Author's Note: I... have nothing to say here, actually. Enjoy awkward teens and the beginning of actual plot.
Bernice doesn't quite know what to make of sex ed.
Neither do the rest of us, but Bernice at least is vocal about it. "So it..."
"Yes, dear," Teacher who is not Teacher tells her.
"And you're supposed to..."
"Yes, dear," female Teacher says. They are all nameless to us. Just Teacher. This one is a woman, because she is teaching the girls. This is the last thing we learn, before we graduate. How to be people. How to make people.
Bernice mulls this over for a moment, and then shakes her thick black curls out of her face. "That sounds painful," is all she says.
Female Teacher merely shrugs.
"And people used to do this for recreation?" Bernice scoffs, looking once again at the diagrams.
"People still do," I say. Teacher looks at me sharply. "Sin workers," I clarify. "This is what they do, isn't it?"
Of course this is what they teach us, the day after we go and see people dressed in ways that we've been told all our lives not to dress. Before today, sex was merely an abstract idea we were all warned not to pursue, complete with the Romeo and Juliet cautionary tale we were forced to read when we were fourteen, in "preliminary sex ed," which consisted almost entirely of reading the book. A few of us knew the mechanics of it before today, some of us because we have much younger siblings and we caught our parents in the act - Isla - and some just because we were told about it. I'm among the latter. Grams gave me the talk when I was thirteen. The shock's worn off since then.
Bernice is still very uncomfortable with this, though. "How do you even... initiate this?" she asks, struggling to find the words that would adequately form her question.
"That's up to your man," Teacher says with a smile, and when Bernice pulls a face and looks as if she's about to protest, adds, "You'll be Paired very soon, not to worry."
The idea of being Paired evaporates any of Bernice's other worries, and for the rest of the day she's practically gleaming, constantly coiling a strand of her hair around one finger and gazing up toward the ceiling, grinning all the while. As we're leaving class, she grabs my arm and asks if she can come to my house to study. Even as I tell her yes, that's a great idea, I catch Trevor's eye as he exits the classroom the boys were inside today. "One moment," I say to Bernice, and she follows my gaze and giggles. The second I'm past her, I roll my eyes.
"I see you're entertaining Bernice today," Trevor observes, glancing over my shoulder at Bernice, who, as I turn to look at her, is staring at us with a goofy smile on her face.
"On the contrary, Bernice is entertaining me," I say.
"I was going to ask if you wanted to come raid my bookshelf of contraband," Trevor offers, "but I guess that's out."
"Tomorrow I will plunder your pirated pages," I laugh. "Promise."
"Don't be surprised if I appear at your house tonight anyways," he sighs. "Alice has been increasingly difficult."
"Maybe you've just been increasingly difficult for her," I point out. Trevor rolls his eyes. "Look, I have to go and hear about boys."
"Yeah," Trevor snorts. "Have fun with that. Let me know if I'm getting dissed."
"Oh, Trevor," I say. "You're always getting dissed."
I rejoin Bernice and we walk together, Bernice chattering all the while about how precious my relationship - "friendship," I correct her needlessly - with Trevor is. "You know you'll be Paired, don't you?" she grins at me, practically bubbling over with glee, as I let us into my house.
"Yeah," I say. "I know."
She trounces on ahead of me and flops down onto the couch. I wave at Grams as I pass her. She's reading one of Trevor's books at the kitchen table, so she merely waves nonchalantly back. I don't bother to look at what the book is, but I'm sure it's one she's already read, either recently because of Trevor or sometime in the distant past.
"I wonder who I'll be Paired with," Bernice sighs heavily, kicking off her leather ankle boots and tucking her feet up under her skirt on the couch. "I hope it's Troy."
"It'll probably be Troy," I assure her. "You guys would be perfect."
"He's never even looked at me, Rini," she moans. "How is that perfect?"
Bernice worries about these things. It's both irritating and refreshing. "Maybe you just never catch him looking at you," I say. "I think I've seen him looking at you."
"Really?" she perks up abruptly. "No, you're just saying that, aren't you?"
"No, I mean it," I insist. "When we were learning math, he always sat behind you, remember? He could have sat anywhere, but he always sat behind you so he could look at you."
"The back of my head," Bernice scoffs. "What about my face?"
"I'm sure he's just too embarrassed to look you directly in the face," I try. "Boys, you know."
"Boys," she shakes her head. "Yours isn't too embarrassed, though."
"Mine?" I cannot believe the conversation has already taken this turn... again. This is ridiculous.
Bernice blushes and leans forward toward me. "You know... Trevor."
"He is not mine," I tell Bernice definitively. "We're friends."
"So you're his, whatever!" Bernice rolls her green eyes.
"Friends," I repeat forcefully.
"But what does that mean to you?" she asks. "Like, are we friends?"
"Yes, Bernice, you and I are friends, just like Trevor and I are friends. No romance between us, no romance between Trevor and me. Same thing."
This is too much for Bernice, so she pretends the topic is of no interest to her and inspects her tan, lacquered nails. She'd prefer to talk about Troy again, I'm sure, so I play the good boy-crazy teen and humor her.
"So, Troy, huh? How long have you been harboring that crush?" I ask with a grin.
