[I feel like my introduction to Johnny was a lot of "tell" and not enough "show", but it was a self-indulgence. :P Maybe I broke up the normal narrative flow, though? -- Thanks for reading! Sarah]
Jed smoothly folded pancake batter over into the skillet, humming a morning song. He glanced out the frosted windowpane, and saw a girl skimming along the path to the house. She was smoking, and wrapped in a mink coat. When she got to the house, she stubbed the cigarette out on the stone step by the kitchen, scraping it with her toe. Without knocking, she opened the door and breezed into the kitchen.
"Jed," said the girl, "my man, my boy, my beauty." She slid her mink coat off her shoulders and folded it neatly over the back of a chair. "How fares you?" She was dressed in a woollen skirt, and a short kimino-like jacket, golden from her shoulders to her hips.
"Hullo, Johnny Rose," he said. "I'm grand. But what squall blows you in here --" he glanced at the clock on the wall, "at seven-twenty in the morning?"
Johnny picked a tea bag out from her pocket. "Do I need a squall to visit the Spearman household?" she said. She dipped the bag into a mug of hot water by the stove.
"Well, that was mine," he said.
"Oh, pardon me," she said, "I thought you saw me and precipitously poured it."
"Take it; I'm only teasing you. Did your parents lock you out last night?"
"I don't know," said Johnny, putting her finger in her mouth. "Haven't been home yet."
"Look at your jacket," he said. "Is it silk? I have to touch your jacket."
"Touch it all you want, kid."
"Kid! I'm older than you." Jed leaned over from stove, and fingered the hem.
"This is your latest item, isn't it."
"It's my haute couture."
The back was embroidered with a ceremonial dragon, its spine going down her vertebrae, the tail dipping below her waist. "It's exactly who you are," said Jed, because her tone had tottered.
But Johnny needed a little reassurance only occasionally: spots and dabs, here and there. Otherwise she was a Babylonian tower of magnificence, and even Jed acknowledged that. She was the eldest of the Moguncoy Howards, one of the handful of exorbitantly wealthy families who retired to the country after crafting wealth or inheriting it.
Johanna Rose Howard, called Johnny for short. Jed felt that Johnny was a wily and homely combination of a tigress and an earthy professor. Nineteen-years old, full of gushes of gold. And her bottom lip was red as cedar bark; much too large, but no one noticed, because her mouth was giving and active. She had ugly puffs under her eyes, and a flared nose, skanky and delicate as the asiatic Bering Strait. The color of her eyes were fans of cedar blades. She was one of the most textured people Jed had ever known: textured from her coveted nylons, up to her conservative woollen skirts, then on to the exotic jacket he wanted to finger -- only to feel the canary-colored material, embroidered with the Japanese dragon between her shoulder blades. The dragon was lashed with black thread, silk-clawed, and its scales were studded with the wings of scarab beetles, sewed into the fabric. A glinted, gutty victory. There had to have been eighty of them, at least.
Johnny had a constant vitality about her, a streak of peacock-green -- or maybe absinthe-green -- through the Moguncoy tweeds and bedrock. There was a stubborn softness to her body that was springy: as if her essential bones were wired and screwed tightly, and then enveloped-over in a casing of malleable form. She never smiled, but she grinned. And when she grinned, it was a horned-snail grin -- something not malevolent, but dancing on a sharp edge that Jed never fully trusted.
Johnny Rose carried a cigarette almost constantly between her two first fingers, as if it was a red flower, and she seemed to be making it a point to penetrate this small town of Massachusetts and expose its guts to her maniacal mind, before she took off and explored the Italian riviera, or netting a Wall Street banker, or settled down to studying in a women's college, or killed herself while trying to write poetry. Whichever came first. She had lost her honest highschool sweetheart within the first month of his enlisting, and very soon thereafter was expelled from her first year at Wellesley. She was home now, for a year to recover, she easily told passersby, and was friends with Virginia, and frequented the Spearman household.
Jed had, early on, written in his diary that he would never fall in love with Johnny, because she was, in body and spirit, almost an exact replica of the woman he had loved in his teen years. She was a dangerous cat, and for all her liveliness, carried smoky tragedy in her loins like a basil pot.
"Anyway." She sighed deeply, rubbing her hands on her woollen skirt: that article made him think of gourd fields and corn, as much as the jacket made him think of wildness and rivers. "I thought I'd drive Virginia to work today. Where is Ginny at?"
"Still sleeping, of course," said Jed. "She won't be up for two more hours."
