Meg Waite Clayton
John saw it in the same moment Isabelle did, and their father saw it, too: an old Mercedes convertible—a 280 SL that had once had a hard top too but didn’t anymore—in British racing green, the green of Isabelle’s eyes. John fingered his lucky indian money in his pocket, rubbed his thumb across the rounded ridges of the cylindrical stone. Tapped the stone nine times, then eleven, then nine.
Mr. Murphy pulled absently on his hair. "It’s a pretty car, sure, but you can’t drive a convertible in Minnesota in the wintertime. And it’s three thousand dollars more than we’re going to spend. How about that nice sturdy Oldsmobile?
Isabelle pulled her arms around herself and did the thing with her nose, that sort of wrinkle thing.
"It’s old, unreliable," Mr. Murphy said. "Impossible to get parts. None of the modern safety features: no antilock brakes, no air bags, no collision bumpers. Hell, the seat belts aren’t even shoulder harnesses, just lap straps." But John knew it was a formality, his father’s way of working himself up to a decision already made. Because from the instant his sister's eyes fell on the car, they looked out at the world from behind its leather-wrapped steering wheel. She would pull her dark hair back, put on sunscreen to protect her pale skin, and everywhere she went people would turn and stare. She’d wave at them, or maybe pull over and speak to them for a minute from her place in the driver seat, but that would be it because no one in this town was good enough for Isabelle. Not that she thought that—she didn’t. But John knew it was true. No one in this whole town could touch Isabelle.
Mr. Murphy sighed. "Only two seats," he said. "John gets the passenger seat on the way to and from school. There won’t be room for your friends."
Isabelle threw herself around her father, turning her head up to his and saying, "Oh Daddy, you’re magnificent," in her breathy voice, smiling not the polite smile but the special one, all full lips that seemed naturally to frown turning upward, transforming her face and with it your mood, your spirit, maybe even your life. A Hollywood smile designed for the part, John’s friend Mark would have said, but what did he know? In all the things John ever doubted in his life (his church, his faith, the honesty of his father) he never thought to doubt his sister’s smile.
"This thing will be a disaster in the snow," Mr. Murphy said. "Your mother will kill us." But John could tell by his father’s goofy expression that he was happy to make Isabelle happy, happy too that his daughter—his honors-student-prom-queen-gymnastics-star daughter—would be driving around in a car, a classic that he could afford to buy her, and everyone would be saying, "Did you see Isabelle?" Or better yet, "Did you see Isabelle and John in the Murphy’s new convertible?" Because the passenger seat was John’s. His father had said so. The passenger seat was his.
* * *
Isabelle and John drove to school the next morning with the top down despite the chill in the fall air, wisps of Isabelle’s dark hair escaping from the scrunchie and flying around her face. At school, the kids—the popular junior crowd—swarmed to the convertible on Isabelle’s side. John supposed he should get out of the car and head into class, but he didn’t want to, not until he saw Martha Grant’s chubby freshman body chugging toward him, and by then it was too late to slip away.
"Extraordinary!" Martha exhaled. "Johnny, this is exquisite. Are you going to drive it to the dance Friday? Ride, I mean. With Isabelle?"
His sister’s friends were paying no attention to him. They were all over the car and all over Isabelle, especially that new Carver guy, the one with the Southern accent who thought he was God’s gift. John fingered the small knot at his jeans pocket, the rock. The car was exquisite, and he liked the way Martha spoke, using real words with real meanings, not "coolio" or "sweet" or "nasty" or "the bomb," and she wasn’t so chubby, not really, and she had nice round breasts and good skin, and she wasn’t forward, either; she would wait for him to ask her to dance. John was pretty sure she’d never been kissed. She could dance, too, and he did want to go to the dance Friday night, he wanted to arrive at the dance in the car with Isabelle.
"Sure," he said, his chest expanding, his hips pulling against the lap belt. "Sure, I’m going to the dance."