Bernice's cheeks redden even more, and she mumbles, "All year."
"All year?" I laugh. "And you never told him?"
"We're not supposed to tell!" she squeaks. "We're not even supposed to like... you know!"
"So? Mandy and Brandon in the year above us went on dates last year!" I remind her. "They didn't even get in trouble, I mean, it's not like they were doing anything that bad. I think they kissed. Once." Even as I say it, Bernice brings her hands to her mouth, shocked at the very idea. "Oh, calm down," I snort. "Lips are nothing dirty."
"But Rini, kisses are the gateway to sex!" She whispers the last word, as if it's still taboo. We're allowed to speak about it now that we've officially been taught what it is. Still, I'm sure Bernice isn't the only one afraid of it.
I'm afraid of it. Not the word, though. The act.
"And now they've been Paired, so they can fornicate all they want," I say. When she just looks confused, I amend, "They can have sex, Bernice."
"Sex is for procreation, not recreation," she recites automatically.
"Which is why I'm sure that all the sex they want is hardly any sex, if any at all," I reassure her. "So see? Just go tell Troy you like him. It's not like he's going to tackle you to the floor..."
Bernice looks mortified at the very idea. "Oh, no. You don't really think he'd do that, do you?"
"I... just said I didn't." She takes a moment to review my previous statement, and then nods in understanding. "Look, Bernice. I really think he likes you. And if you guys actually talked to each other, you might find out you have a lot in common beyond a mutual physical attraction." This is all going over Bernice's head, so I add something that I know will seal the deal: "You won't get in trouble. You're encouraging love, not lust, and isn't that what Father is all about? Love?"
"Our duty is to love one another," Bernice responds by rote. "We are sworn to live by love, and not by lust, for lust is the first of the capital sins."
"And this is love," I tell her with a smile.
"Are you sure? How do you know?" she squeaks.
"Because it's two-sided," I sigh. "Go on, I know you're itching to go talk to him now."
"What will I say?" she looks to me desperately, green eyes wide in that spotless caramel face.
I honestly don't know what she should say to Troy - I've never exactly been in her shoes - so I just tell her, "You'll know what to say when you get there, I'm sure."
"Oh," she says. "Okay. I guess you're right."
That answer would not have flown with me, but then again, I think I'm the only person who would have given it. I hug her goodbye and wave at her as she skips out the door, calling many, many "thank you"s over her shoulder as she goes. The second the door closes behind her, I hear Grams slam her book shut. "I gather that sex ed started today," she says drily.
I cross the kitchen and slump into one of the hard wooden kitchen chairs across from her, just as she stands and moves toward the sink to make some tea. "Oh, yeah," I drawl. "Brilliant stuff."
"Is it still all about how casual sex destroys your sense of self? And ruins your chances at going to Heaven? And brutally beats your self-esteem into a bloody pulp to be left behind on the ground, along with your soul, which was lost as dishonestly as your virginity?" Grams rattles off with a mischievous glint in her eye.
"Something along those lines," I reply with a giggle. "Though I think the loss of soul and self-esteem might be on tomorrow's agenda. Today was mostly, 'don't think about sex.'"
Grams laughs and pours hot water into a mug. "I still find it funny that that's how they teach it." She knows I have no idea what she's talking about, but I still arch one questioning eyebrow anyway. "Well, I mean... Here. If I say, 'don't think about elephants,' what do you think about?"
I pause for only one moment before I admit, "Elephants."
"See? It's really no different from when I took sex ed, you know," Grams sighs. "Same ole, same ole. Except you only have to learn about one STD – or, rather, STI, though for whatever reason they're still referring to them as diseases rather than the infections they truly are. I had to know them all. All the symptoms. All the names. All the treatments, if there were any. All the consequences."
"But did you have to know all of them?" I clarify jokingly.
She eyes me critically as she stirs some cream into her tea, and then busts into a fit of giggles. "I've trained you well, kid. You and that foul-mouthed boyfriend of yours."
"Oh, Lord, not you, too!" I gasp. "Trevor and I are friends!"
"Hey, I had sex with my friends in college-"
"I'm just saying," she snickers sheepishly. "Then again, look where it got me."
We both sober up immediately. "Indeed," I say.
"They're Pairing your class soon, aren't they?" Grams asks then, after a brief and awkward silence.
"The day after we finish sex ed. So in about a week," I shake my head in disbelief. "I really don't think I'm ready for that kind of commitment, you know?"
Grams sits down, leans back in her chair, and gazes at me sadly. "Of course not. You're seventeen. No seventeen-year-old can make that kind of commitment, especially a seventeen-year-old as emotionally stunted as you kids."
I think about that for a moment. Emotionally stunted. I don't feel emotionally stunted. I mostly feel entirely emotionless. There's nothing there to be stunted. Bernice, on the other hand, feels all kinds of emotions. "Stunted?"
"Or retarded," Grams amends. "Slowed down. Listening to Bernice... that's the way my friends and I talked about boys when we were thirteen. I guess right when we were starting to learn about sex. Then, what do you know, Lexy lost her virginity in the eighth grade, so by the time I was fourteen I knew all there was to know-"
"Fourteen?" I echo incredulously. "You were fourteen?"