"Alright," she said, with noblesse oblige. "I'll wait," languidly taking out a cigarette case. It was silver, etched with a bird. Maybe a heron. And long spikes of grass. She was elegant on a large scale, and it was natural.
Jed explored under the batter-fold with his spatula. "D'you want a pancake?"
"No, Jay; you sweet sweetheart. Care if I smoke." She tapped the cigarette against her case.
"You know we don't care." The smooth beige surface began to bubble and pop. Jed pushed the spatula under the pancake fully. The underside stuck and broke as he flipped it.
"Sugar," he said.
"You want me to do it?" Johnny said, smoke blooming out of her mouth at all corners haphazardly.
"No," he said. "Thanks, though. You're a sweetheart, too."
Minnie clattered into the kitchen, and Johnny greeted her with,
"Johnny," muttered Minnie.
Jed glanced at his sister quickly. She was moving erratically. Her adolescent neck was reaching forward, looking for something. Her head always moved a centimeter ahead of her body, achingly outstretched, and Jed thought she looked like a turkey vulture or someone trying to escape -- that if her head could leave the house a second earlier than her feet, it would bring some kind of relief to her spirit. He said,
"Minnie, 'member when you were six or seven and I'd always make a miniature pancake for you, whenever I was making pancakes? And I said it was a mini for a Minnie."
His sister didn't answer, but zipped through the kitchen. As she was jerking about, pulling up cushions on chairs and tugging jackets on hooks, she yanked a silver tube out of her dress pocket and suctioned her lips in and painted her mouth a bubblegum color. She went into the dining room.
"That goes nice with your hair color," Jed said as she passed. He slopped the broken pancakes onto a plate.
"Where's my bag?" Minnie said, from the dining room. She came back in, not looking at anyone. Jed noticed that the cloudy area around her body was the color of vigilant gray and murky violet and vomiting olive. "Who touched my book bag?"
"Haven't seen it," he said.
Johnny Rose quietly picked up her mug and went into the parlor. Jed noticed that when Spearman activity heightened, Johnny perpetually became a tapestry, a lampshade, a bookend.
Minnie jabbed the lipstick back into the pocket of her skirt and yelled into the next room, where Sunny was coloring at the dining room table, "Sunny, did you touch it? You're always taking my things. Did you lose it?"
"Come on, Min--"
"It's behind the sofa," said Mrs. Spearman, clunking into the kitchen. "I saw it there yesterday." She reached her hand up to her head, jabbing a barrette through her sandy hair. "You should remember that everything has a place, and every place has --"
Minnie went into the parlor without a word. Jed glanced through the door frame, and saw Johnny half-ended over the sofa, looking. She held up a book bag, dangling it by the straps, and Minnie took it, returning to the kitchen with the bag over her shoulder.
"-- That's the only good way to live," said Mrs. Spearman with a vicious snap, closing the barrette into her hair. "If you don't keep track of your things, it's a signal that your life is disordered on other levels."
"Okay, ma," said Minnie.
"And what's that stuff on your mouth?" said Mrs. Spearman.
"You want a pancake, Minnie?" asked Jed. "Here, take this one with you. You can eat it as you go."
"No, I'm not hungry," Minnie said. "I'm never hungry, with my stomach."
"What's wrong with --"
"What's that mess on your face," said Mrs. Spearman. "Is that lipstick you're wearing?"
"It's Indian war paint, mama," said Minnie. "We're fighting the Apaches today," in a twisted and happy voice, pitched as if she were talking from another world, jumping across Saturn. Jed felt that her cloud became more dense and gray as she was stalking around the kitchen, her pointed legs zapping between chair legs and fumbling against tables, looking for something else.
"It's streetwalker paint," said Mrs. Spearman. "It's the color of a clown."
"Oh, I'm so sorry you don't like the color," said Minnie. She pulled a yellow sweater finally from the ground, like a spider crumpled by the work boots, up by the arms, and crammed it into her bag. "How sad. How so very unfortunate."
"So superf-ficial," said Mrs. Spearman, stuttering as if her anger could not even form words. "It's a mockery." She didn't touch her hair again: the strands were pulled into a careless bun at the nape of her neck, in the style of the Great Depression. She stood in the kitchen as if her heels sank down into the cellar. Jed knew she wore pressed clothing because their father ironed all of her outfits: that was the only reason. Her blouse would have been crumpled as a poppy leaf otherwise. He could see the crispness Mr. Spearman had flattened into the collar, after sprinkling the cotton with lavender water. Jed could almost smell the seared garden on her fabric, from across the kitchen. The toasted lavender.
