.
I slid my hands beneath her clothes. She didn’t stop me. Her sweatpants came down easily. She trembled. She was nervous. So was I.
My hands shook as I took my own pants down. I’d never exposed myself to anyone. Her face was inscrutable.
I don’t feel right describing the details of her body. We were kids then. I’m an adult now. I didn’t know what I was doing then. I know now.
It was my first time. I don’t know if it was hers. We don’t exactly talk these days.
It was short and fumbling and awkward.
But I thought, at the time, that it was divine.
Afterwards, I didn’t want her to leave, but she got dressed anyway. She was shaking as she pulled up her pants and crying by the time she reached the door. I thought maybe she was scared because we hadn’t used a condom, or that it was her survivors’ guilt. I was wrong.
“Hey. Hey, you.” She was reluctant to let me hug her. “It’s OK,” I said. “We didn’t do anything wrong.”
She said yeah and ran her hand back through her wild hair, not to get it out of her face, but like you would if you didn’t know the answer on a test.
After she left, I stood at the window for a long time staring out into the night at the place where her taillights had disappeared.
I didn’t sleep easily that night. I felt like I should have been more excited than I was. A lifetime of coming-of-age movies and pop culture had led me to believe I’d feel somehow different about myself and the world, but I didn’t. The view from my bed looked exactly as it had the night before. Kerry was still in the hospital, and far from restoring Alina to her former self, consummating our relationship had left her as unhappy as ever.
I tried to imagine a future with Alina, one where I made her as happy as she made me, but I only wound up thinking about the bells. Maybe she needed to hear them.
I fell asleep shortly before three in the morning, which, unbeknownst to me, was almost exactly when Kerry woke up screaming.
I’d love to tell you what Kerry’s first words were. Unfortunately, I can’t. When her heart had slowed down, an area of her brain located beneath her left temple hadn’t received enough oxygen. Essentially, she’d had a stroke which left her with a condition called ‘expressive aphasia.’ She could make sounds, that was no problem, and with effort she could say words, but she couldn’t form sentences.
Of course Mrs. Peterson and I didn’t know that when she picked me up the morning of New Year’s Eve. All we knew was that Kerry was awake.
Mrs. Peterson shook with laughter as we drove down 495. She was going so fast I thought Ecto-1 was going to disintegrate, like one of those experimental jet planes you see in old stock footage.
Kerry’s mom, beaming with pride, clapped her hand down on my knee and said, “Boy, I will tell you, you got yourself one tough girl.”
I smiled back at her, I honestly did. Thinking Kerry was essentially out of the woods, I was thrilled, but I didn’t know what else to say. Or maybe I was too busy worrying that now that she was awake, Kerry might not be quick enough on the uptake to figure out what was going on and her Mom would realize our ‘relationship’ was a lie.
I wouldn’t have worried had I realized how sever Kerry's aphasia was.
Mrs. Peterson was humming arhythmically as we pulled into the parking lot. She walked into the hospital with a spring in her step. She looked at the nurses like they were old friends or comrades-in-arms, as if to say, “we’ve been through some rough times together, but now that’s all behind us and I couldn’t have made it without you!” but she couldn’t be bothered to stop and speak to any of them. The look in Mrs. Peterson’s eyes and the spring in her step lasted until we reached Kerry’s door.
“Mom...boy...dad...arm...wrist...bad...wrist...wrist...mom...medicine...” Her speech was labored. I could see her struggling with each syllable.
Mrs. Peterson told me to “Go get a doctor.” In that simple sentence, I could literally hear the happiness drain from inside her. The woman who had practically skipped down the hospital’s corridors deflated as she took her place by her daughter’s side.
I think what I feel the worst about, at least in regards to Kerry, I saw coming in that moment. In most regards, Mrs. Peterson wasn’t much of a person. She wasn’t smart and she didn’t have much of a sense of humor. She’d never been a great conversationalist or within a stone’s throw of attractive. She was dirt-poor and her personal hygiene left a lot to be desired. In most ways, she was society’s definition of a failure.
But there was an air of grace in the resigned way she stepped to her daughter’s bedside. Yes, what little light she had in her life seemed dimmer. All the hopes she’d had for her daughter had been snuffed out, but she wasn’t going anywhere. She was going to shoulder the load and give her daughter everything she could.
I tell myself that, accident or no, Kerry and I would have drifted apart anyway during college. After all, even if her aphasia had fully dissipated, there’s no way we would have gone to the same school. But the truth is that, after that morning, I never could stand to be in the same room as Kerry. Every time she stammered, or shifted her weight on her crutches, it filled me with self-loathing. And I couldn’t take it.
I went to the nurses’ station. They told me they’d have to call in a doctor with a background in neurology. About a half-hour or so later, Dr. Walsh stepped into Kerry’s room. I don’t remember much about him other than that he had silver hair and his bedside manner could be charitably described as ‘detached.’
“She wants another pain killer.” He said. “She’s probably going to lose that hand.”
Mrs. Peterson asked Dr. Walsh why her daughter couldn’t speak properly and he explained to us what they expected to find once they gave Kerry a CT scan. See, people always talk about how we don’t use more than two, or ten, or twelve percent of our brain, but that’s load of crap. We use all of it and because every part of the brain has certain tasks and functions associated with it, even a small injury can cause very serious and pronounced effects, like Kerry’s expressive aphasia. It didn’t effect any other aspect of her cognition. She probably even knew what she wanted to say, but she couldn’t get the words out.
“Now, luckily,” Dr. Walsh said, “the brain is fairly elastic. So, given time, some of the undamaged area surrounding the affected region could compensate and she could regain her normal speech. Aphasia isn’t uncommon in stroke victims, and we often see a full recovery within a year.”
Throughout our conversation with Dr. Walsh, Kerry would attempt to interject. If it seemed like she needed something or was asking a question, we would try to figure out what she was saying. Otherwise, Mrs. Peterson would just stroke her daughter’s hair until she settled back down. Mostly Kerry seemed concerned with pain from her frostbite, but just as Dr. Walsh was excusing himself, she said something, or shouted really, that made my hair stand on end.
“Hear... hear...sounds...ring...ring...Ring! Ring! Ring! Ring! Ring! Ring! Ring! Ring!” Then she fell silent.
Mrs. Peterson looked up at Dr. Walsh. “What does she want?”
Dr. Walsh took out a small flashlight and shined it into Kerry’s eyes. Her pupils were unresponsive. “She may also have damaged her auditory cortex. We’ll know more once we can get her scanned.”
I glanced down at my watch. It had just turned ten.