"No, no, no, one of my best friends was. She was very precocious, though. I was your age," Grams says matter-of-factly. "Night of my senior prom. It was very romantic. I had no idea what I was doing. By the second time I had half a clue. By the third time I was told I was quite skilled."
I hold up my hands, signaling that that's really enough. I do not need to know all the details of Grams's sex life. I don't care if these things happened sixty years ago or yesterday - I do not want to know.
"My point is, Corrina," Grams says, "you can't learn these things in a class. And they're not really going to ruin you, you know. I know what you've grown up with, so let me put it this way: sex is enjoyable. If God didn't want us to enjoy it, He wouldn't have made it enjoyable, now, would He?"
That makes a lot more sense than anything female Teacher told me today, or anything that Teacher told us all in North Beach yesterday. "Thanks, Grams," I say. "You're a much better teacher than any Teacher I've had."
As I say it, I wonder if that's really true. I can remember, when I was very young, having a young, female Teacher with blonde hair that curled around her face like a lion's mane. She'd told us her actual name, not just Teacher, though I've now forgotten what it was. She encouraged us to paint, to create. She even dipped her fingers into a little jar of orange paint, and, with delicate strokes, painted a brilliant butterfly on a swathe of butcher paper. I cried, once, in her class. I must have been about eight, too young to understand the real pains of the world but too old to be justified in crying over whatever scrape I'd received on the playground.
She sat me down, and stroked one hand through my hair, and asked me what was wrong. "Isla pushed me," I said.
"Well, you know what you can do about that, don't you?" she said. I shook my head. I was eight. I didn't know squat. "You can push her right back. But then you're no better than she is, are you?" I shook my head once again. "So you do her one better: you tell her she can't push you any more. You tell her she can't do that. Because you are you, and only you can push you. You decide where you want to go, and you, Corrina, you want to go forward. Do you understand?"
I'm sure that I didn't at the time, but I remember nodding that I understood anyway. And I did tell Isla that she couldn't push me. I went home and I told Mom and Grams all about what I'd learned, and Grams looked up from tending Adam to tell me that was lovely and to "stick it to the man," and Mom just scowled, and a few months later that Teacher was gone, replaced with the Teacher we've had ever since.
In those last months, the Teacher with the lioness hair was much more like the other Teacher, though. She didn't paint any more butterflies, or tell any more children to push themselves or to go forward. She told us we should learn to add and subtract, and that the Outside was dangerous, and that we should be grateful to All-Father and now to Father for giving us the chance to live on the Inside, where we were safe and protected.
I remember on her last day, how she looked at me, with blue eyes so very, very sad and a strange, almost angry set to her jaw. Now I wonder if that wasn't anger but something far more complex: betrayal. I'd unwittingly ratted her out.
She had to know it wasn't my fault. I was eight.
Even now I wish I could apologize to that woman. She did me a great service by teaching me that one small lesson, because she taught me that I was a person. And I think that, if she hadn't told me that on that day, and I hadn't gone home to tell Grams, Grams would never have decided to teach me all the things she later taught me.
I stand by what I just said to Grams. Though the lioness Teacher started it all, Grams really is the best Teacher I've had. I've learned far more from her than from Teacher at school. I squeeze her on the shoulder as I pass her on my way out toward the stairs, and she momentarily lays one pale, crinkled-paper hand on mine as I go. I bump into my mother as I pass through the doorway, and then I head upstairs to actually do my homework.
I'm half expecting Trevor to show up, as he said he might, but hours pass and he doesn't show up. Instead, Adam comes into my room, his round, babyish face as solemn as ever. "Mom's on the phone," he says.
"And?" Mom doesn't make phone calls often, but it's nothing to get excited about.
"Do you think it's Dad?" Adam asks then.
"No," I answer immediately. "What is she saying?"
"I don't know. She's too quiet," Adam shakes his head sadly. "I think it's serious. Do you think someone's dying? Is Grams dying?"
"No, no, she would have told us," I assure him as I see his dark eyes widen with legitimate fear for Grams's life. "She's very honest with us, you know that." He relaxes a little and then, tentatively, sits on my bed.
"So, with what you're learning in school... can I know?" A rare, childish smile spreads across his face as I reach for a pillow with which to wallop him.
"Get out, Adam," I laugh.
"Come on! Grams told you when you were thirteen!" he whines, fending off my pillow blows.
"So you've still got a year, now out!" I toss the pillow at his face, still laughing. He rolls his eyes, biting back a fit of twelve-year-old giggles, and does as he's told. I turn back to my sex ed homework, fill in one last blank, and then pull out the last book Trevor lent me. I finished it a while ago, and I really should go and get a new one from him, since he is my own personal library, but, as I glance at the clock, I realize it's too late for me to go to him. It's after curfew. If I were caught outside, I'd be thrown into detention for a week.
Trevor doesn't mind detention. I do.
It's about priorities. I'd rather live a quiet life, knowing things but not actively rebelling against the authority, and stay out of trouble. But Trevor can't stand living like that. Sometimes I think it's actually killing him.
I switch off the light and pull the sheet over me and drift into an only slightly-worried sleep.
In my dreams, there is fire.
There is screaming.