"Well," said Mrs. Spearman, "you think you're going to walk out of my house looking like that?"
"Yup," said Minnie buoyantly. "I think I am."
Mrs. Spearman cemented her hands into her shrunken hips. Her jaw unhinged slightly, her own naked lip lolloping. Her eyes were a forget-me-not blue, studded in the candle wax of her skin. "Well, that's a great way to treat your mother. To treat yourself. Painting yourself up like some fast girl."
"Comment, Jed?" she said, keeping her eyes on Minnie.
"No, nothing," he said.
A piece of hair fell loose and swung down over Mrs. Spearman's cheek: the color of a noose. But the skin on her cheek was soft and melting -- vulnerable, unsettling. "What are you trying to do? Get the boys to like you?"
"Come on, Mother," said Jed. "That's what all the girls are wearing these days."
"Oh, yes, at thirteen, Jed?" she said, wheeling on him. "I don't think so."
Jed leveled with her. "They are," he said, streaming out more pancake batter. It pooled into a circle. "It's normal these days. It's actually completely normal."
"Oh, yes," said Mrs. Spearman. "Because something is normal, it's decent. Because everyone is doing it. So what for normal. This is my daughter. This is my house! Does Jenny do it? Does Carol? I don't seen any of the Lineen girls wearing lipstick."
"They do," Minnie laughed.
"Well, go ahead," said Mrs. Spearman. "Go out the door looking like that. You look ridiculous and disgusting. That's what you really look like. Enjoy it, Minnie. Enjoy it? You think you're going to enjoy it? I hope you enjoy it."
"Really, Mother," said Jed. "I think you're over-reacting."
"Side with your sister, Jed. Yes, and see her degrade. Sink into degradation! If your sister has to get married when she's sixteen because of this situation, I hope you feel happy for how you're talking to me right now. Alright, I'm done with this licentiousness and stupidity."
"We have someone here, you know," said Jed, and nodded over to the parlor. Mrs. Spearman looked as if she didn't see.
"I've lost touch with my own children," she said. "They've lost touch with goodness. Obviously I can do nothing. This house is an absolute disas --"
And she was still frothing to herself as she left.
The kitchen door then closed with a relieving finality: the wooden edge was snug and sealed against the frame. The room became quiet again. Jed glanced over into the parlor. Johnny Rose was reclining on the sofa, smoking as if she hadn't heard a single word. Her legs were silver-gray and shimmery as a slug. She was slowly bringing the cigarette up to her mouth, and holding one of Jed's books up to her face, her fingers splayed perfectly.
Jed turned back to the kitchen. "Boy," he said. "What was that."
[Minnie calls her mother a name]
"Language," said Jed, flipping a pancake the size of a thimble. "Sunny's in the other room."
Minnie revolved towards him with a smile and raised her voice a decibel. [increases the intensity of her insult and language] [Jed ignores it]
"She forgot her lunch," said Jed, looking at the wrinkled brown bag on the counter.
"Good," said Minnie. "I hope she has a stomachache all day. I hope she forgets her money so she can't buy anything and she starves. I hope she throws up because she's so hungry. Actually, it would be nice if she forgets her keys and gets locked in the library and starves to death entirely, but I know that's unlikely to happen."
Jed looked at his sister's face, then, for the first time. It was mottled, a broken-open watermelon with freckled seeds, though she was smiling her bubblegum smile. He was holding a miniature pancake in his palm, small and round like a burnt coin.
Minnie turned and went out the door, her neck stuck out.
Jed dropped his spatula with a clatter, tossed away his miniature pancake, took the dishcloth out of his pocket, and wadded it up on the counter. He went to the parlor door.
"Johnny," he said, "can you wake Virginia up and tell her she needs to walk the girls to school in an hour? I think I'll be back in time but I don't know. I'm just not sure."
Johnny closed the book and stretched luxuriously. "Sure," she said.
"The girls have their breakfast on the counter."
"No problem, kiddo."
Jed dragged his bike out of the shed, swung into the saddle, and pushed off. It was not far: four miles to town, but he found himself winded by the time he reached the Moguncoy town library, which looked like a granite-rock cottage. He saw his mother instantly: reedy, in her pale blue dress, her arm across her crumpled stomach, smoking an after-breakfast and before-work cigarette on the front steps. Jed squeaked to a stop in front of her. She straightened immediately and took the cigarette out of her mouth and tripped down several steps.
"Deddie! Are the kids okay?"
He held out the paper bag. "Nothing's wrong," he said, his stomach suddenly feeling cold. "I just brought you your lunch."