* * *
When John got to the car after school that afternoon, Alice was sitting back against the smooth leather of the passenger seat, talking to Isabelle. He stood beside the passenger door while the two girls talked, watching Isabelle’s red mouth, Alice’s pink one, until Alice finally looked up, her eyes crinkling against the sun, and said, "Oh, John, you’re here," and smiled at him.
"I’ve got to take Alice home," Isabelle said. "You want to wait here?"
Alice lived fifteen minutes away, a half hour round trip even if they didn’t sit in Alice’s driveway gabbing for hours. And he was supposed to meet Mark in the field at the top of the hill in forty minutes, to shoot targets; John didn’t have his own gun, but Mark did, and John had learned to shoot with his grandfather—stationary targets and clay pigeons, nothing alive but it was fun anyway—and he’d been as good as promised his own gun for Christmas, the Kolar Twenty-Eight-Inch Over-and-Under Twelve Gauge he’d picked out. Still, he hated to be a baby about the car, to say Dad said the passenger seat was his.
He stuffed his hands in his pockets—so nonchalantly—and tapped the stone, nine times, eleven, nine. Maybe he could just sit sideways on the little shelf behind the seats. There wouldn’t be a seat belt, but he liked Alice, liked her tight gymnast’s body and her smooth skin and the way she spoke directly to him, not asking Isabelle if her little brother couldn’t ride on the shelf as if he couldn’t answer for himself.
"I could ride on the shelf," he said.
"You wouldn’t mind?" Alice asked. "I could get David to take me, but then he might be late for practice and besides . . ." She smoothed her fingers over the polished walnut trim of the dashboard. ". . . it’s such a sweet car."
John shrugged. "Sure. Anything for you Alice." And Alice winked at him. It didn’t mean anything—Alice and David had been going together for over a year—but he smiled anyway, smiled especially because those dweebs the Baxter twins were looking his way, the ones who’d called him a carrot-head dickwad narc and did their stupid interview thing in the locker room: "Tell me, Mr. Jameson," holding out an invisible microphone to Mark, "how can a geek like your pal John here have a sister like Isabelle? I bet you two peek in her window at night, don’t you? I bet you paw through her dirty underwear when she’s not there." All just because John had asked them not to smoke in the john.
His hands worked the stone again. Yes, the Baxter twins were watching: Alice flirting with him when she wouldn’t give them the time of day.
He climbed in behind the seats and sat sideways with his knees bent, listening hard to hear Alice over the wind in his ears. She went on and on about the Carver kid until Isabelle finally said he seemed snobby to her, arrogant, and he smoked, had Alice ever kissed a guy who smoked? "Like licking an ashtray," Isabelle said, and John nodded his agreement. It felt good to be gossiping with Isabelle and Alice, to be in their confidence.
* * *
The phone rang that night, a boy’s voice asking for Izzy. "Izzy?" John said.
"Isn’t this Izzy Murphy’s house?" the boy said.
John recognized the voice now, the Southern accent. "You mean Isabelle," he said.
"Right. Izzy. Isn’t that what I just said?"
John wanted to say, No, you said Izzy like you just said it again; you said it twice, and she doesn’t like Izzy anymore. Because that’s what Isabelle had told him the day they found the indian money, when she was eleven and he was nine. They were out exploring in the field together, and they found the perfectly round, ridged cylindrical stone, and Isabelle decided it was magical and they were royalty—she a princess and he a knight—out in search of a dangerous dragon. "The stone is all-powerful," she said. "With it, even the dragon can’t touch you." He’d said he was a strong knight, he didn’t need magic to protect "Princess Izzy." But she’d insisted no one could beat the dragon without the stone. "And don’t call me Izzy, either. Izzy isn’t a princess name, Johnny. I’m Princess Isabelle." They’d spent all afternoon that way, imagining the oak tree was their castle, the tall grass a forest full of trolls and gremlins and ugly men with long beards who fed on children, but they were safe because of the little stone which Isabelle, being the princess, got to carry in her pocket. Isabelle had forgotten about the stone by that night though; John found it on the tile bathroom floor where their mother might have swept it away. Isabelle had forgotten everything about that day—everything except that she wouldn’t be called Izzy anymore, she would answer only to Isabelle. But John remembered: the willowy-sweet smell of the meadow weeds they’d hidden in; the perfect white wisp of cloud that had been their dragon; the way he’d wielded his stick-sword and drove the dragon across the sky; his reward, the kiss of the princess, those full lips pressing against his own.