Everything is shadowy. People move in the fire, writhing and running. I see Adam running away from the fire, into an infinite blackness, and I try to call to him, but my throat fills with smoke and nothing comes out. I don't even cough, just try to breathe the smoke back out through my nose.
I stumble through the smoke and flames, trying to find someone else I know. I see Bernice for a split second, but then she latches one arm around Troy and bolts for that same blackness. Her face is shrouded in smoke, distorted by the heat of the flames. Nothing and no one looks real.
One figure flits back and forth, from shadow to shadow, flame to flame, seemingly immune to the fire, at least for now. I cannot see this person's face, though, no matter where I go or how hard I try. I reach out to touch him, but he vanishes into smoke himself, and I'm left alone in the fire, with no way out except into the stifling blackness. For a moment, I think the flames are beginning to die down.
And then I hear Grams shrieking my name, over and over and over, and the flames roar back up again, twenty feet high, towering over me and burning, burning, burning
and I wake up, sweating and panting with the sheet flung to the ground.
Everything in the real world is blissfully silent and peaceful, without so much as an echo to make it otherwise. Content with the knowledge that reality is as still as ever, I grab the sheet and roll onto my side to drift off once again.
This time, I do not dream.
The following morning, I slog through my early-morning routine as usual: awaken, shower, change, down the stairs, into the kitchen, and I'm about to make toast with Adam and Grams when I notice that Adam is already retrieving his bread from the toaster, and Grams isn't there.
"Where's Grams?" I ask as I grab a slice of bread from the counter.
Adam looks at me as if I'm an Outsider, gives no answer, and spreads some jam on his toast. "What," I tease, "cat got your tongue?"
"Don't be weird, Corrina," he says, furrowing his tiny eyebrows, and takes his toast to the kitchen table.
"Whatever," I say, and drop the bread into the toaster, turning to face my kid brother as he crunches wordlessly away at his breakfast. "Thanks for waiting, by the way," I add. He peers up at me, toast in his mouth, with quizzical brown eyes. "Like one pig waits for another," I joke. "Were you that hungry?"
"What are you talking about," Adam asks, his mouth still full.
"Chew your food," I tell him as my toast pops up.
We don't speak as I slather jam onto my own toast, nor as we start out the door toward school. I don't comment on Grams's absence again, though she still hasn't come downstairs by the time we leave. Maybe she's just sleeping in. It's not completely unheard of.
Trevor meets us on the street, just as he did on Columbus Day, though his language is far less vulgar now. "I tried to come last night," is the first thing he says. "But Alice was not having it."
"Why do you do that?" Adam asks. "You call your mom by her first name. Why is that?"
"Because she's not... she's... we don't get along," Trevor mumbles, struggling to come up with an acceptable explanation to give to my twelve-year-old brother.
"It's like with Mom and Grams," I say. "They call each other by their first names because they don't really like each other."
"Who?" Adam asks, wrinkling his freckled nose.
"Don't play games," I reprimand him gently, "you're too old for pretend."
Beside me, Trevor tenses up but says nothing. I decide not to push Adam - if he wants to play know-nothing, then fine. He'll stop once he gets to class, I'm sure. I can talk to him about this later, if he's still curious.
The twelve-year-old skips off to join his classmates once we hit school grounds. He's barely out of earshot when Trevor grabs my arm and hisses, "He's not playing."
"Adam. He's not playing," Trevor insists, pulling me into one of the hallways. "He genuinely had no idea what you were talking about."
"What do you mean?" I ask incredulously. "He's a kid, he's just messing around..."
"It's like... look. When my dad disappeared, my mom didn't even talk about it. It was like she didn't even know it happened. I kept bugging her about it - shit, I'm still bugging her about it - and I realized she actually had no idea who my father even was," Trevor says urgently. "Corrina, is someone in your house gone?"
I think of Grams's conspicuous absence that morning, how she wasn't in the kitchen, how Adam didn't wait for me to come downstairs before he started making his breakfast. I think of how rarely Grams wakes up late, how she's usually up bright and early to get everything out for us. I think of how silent the house was last night when I woke up from that nightmare, without so much as a sleeping breath or a snore from any room near mine - not from Adam's, not from Grams's. "No," I tell Trevor. "No, no one's gone."
He regards me apprehensively, his dark eyes narrowed and fixed on mine, but then he shrugs and turns away. "Guess he is just fucking around, then. He's a good actor, that kid," Trevor snorts. "He really had me there."
"Language," I whisper. "We're at school." Trevor just shoots me a tired look and then we take off again.
Grams was right. Today's sex ed class is all about how premarital sex destroys your sense of self and ruins your chances of going to a better place once you die. We're together with the boys today, and the female Teacher is nowhere to be seen. Presumably she's doing her actual job, teaching whatever class it is that she actually teaches. Several times during the course of class, Bernice passes me notes on ripped-out corners of paper from her notebook.
talked to troy
I pass her one back: ":) and?"
we're totally going to be paired
I wait until Teacher is turned toward the board and then I frantically scribble back, "how do you know?"
troy's mom does pairs, we're putting in requests today you know
I stare at the tiny slip of paper, confounded. "already?"