"Oh!" she said and took the paper bag. As he handed it to her, he was only able to look at her nails. They were ridged and stubby. "Oh, you scared me a bit. But you biked here? Bringing that all the way out for your mother. My. You didn't have to do that. I would have just bought a sandwich at Mr. Crinley's."
"Well," he said, turning to go, "I didn't know if you had money or not."
"Wait. Wait a minute, Jed."
"Are you okay?"
"Yes. I left the kids with Johnny and Ginny," he said, not sure what he was saying.
"No, I mean, are you okay? Is everything alright?"
"Yeah, of course," he said, his face starting to warm.
"Okay. I just wanted to make sure you were okay."
"Yeah, I'm okay."
"Look, I was just worried that maybe you were worried about what happened this morning."
"Oh," he waved his hand, pulling his bike out to the sidewalk. "Naw."
"I know you don't like hearing stuff like that," she said. "I know it worries you. Because you've got a sensitive heart."
"No, it's fine."
"I think you don't like hearing me talk like that, but listen to me, Jed. Come here a moment. No, just come here, my dear."
He reluctantly dragged his bike back to the bottom of the steps. He looked down at her shoes. She stood three steps above him. Her shoes were scuffed at one toe. His father had blacked them, though, made them shinier. There was a woolly bear caterpillar scribbling along the granite step, navigating its way around a twig. He kept his head down.
"Listen, Jed," she said, "you can't have an opinion on this."
"Why not," he said, barely audibly.
"Because you haven't seen enough of the world."
"I've seen enough."
"No, not enough of life. You've lived twenty years --"
"-- and that's not long enough. Not in the large scheme of things. Jed! I'm twenty-something years older than you! That means I've lived your lifetime, and then your lifetime over again."
"Yup," monotone. "I know."
"So I just know a bit more than you do." She put her cigarette to her mouth, and laughed chummily, intimately. "That's all. Not heaps more, deary, but just a bit. A bit enough for you to hear your old mother out. And this is the thing: you think it stops at make-up."
And then Jed felt it happen: that familiar moment when he scrunched his ears in, tensed his jaw so that he could hear a rumbling in his inner ear drum, like a fighter jet starting to take off: forcing clouds of fluff and poff and stuffing into his ear canal.
"I just wanted to bring you your lunch," he mumbled.
"I've seen more of the world, alright?" said his mother. "More than you can imagine, and I know it doesn't stop there. I know the road she's going down. I know you don't see it that way. No one else does. And I'm just trying to stop her. That's all I'm doing. I'm talking to her out of care." Her cigarette had burned down. Jed knew the end was wet. His mother tossed it into a brass basin on the steps: a flick of her middle finger against her thumb. "Everything I do is out of care."
"Yup," he said.
Then Mrs. Spearman looked down and extinguished an ember with a practiced tap of her toe. She frightened him, sometimes, when she became elegant. Sometimes she couldn't speak well and her clothes always hung on her like a wrinkled moth's wing, but she could grind her toe into granite like a movie star. He didn't like it when this happened, when the animal of her body became apparent and admirable. "Is there anything I can lay aside for you?" she said. "Anything special you want? That you've been wanting to read?"
"No. Not really," he said, taking his two handlebars. "But thanks."
"Say, wait, what about that new Hardy Boys book? The Short Wave Mystery? I can get that for you before anyone else takes it. I'll put it away for you today."
"I actually haven't read one of those in a while." He stepped quickly over his bike. "But thanks, anyway."
"Alright, honey. If there's anything else --"
"No, but thanks."
"I'll see you later," she said. "Have a good day at work yourself. Thank you for bringing my lunch. You're such a good man. You're a good one, Jed."
"Eh," he said. "Naw. I'm okay." His toe was suspending the gears, holding the tension taut.
"No, you're brilliant. You're a brilliant boy. You know that, right?"
"Naw. I'll see you later," he called, and crushed down his foot on the pedal.
"Bringing your mother her lunch," she repeated after him. "Hold onto your mama's words. You're a sweet good little boy."
* * *
Outside of the woodshed door, the sky crackled green and thick. It smelled thinly of ozone. The floor was dirt, and crawled with running things. Jed swung and cracked a log of oak. His ax went all the way through to the stump, and the splinters whizzed into corners. Jed stopped and ran his forearm across his forehead. His dark maroon shirt was rolled up to his elbows.
A figure shadowed the open doorway.
"You don't have to work so hard," said Mr. Spearman, holding two glasses.
"I told Rosie I would chop up her old oak for her."
"Did she ask you to do it?"