Crinoidal limestone, a common invertebrate fossil from the early Carboniferous sea. That’s what John’s father had said of the stone.
"I’ll get Isabelle for you," John said into the receiver, to the new kid with the Southern accent, the Carver kid. "Just a minute." He wouldn’t tell the guy no one called her Izzy. He’d let the guy hang himself. He was a prick anyway. An arrogant prick. Isabelle had said so herself.
* * *
Carver asked Isabelle to dance with him Friday night, right as John and Isabelle walked into the gym which, despite the dim lighting and the loud band, still smelled like armpits, unwashed gym clothes, dirty socks. Isabelle accepted the kid’s meaty hand.
John leaned against the cold cinderblock wall by the punch bowl, Martha standing demurely beside him, waiting for him to ask her to dance. He hooked his fingers in his pockets, extracting the stone, fingering it.
"Is that new boy your sister’s boyfriend?" Martha asked.
John shot her a withering look. "Isabelle would never say no to a boy who asked her to dance," he said. "It would be impolite."
John looked again to the dance floor, still fingering the stone. Isabelle felt sorry for the Carver kid, no doubt, him being new at the school and all. That’s why she was being nice, even smiling as they did a slow two step together, not even wrinkling her nose despite the guy’s dirty nails touching the back of her neck. Just smiling politely, all red lips and straight white teeth.
John brought his hand to his own mouth, surrepticiously slipping the stone in between his lips. He rolled it between his tongue and the roof of his mouth, savoring the cold hardness of it, the tickle of its ridges, the surprising lemony clay taste. After a moment, though, the stone warmed, the taste settling into clay. He tucked it between his teeth and his cheek with his tongue, still watching, thinking if you didn’t know Isabelle, you wouldn’t know how much she hated dancing with guys who couldn’t dance.
* * *
Two weeks later Carver showed up at the Murphy house, three wilted carnations wrapped up in baby’s breath clutched in his grubby hands. John, in his room, had heard the rattle of his car pulling into the driveway and bolted to the top of the stairs, but already his father was answering the door, saying the kid’s name, Rick, like he was expected. Already Isabelle was coming from her room, smiling shyly in her short blue skirt and soft yellow sweater, smelling of something powdery and flowery, like she’d spilled something from their mother’s bathroom all over herself.
John wanted to follow them, but how could he? He couldn’t drive. All he could do was stay up beside his open bedroom window, pretending to read a book. Each time he heard an engine down the road, he turned the light off and sat quietly tapping, nine, eleven, nine. When it wasn’t the loud muffler of Carver’s dump of a car, he turned the light back on and tried to read again. And when, finally, he heard Carver’s engine, he watched in the darkness, listening through the open window while Isabelle and Carver kissed goodnight right there in the light of the front porch. It was a respectable kiss, sure. The guy kept his hands on Isabelle’s shoulders and when Isabelle said goodnight, the guy said, "Goodnight, Iz" and waited until she was in the house before he went back to his car. John, watching them, took his stone out of his pocket and ran a short, clean fingernail over its round ridges, then rolled it between his thumb and his middle finger, back and forth, back and forth, then slid it into his mouth.
* * *
Alice said the talk was all just jealousy. John overhead her saying it to Sarah, the gymnastics team captain, while the two girls were standing in the school parking lot. "They were at the reservoir . . ." Sarah said, words John felt in the pit of his stomach, in his throat. He turned back into the building, locked himself in a stall in the boys’ john. He took the stone out of his pocket, tapped it over and over again, nine, eleven, nine. He popped it in his mouth, ran his tongue over the smooth grooves. He was going to beat Carver’s brains to ground meat.