Bernice simply nods as she reads my note, so I rip out a corner of my own paper, write Trevor a note explaining the deal and chuck it delicately at his head. It bounces off his dark waves of hair and lands on his desk. As discreetly as possible, he opens it and immediately writes me back: what the actual fuck
I black out his swearword before Bernice gets a chance to see it. "requests for pairs," I write back. "any plans?" Once again, I toss it at him, and this time it lands directly on his desk. He stops it before it gets a chance to skitter across the wood and onto the floor. Bernice watches our exchange with piqued interest, grinning at me with an almost feral excitement. "Oh, shut up," I mutter sourly as Trevor's response lands in front of me.
baby, you know i'll always pick you
I can practically taste the sarcasm. Bernice, however, is ecstatic. "I told you so!" she hisses, bouncing in her seat. As Teacher turns back around, I silently rip the note to pieces and brush the remains into my backpack.
"And now," says Teacher, "you shall all fill out Pair Request Forms. You there, in the front, pass them along. Once you're done, turn in your PRF's up here, to this envelope. And no looking at one another's PRFs. Love is a very private thing." At this he eyes Bernice and I with a severely pointed glare, and then runs his hand through his thinning hair again. "Come, come, children," he encourages us, as we all slowly survey the forms: it's not just one line, as I'd thought. I thought it was just: put in who you like, like Grams would have done when she was thirteen and sending Valentine's grams - whatever a gram is, other than a grandmother.
But this is a very complicated personality test. The questions are very vague, and some of them are simply either, or: tree or river? Black or white? Gold or silver? Some of them aren't testing our personalities, they're testing our willingness to cooperate - I can only hope that Trevor is answering his dishonestly. Then again, knowing him, he's selecting all of the answers opposite to the ones he'd actually be inclined to choose.
I slowly start to scratch in my answers. My name is Corrina. I am five-foot-seven and 135 pounds, and I am from a mixed heritage: some Chinese, some Japanese, some Caucasian - why is this important for Pairing? I like to read, but I don't like to talk much, except to close friends. I bore easily, so I zone out and focus on my surroundings instead of what's being said. I don't like music - lie - and I'm a somewhat picky eater - half-truth.
I like small, fluffy dogs and long walks on the beach, and I'm a sucker for smoked salmon. Because, let's be honest: this is exactly like one of the online dating profiles Grams once filled out. I can't imagine why - she was and still is gorgeous. In any case, this is trying to fit a person on paper, but people aren't paper. We can't be squashed into an 8 1/2 by 11 space and expected to seem real. It's amazing that Pairs work, if this is all that goes into them. Because this... this is nothing. This is an introduction, but this is all we get.
Several seats ahead, I can see Trevor is having the same struggles as me: fill out honestly, and risk the trouble, or lie and spend the rest of your life with someone you might hate? Beside me, Bernice is having no trouble filling in all of the blanks in her bubbly, loopy script. I'm Bernice, I'm 18 and I like animals! I'm half African-American and oh, I'm a girl, but you knew that. I don't really like books, or art, but I do like music. I like to talk a lot. Tree or river? I don't know, Tree I guess because they're green and green is my favorite color!
At the bottom is the "request" box, where you can write in the name of one person with whom you'd like to be Paired. You can't always get what you want, of course. I'm sure Bernice won't be the only one writing in TROY in all caps, complete with a flourish-y heart on the end.
I scan the room, debating whether or not to even fill in the request box. But the more I look, the more I realize that I would not willingly spend my life with a single boy in this room, Trevor included. But he would be the most bearable of the bunch, so, in the tiniest writing imaginable, I scrawl his name in the box, and stand to go slip the paper in before Bernice can see and crow out her success in seeing our true love before we did.
Only a few more minutes pass before Teacher dismisses us, and Trevor catches me halfway down the hall. "You up for a book raid?" he says, eyes gleaming wickedly. In all honesty, I'm really not up for it. I just want to go home and see if Grams is there, but I blew him off yesterday and he looks desperate for a reprieve from his "controlling" mother - no more controlling than anyone else's, I'm sure. Trevor's just more rebellious.
"Okay," I say. "I just need to drop some stuff off at home first, then I'll be right over."
"Great," he says. "Man, have I got a good one for you - you're going to lose it at this one, I swear. I wish this one wasn't Restricted, everyone should read i-"
I clench my jaw and jerk my head toward the school buildings, which are still very close to us. If Teacher, or if any of the other Teachers heard Trevor speaking about anything Restricted, he'd be in much deeper trouble than he's ever been in before. And if he were ever caught sneaking in and out of the Authority library... I can see on his face that he doesn't care, though. Risks aren't risks to Trevor. I think he's been taking them for so long that he's become desensitized to them. "For my sake, Trevor," I beg, "we're still on school grounds. Quit it with all the illegal business."
"Fine," he raises his hands apologetically, but his eyes are aimed at the sky, so I know he's not seriously sorry. "You're the boss."
"False," I say. "Father's the boss." Trevor's face darkens, but he says nothing. Even Trevor wouldn't badmouth Father outside, or even inside. He's brash, but he's not stupid. "I'll see you in ten minutes," I tell him, and hurry ahead to collect Adam and head home before I go to Trevor's.