When he went back out to the car, Isabelle and Alice were waiting there.
"You don’t look so hot, Johnny," Alice said. "You feel okay?"
"You’re looking pretty fat and ugly today yourself, Alice," he said, even though she was as skinny as any of the gymnasts, even though she really looked great.
When he got home, he called Mark and met him in the field to shoot. Put Mark’s shotgun to his shoulder, his cheek to the block so the gun wouldn’t kick up and smash his face when he fired. Looked down the barrel to the bead at the end, to the rusty tin-can target in the distance. Pulled the trigger smoothly, not flinching against the startling explosion of the gun even on the first deafening shot, but welcoming the angry buck of the metal back at him, taking the power of the gun’s force with his body, accepting the power into his body as the satisfying ping of the shot hitting the target rang out his strength.
* * *
If Isabelle was going to a dance after that, then John was going, too. Nothing more. If she was going ice skating, well, of course everyone skated all the time in winter. If she went to the movies, he walked to the theater, took a seat a few rows behind Carver and her. He would sometimes bring Martha so he could ride with Isabelle and Carver, sort of like a double date. And sometimes his mom or dad would drop him or Martha’s parents would drive or Mark would come along, his parents driving one way. Sometimes he had to resort to his bicycle, pedaling frantically to keep in sight of Carver’s beat-up old Corvair with its bench seat, its smell of stale tobacco, its left brake light that didn’t work. A dump, that Corvair was. And Isabelle had the beautiful green convertible. But she only shrugged and said they were just cars, just different ways to get around, and anyway the convertible top was drafty, too cold for winter nights.
During winter break, though, John kept coming up short for rides. Martha and her parents were out west skiing and Mark was at his grandmother’s in Chicago, and John’s parents always had something going: the company Christmas party, tickets to "The Nutcracker," a bridge party at the neighbors’ across the street. It was freezing, too, even for December in Minnesota. Far too cold to walk or ride a bike. And each night Carver came to pick up Isabelle, leaving the eye-green Mercedes abandoned in the garage. The keys on the key hook. John’s parents not expected home until eleven or twelve. And John had driven go-carts, after all, and even, once, a tractor at his uncle’s farm.
Each night, John went out to the garage. By habit, he would head for the passenger side before he remembered. Then he’d open Isabelle’s door and get in and sit there, sit in Isabelle’s seat, his left hand lingering on the smooth curve of the leather-covered steering wheel, his right tapping the gearshift’s polished wooden knob, the stone tucked safely in his mouth. He’d sit there till he was nearly too cold to move, nearly frozen in place, and then he’d go back inside and watch the sci-fi channel or surf until ten-thirty when, at the sound of the grandfather clock striking once in the hall, he’d go upstairs to his room to sit by his window, watching, waiting, tapping, until Isabelle came home.
He only missed seeing them come home once, the night he went in search of the Christmas presents, found the shotgun, the Kolar Twenty-Eight-Inch Over-and-Under Twelve Gauge he’d picked out. It was just sitting there, under a green towel on his father’s closet shelf. Not even wrapped yet. Not even in a box. Just there under the towel, together with a box of shells. He knew he shouldn’t take the gun down, shouldn’t even touch it, but already he was feeling the long, cold metal of the barrel, he was opening the magazine just to see the chrome-moly steel of the receiver, he was reaching up for the shells, just to see if they were real. When he heard the front door open, he panicked for a moment before registering that it was the front door, it was Isabelle. His parents would come in through the garage.
* * *
The Thursday night before Christmas, as Isabelle and Carver stood on the doorstep and John watched from the dark of his room, Carver’s hand slipped under Isabelle’s coat, over the swell of her breast, then settled in at the curve where her bottom met the top of her thigh. Before John could react, Isabelle had wiggled out of the embrace and, giggling quietly, slipped in through the front door.