Adam is silent as we walk home. The spell of childish delight that came over him last night has relinquished, and now he's as serious as ever. I don't bother him about it. We've tried to make him less serious and get him to have fun, but never with any luck. It's not that he's unhappy, he just doesn't display his happiness, or any of his emotions. Sometimes, I envy him. Mostly I worry that he's not all there.
I let us into the house and head right toward the stairs, noting once again that Grams is not in the kitchen reading as usual. Adam hurries up ahead of me, dropping his belongings with a satisfying crash the second he gets into his room. I follow more cautiously, setting my papers for the day down much more gently. Then I continue on to Grams's room.
It's not Grams's room anymore. It's empty. The bed is still there, neatly made, but all of the throw pillows, with their embroidered literary jokes, are no longer there. Gone are all of the books and old paintings and postcards, as are the ancient radio and Grams's journal, always hidden between The Catcher in the Rye and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The old Italian lamp has been replaced with a plain cylindrical light that hangs dejectedly from the ceiling. Everything is clean and white, with no dust to be seen or smelt. It's almost medical in its cleanliness; no one could really live here.
Only then does it dawn on me that Grams is gone. I lean against the doorframe and stare at the cold, white emptiness that has replaced her formerly colorful abode. She's been removed, as have all traces of her being. Whoever took her did a very thorough job erasing every part of her existence. "Adam?" I call brokenly. He pokes his head out of his room. "Do you know what happened to Grams?"
Adam stares at me, the same way he did when I mentioned Grams this morning, and then gazes above my head and into the empty room. "What are you doing in there?" he asks, ignoring my question. "You know that was Dad's room."
I don't even bother arguing that Dad and Mom shared a room, or that Grams had lived in that room since long before either of us was born. Adam glances downstairs, makes a face, and then flicks some of his dark reddish-brown hair out of his eyes. "There's a guy downstairs," he says, and then retreats back into his room.
I close my eyes, steel myself, and force myself to walk down the stairs. Sure enough, a tall, thin blonde man in a suit is seated at our kitchen table. "Corrina," he says, grinning at me with a smile too wide to be truly friendly. He extends a hand towards me, but I don't take it and instead stand a few feet away from him. "My name is Alex Smith," he continues, slowly retracting his hand once he realizes I have no intention to shake it, "and I think we need to have a little chat."
"I really need to go," I try, and shuffle a half-step toward the door.
"Yes, to see Trevor, I'm sure," Alex Smith smiles up at me. "Trevor can wait. Trevor will wait. Come. Sit." I study him briefly, trying not to narrow my eyes angrily as I do so, and then I do as I'm told. This man has something to do with Grams's disappearance, I'm sure. I also know that he's not from the Inside. He has two names, first and last, and surnames only exist on the Outside.
"You're from the Outside," I say hesitantly. Alex Smith nods, his face still contorted into that eerie Cheshire grin.
"Very astute," Alex Smith commends me. I say nothing and remain rigid in my chair. "Now, Corrina: where did you learn that word?"
"Something we read in class," I answer dutifully. "I don't remember what."
"All right," he says with another stiff nod, and then holds up Grams's battered copy of Romeo and Juliet. "Could it have been this?"
I do my best to maintain my composure, but I know some recognition that that was not the standard-issue copy must have flickered on my face the second he raised the book. "Maybe," I say flatly. "We read that in preliminary sex ed."
"Yes, but was it this exact book?" Alex Smith presses.
"It was called Romeo and Juliet," I say smoothly. "Is there more than one book with that name?"
Alex Smith chuckles, and sets the book down on the table. "You're not a very good liar, Corrina," he says, his teeth forever bared in that unfriendly smile of his. I grip the sides of the chair tensely. I'm convinced my hands are the only thing keeping me in this kitchen - the rest of me is already out the door, sprinting for Trevor's house, Bernice's house, anywhere but here. But I'm holding onto this chair for dear life, because I can't run yet, and I'm sure that even if I do, Alex Smith will catch me.
There's probably an Alex Smith at Trevor's house even now.
"You do have a resilient mind, though," Alex Smith continues. "I will give you that." A part of me wants to drop in a sarcastic "thank you," but I bite back that particular retort and focus all of my energy onto keeping myself seated. "I didn't come here to talk to you about literature, Corrina," Alex says with a sigh. "I came to talk about your grandmother."
"Of course," I say, struggling to keep the fury out of my voice.
"I'm sure you've noticed that she's no longer here," Alex says, folding his hands together and bringing them toward his lips. "It must be upsetting for you."
Understatement of the century, but yes. I simply nod.
"But you must understand, Corrina, your grandmother's loss was absolutely necessary," Alex says, eyeing me as if I'm some kind of volatile beast that could snap at him at any moment. "You must know that she was creating a very unhealthy environment for you and your brother. She was spreading lies in this household."
"What kind of lies?" I ask innocently.
"I'm not clear on the details. Your mother understood perfectly, though. She's really looking out for you, Corrina. I understand you two aren't all that close, but your mother really does care for you. She was acting in your best interest," Alex Smith explains, his voice perfectly even as he speaks.
"When she called you," I conclude, remembering when Adam came to me last night to announce that Mom was on the phone.