John climbed under the sheets, listened to the sounds of Isabelle: the sliding of drawers in her bedroom next to his, the running of water in the bathroom, the soft click of her bedroom door. And then the quiet. Freeing him to his own rhythm. Nine. Eleven. Nine.
He was still listening to the quiet when a door opened downstairs. Carver? But it was the door from the garage. His parents. He pretended sleep, working hard to keep his fingers still when his mother opened his bedroom door to check on him.
* * *
The next time Carver came to get Isabelle, the night before Christmas Eve, John took the key from the board before he went out to the car—just to turn on the radio, to listen to tunes for awhile. What else could he do? He didn’t have a license, and if he got caught with the car on the street he’d be grounded for the rest of his life.
After four songs his feet were numb with cold. Back in the house, though, nothing seemed to keep his interest. The sci-fi movie was old, ridiculous, a martian visitor passing himself off as human but someone was onto him. Nothing happening online, either, not even an e-mail from Martha. He thought of the gun, then. No one would know if he took it down from the closet, just for a few minutes. He idly tapped his finger against the top of his thigh, against the small lump with which you could slay dragons, the bit of magic fossil that could keep a princess safe.
And then he was in the car with the Twelve Gauge. He couldn’t even say how he got there; he was just there. Throwing the gun onto the back shelf. Jamming the key into the ignition. Clicking impatiently at the garage door remote. Slamming the gearshift into reverse.
He would just scare the guy.
He punched the gas and the car lurched backward. He slammed on the brakes. Slid on the icy driveway, nearly hitting the sugar maple whose roots were starting to crack the driveway, the cement light post at the road. When the car came to a stop, finally, he sat there for a moment, his fingers rubbing over the lump in his pocket. He pressed the gas more carefully this time, then tapped the brakes—or thought he only tapped them, but the wheels locked and he slid out onto the icy street.
It was dark outside, so no one could see inside the car, really. And he was pretty tall for his age; he could be old enough to drive. Still, he eased the car forward inch by inch, testing the brakes again, getting used to his feet on the narrower pedal of the gas, the wider one of the brake.
He crept to a stop at the first light, sunk lower in the seat, hoping no one would pull up next to him before the light changed. In his nervousness, he forgot for a moment why he was driving, and he was on the road leading out to the reservoir before he remembered again.
He turned in at the gravely entrance to the reservoir and pulled off on the first side road, turned the car off.
In the darkness, his toes began to get cold, then his fingers, his nose. He rubbed his hands together, stamped his feet, tucked his face into the collar of his coat which smelled, he thought, of Carver’s cigarettes. Three cars came by, then a fourth. None of them the Corvair. The windshield began to frost over, his breath crystalizing on the inside. He turned the engine back on, then the radio and the heater. But a car went by and he hadn’t heard it coming, had only caught its taillights as it passed. Both taillights, but John turned the radio off and watched more closely. He could stand the quiet. He wasn’t scared of the silence or the darkness or the cold.
He slipped the stone into his mouth.
Another car came, a little car, not Carver’s. And another and another, ten cars in a row, meaning the movie Carver and Isabelle had gone to see was probably just out. John watched all the cars, but none of them was Carver’s. He waited another twenty minutes and then gave up. He had turned the car on, turned the lights on, when Carver’s Corvair came toward him. John froze, certain they would see him, but the Corvair only passed him without slowing and continued down the road.
John sat there for a moment while his heart slowed. He got out then, taking the shotgun with him—just to scare the guy—and followed them on foot so they wouldn’t see him. But after a few minutes of walking, he was freezing. What if there were more than one place where couples parked, anyway? What if the place couples parked was five miles down the road? He’d never been to the reservoir, not with Martha or anyone else.