Alex Smith nods, his grin finally fading and instead turning his face into a steely, serious mask. "Lucille called us because she needed help removing an unhealthy element from her children's life. You're well-read..." I open my mouth to protest, but he holds up a hand to silence me. "You know what must be done when a person is poisoned." I clench my jaw and swallow back the fury that I can feel rising in my throat like bile. "You suck the poison out. That is simply what has happened here. We came and we sucked the poison out, for the greater good." One side of his lips twitches upwards into a half-smile as he gazes intently across the table at me.
"You're angry," he observes. I start to shake my head no, but he continues to speak regardless. "That's understandable. You've just lost a family member. That's why I'm here. I am here to help."
"With all due respect, Mr. Smith," I say carefully, "I think you've helped enough."
"You misunderstand, Corrina," Alex Smith says, leaning forward over the table earnestly. "I can take away your pain."
"I can deal with it on my own," I say, as forcefully as I dare. "My father died when I was five. I know how to cope with loss."
Alex Smith sits back, lowering his hands to lay them on the table, and closes his eyes. "Of course," he says quietly. "Your father." Some small intonation in his voice tells me that he knows something - many things - on this subject that I do not, but I am not the one asking the questions here, and I am not about to challenge a full-grown man, who obviously holds some position of power, in my own kitchen.
"May I be excused?" I ask, with all the grace I can muster. He nods and waves me off with one hand, and I practically jump out of my seat and walk as swiftly as I can toward the door.
"We will meet again, Corrina," Alex Smith calls after me as I pull open the door. "I will be checking up on you to see how you are... coping with your loss." The momentary pause in his speech, as if he were about to say something else instead, is not lost on me, but I want nothing more than to get out of there.
I run the entire way to Trevor's house. I don't even knock once I'm there, just pull open the door, shut it securely behind me, and stand, shaking, in the foyer while I try to catch my breath. It comes in short, hiccoughing gasps, and as I raise one arm to wipe my nose I realize that I'm crying.
Grams is gone, Adam remembers nothing of her, and my mother is responsible for her going. A strange and menacing man from the Outside is in my house, without any proper invitation, and here I am, alone and broken right inside my best friend's door. I understand, then, about Trevor's father. He's been right all along, I was just too weak and stupid to see it as it began to happen around me as well. I brace myself against the wall, squeeze my eyes shut, and try to find some kind of balance. On my feet, in my mind, in my life.
There is no balance. I sink to the floor, hug my knees to my chest, and let my entire body be wracked by my own seemingly uncontrollable sobbing. "Jesus fucking Christ," I hear Trevor say. "What the hell?"
I open my eyes, and he's crouched down right in front of me with sad, dark eyes. I didn't even hear him come downstairs. He offers me a hand, and I take it and immediately find myself pulled to his chest. Trevor's not a huggy person, so this is almost completely unprecedented; the only time I can remember hugging him before was when his dad disappeared.
Now I guess he's just returning the favor. "I was right, wasn't I?" he asks sadly, his voice quiet and gentle, the opposite of his usual abrasive snapping. I nod tearfully into his neck and brace my fingertips against his collarbones, and he tentatively brings one hand up to stroke through my hair once, murmuring apologies softly into my ear all the while, as if it's his fault.
But it's not. If it's anyone's fault, it's mine. I pull back just a little and he releases me entirely, shoving his hands into the pockets of his jeans as if he's afraid they might draw me in once again. "I did this," I stammer.
Trevor doesn't even falter, just gives me an emphatic "no" and shakes his head as vehemently as I've ever seen. "This is not your fault," he assures me.
"Yes, it is," I insist. "I... I let her talk too much, and I told her she was a better teacher than Teacher and Mom heard and called and... I was too attached to Grams's knowledge, and now she's dead, and it's all because of me, it's all my fault..."
"No," Trevor repeats. "It is not your fault. You did not make the call to turn her in. You did not hand her over to them."
"I'm the reason for the call, I - if I hadn't - she's gone because of - I did this, Trevor, you have to believe me, I did this!" I choke. "I did this, I did this, and now she's dead and I-"
"You are hysterical," Trevor informs me, "and you need to sit down."
"You're not listening-"
"Listen to me," Trevor commands, and in an instant his hands have left his pockets and are on my shoulders, steadying me where I stand. I close my mouth and bite down hard on my quaking lip. "We're going upstairs. Alice will be home soon, and if she finds you like this... well, I don't have a fucking clue what she'll do, but she'll assume I'm responsible."
I look up at him, and start to say, "I can't stay here," but he cuts me off again.
"Do you want to go home?" he asks. I stare back up at him, searching his face for some kind of hint as to what I should do. I find nothing, though I do feel my eyes continuing to water. "Didn't think so," Trevor sighs, and pulls me into the kitchen, through the kitchen, up the stairs. We have the same house layout - everyone has the same house layout - and I can't help but try to catch a glimpse of the room that, in my house, once belonged to Grams. For Trevor, that room is just full of junk, covered in dust, placed there because either Trevor or his mother no longer had use of it but still couldn't bear to part with it. I wish Mom had been kind enough to do that with Grams.
Trevor steers me into his room and gently pushes me down on the bed, where I sit and stare at the floor. "Everything is gone," I say slowly. "Her... everything."
He sits down next to me and sighs heavily. "I remember that. The person disappears, and so do their belongings, and so do everyone else's memories of them, and then they're gone altogether, as if they were never here."
I turn to him desperately. "Why do I remember?"
"Why does anyone?" Trevor responds automatically. "Because we can't stand to forget."
"They took her in the night," I say, as I struggle to put the pieces together. I can remember a nightmare, with fire, and at the end Grams screaming my name - but perhaps that last part was not so much dream as reality, as she was dragged from her bed and out into the night. "Then, while everyone was out at school, I think, they took everything from her room. Everything that wasn't technically supposed to be there. And they replaced it with cold, sterile whiteness." I shiver involuntarily at the very thought of it. "I don't know where any of her old things went, except for her copy of Romeo and Juliet. The man had that."
Up until now Trevor has been nodding now and then. His memories of his father's disappearance are roughly the same, with some minor differences; his father had shared a room with his mother, so not everything was cleared out and replaced. But once I mention Alex Smith, Trevor freezes. "Man? What man?"
"In the kitchen," I stutter. "I came home and I found all of her things were gone, and Adam said there was a guy downstairs, so I went, and he said... he said he wanted to take my pain away? But he said that after he asked about the books and he pulled out Grams's book and asked if I understood the difference between that one and the one we read in school... and then he... I don't know, but he wasn't from In here. He was Outsider. He had two names."
Trevor takes all this in, and sets his elbows on his knees and his chin on his folded hands. "You know he's the one who took her," he tells me.
I nod. "He told me so."
"And you didn't sock him in the face?" Trevor asks in genuine disbelief.
"I'm not you, Trevor," I say pointedly. A small smile lights up Trevor's face.
"There you are," he says. "Knew I could knock you out of it."
"Oh, shut up," I laugh half-heartedly, and knuckle him weakly on the shoulder.
He punches me back, equally lightly, and I can feel him studying my face as I gaze at the ground. Out of the corner of my eye, I see his expression grow serious once more. "How do you live, knowing this happens?" I ask him then.
"You know how I live," Trevor answers quietly.
His face, his dark eyes, are pained, and not for the first time I understand that all his jibes and sarcasm are a shield he has constructed to keep himself from losing himself to the despair that is constantly sucking blackly at the back of his mind. "How do I live?" I breathe as it occurs to me that I might become him. Trevor regards me solemnly, and then one corner of his mouth twitches upward in a sad smile.
"You'll figure it out," he says, but I don't feel assured, and I look instead to the ground, because at least it is solid. I stand, pressing against the ground as hard as I can with my feet, and start toward the door. "Where are you going?"
"It's getting late," I say.
Trevor merely raises an eyebrow.
"Mother will be expecting me," I amend icily.
He smirks. "Sure, but do you really want to go home?" I simply look at him. He already knows the answer. "So don't go. I'll call Lucille. You can stay here."
"I can't stay all night," I point out.
"You know why," I say. "You know what that means here." They'll think we're experimenting with what we've just learned in sex ed. They'll think we're breaking yet another rule, prior to being Paired. They'll bring even more Hell down on us than they already have.
"I think they know you're a little bit bereaved right now. They are responsible, after all," Trevor snorts, and pushes himself off the bed. "I'm going to go call Lucille."
"I'm going home, Trevor," I argue stubbornly.
"You are tired," he says, holding me with a fierce dark-eyed gaze, and then he takes me by the hand and leads me back to his bed, pushing me down onto it as lightly as he can, as if I'm some wounded animal. "I'll be right back."
"I need to go home," I try one more time, more feebly this time. I no longer really care, but I don't want to let Trevor have the last word. He only raises one eyebrow, and then retreats out of the room. I can hear him trotting down the stairs, leaving nothing but a trail of light, receding echoes behind him, and I realize he's right: I am tired. I'm exhausted. Maybe it was the running, or the crying. Maybe it was just the ordeal with Alex Smith. Maybe it's because I didn't sleep well the night before, because I'd had that strange dream, of which I can only remember snippets - but no matter what the cause, I'm about ready to pass out. Slowly, I lie down, curl onto my side and pray that no dreams overtake me.
When I wake up from a pleasantly dreamless sleep, everything is black. Someone – Trevor, probably – has thrown a thin, knitted blanket over me. I pull it up around my chin and stare up at the ceiling, hoping it might offer some kind of answer for how to deal with Grams's absence. Trevor was hardly any help, though I should have known that earlier; he doesn't cope with loss so much as rage in response to it.
I can hear him sleep-breathing quietly, almost silently, next to the bed. I peer over to look at him curled up, almost cat-like, without a blanket or a pillow but apparently perfectly comfortable. Still, I feel guilty, so I drape the thin knitted blanket over him. He stirs slightly in his sleep, mumbles something incoherent, and then is silent once again. I roll to face the other way and stare out the window instead, and as I try to count the stars I find myself falling asleep once more.
Additional Author's Note After the Fact: I fully intended for Corrina to have a completely different love interest (and she does, later, fair warning. She's a seventeen-year-old girl and her emotions are volatile and she doesn't understand her own feelings.) but then these idiots started shipping themselves and then actually a lot of the original plot changed so now you know. And that has been your little insight into my creative process. My fictional characters have minds of their own and go against what I plan for them. The more you know.