He went back to the car and got in and turned it on, headed carefully down the narrow, tree-lined gravel road. When he came to the parked cars, he turned his lights off. It was late, but the moon shone brightly, reflecting off the broad expanse of snow-covered ice. He could see well, not just the cars but the silhouettes of the couples inside, sometimes two heads, a couple talking, sometimes heads bent together kissing, sometimes nothing at all, as if the passengers had gone for a walk. He was at the dead end of the road, confused because he couldn’t find Isabelle and worried about how to maneuver the car around to the other direction, when he saw the Corvair. It was pulled off the road, into a clump of trees right down by the frozen water. He turned the Mercedes around, inching forward, then backward, then forward again, afraid to hit the dark shapes of trees against the moonlight. When he finally had the car turned around, he drove up a little way and parked. He climbed out quietly, carrying the shotgun, shutting the door as gently as he could. Still, the sound of it echoed in the stillness.
He tucked the stone up against the roof of his mouth. Ran his tongue over the ridges. Nine times. Eleven. Nine.
He’d just scare the guy, that was all.
He crept in a low crouch toward the Corvair, the crunching of his feet on the crusty snow deafening, the moon searchlight-bright. He tried to stay behind trees, darting from one to another like guys did in the movies, peeking around each trunk and figuring out where he’d go next before he moved. And then he was there, at a tree almost beside the Corvair, and when he peeked around it he saw her, only her, only Isabelle. She sat sideways in the center of the front seat, facing the passenger window, the moonlight bright on her breasts. He was close enough to see her dark hair against the naked skin of her bare shoulders, the closed lids of her eyes.
He stared, stunned by the sight of her pale skin. Why was she there, naked, by herself? Where had Carver gone? Was he tricking her? Had he dared her, said she wouldn’t take her shirt off even if he wasn’t there, wasn’t watching, and she’d taken the dare—she was always a sucker for a dare—and Carver had gotten out of the car, pretending he wasn’t going to watch when all the while he was there in the woods, watching?
John held the shotgun in his hands, rolling the indian money with his tongue, always in the rhythm. The guy was sneaking a peak at his sister.
And then a voice from inside the car. Carver’s voice in a whispering moan, "Izzy, Izzy, Izzy." And Isabelle rocking back and forth now, back and forth, and her head dropped back, her eyes still closed, her pale throat stretched out in the moonlight, and the voice, hushed but building in intensity, "Izzy, Izzy, Izzy," rhythmically, like a chant. And his sister smiling now, smiling with her head thrown back, her body moving back and forth, back and forth, and then the voice, again, the voice: "Izzy, Izzy, Iiiiizzzz!"
And his sister slumping forward, sighing, "Carver," and John just standing there, only standing there, impossibly still, his hands gripping the shotgun, the stone fallen from his mouth, glistening cold on the pure white snow.
He raised the gun, jamming the wood butt against the nylon of his ski coat, pressing the stinging-cold metal against his cheek. His eyes traveled up the barrel to the bead and beyond it, to his sister. She lifted her right hand—her hand that rested so gracefully on the Mercedes’ wooden gearshift when she drove—and touched the long dark hair.
Hair no longer neatly tied back, not wisps escaping in the wind.
She lifted it, exposing her breasts. Let it fall back onto her bare shoulders, unkempt, wild.
John raised the gun slightly, centering the bead on the sweet bow of her red lips. She sighed, contented, and closed her eyes.
He pulled the trigger.
Listened to the empty click of the firing pin finding no shell.
Then turned and ran for the eye-green car. Climbed in. Threw the shotgun onto the seat beside him. Slammed the door. Fired up the engine. Threw the car into gear and stomped the gas. Lurched backward, crunching the bumper on the tree behind him. Threw the gearshift over. Stomped the gas again. Lurched forward a few feet. Skid despite his slamming the brakes. Smacked hard into a snow bank.
He reached for his pocket, his heart banging in his chest, and found it empty, the stone gone.
The air inside the car pressed in on him, unbearably hot despite the cold. He reached for the smooth wood of the gearshift as if for his life. He stomped his foot on the gas, released it. The wheels whirred against the icy ground, faster and faster, nine eleven nine.
Behind him, headlights appeared, reflecting brightly in the snowy forest, but the car did not even slow. It sped past him, its wheels crunching confidently on the snow-covered gravel, its single taillight glowing red in the moonlit dark.