"No. But she obviously can't do it." Jed rubbed dust off his nose.
"I brought you some lemonade.”
“It's probably rotten. It was powder in a carton."
"You didn't have to."
"Are you staying in tonight, son?"
"I don't know." He nicked his ax in the stump and reached for the glass. "Why?"
"It looks like rain."
The glass was cool and wet. "I'll probably go see Aggie."
"I think you see a lot of her."
"Yes, you already told me you think so." Jed gulped. The lemonade was acidic and saccharine. "So -- what? Do you not like her?"
"It's not that I don't like her."
"Good. Because there's no reason not to like her."
Mr. Spearman held onto his own glass with both hands and stared at something. Maybe a centipede.
"And it's not like you know anything about her. For goodness sake, she's barely around," said Jed. "She doesn't come here or into the house. You haven't ever even spoken with her."
"That's just it. I've never gotten a chance to talk with her."
"So you can't judge her."
"No. I can't judge her one way or the other. That's true."
"So I don't see what the problem is." Jed swirled his glass and made a yellow cyclone.
"There isn't a problem. Don't get defensive. I just feel that something is off."
"She’s a normal girl." Some lemonade splashed out.
"If she was, she would come here to the house. She would have tea and ice cream here. She would talk with your mother and play with your sisters. You'd sit on the porch and have your conversations."
Jed clanked his glass down on a shelf. He unwedged his ax.
"But you go over there. And away in the night. And you disappear into the woods. Your mother and I are concerned a bit. We're just a bit concerned."
"Aggie is fine." Jed hefted his ax into his hands. He broke the blade into a smooth log, but it was too thick and the ax stuck halfway through. He could feel the prickles popping through the skin of his back, breaking the skin near his spine. "What’s there to really be concerned about. It's not like we're committing arson or smoking opium. You talk like we're breaking every law in the county. We don't do anything at all actually."
"Well, now. I know you don't do anything," said Mr. Spearman. "I'm just saying, it's all a little private. It makes me wonder.”
“What is the hold she has on your mind. And why you feel the need to slip off."
“Because she’s smart," said Jed, readying for another swing. "And because we like the woods.”
"I know she’s smart. And I know you don't do anything. I'm not concerned about you."
Jed swung and splinters went flying. "You make it sound like she's some black force. No one has a hold on my mind and never has and never will. We just like the outdoors. You want her under your nose so you can watch everything; so you can have complete control of me and her."
"No. I only want you to be careful. You seem so less religious since you met her."
"Ah, that’s it." He stepped back and weighed the handle between his two hands. "No, Dad. You haven't watched me the past few years. I’ve been losing that for years.”
Mr. Spearman’s jowls slackened; his brows darkened. “I didn’t know that.”
“Yes. How would you.” Jed looked down and kicked the two new halves in the pile.
“I still think she is pushing you.”
“No,” he smiled, scooping up another log and positioning it on the chopping block. “No, Dad, I met her at a crossroads. She's a pagan, yeah. She's heretical. But she didn’t push me off a cliff or anything. See, I never let anyone convince me of something. I have to come to the conclusion myself. She didn’t do anything." He aimed. "At all.”
"Alright, then," said Mr. Spearman.
Crack. "Don't worry, Father. I am the last person to let another human being control my mind." He laughed. "I think I'm feeling insulted that you would even think that's possible." He tossed away the halves again. "Pride myself on my autonomy. Feel outraged when someone doubts it. Tell Mother she doesn't have to worry about me. I wouldn't let someone close enough to change my mind. Unless I wanted to change it."
"If you say it, I believe you."
"Thanks for the lemonade, though."
Mr. Spearman turned, but he paused in the doorway. The pale green of the sky backlit his face softly; he had an aquiline nose that only Georgie had inherited. Then he said, "I suppose the other girls bore you."
"Terribly," Jed said, letting the ax handle lean on the ground.
Mr. Spearman grunted and shrugged. "I just wish she smelled better."
"Good grief, Dad. What."
"Well," he said, looking out across the field, "I was near her in Crinley's the other day. She didn't say hello to me. Just jumped away. She was buying some smokes or something. And her shoulders were cringing. Was she abused?”
"What," he said again.
"Well, just when someone acts like that."
“How should I know?” Jed looked down. A snail was inching its way towards his boot. “I couldn’t say.”
"No one walks like that without a reason." Mr. Spearman began rolling up one of his shirtsleeves. "See, I almost feel bad for her. But she did have a smell about her. Does she not --"
"Not what!" said Jed. "Bathe?"
"No. I mean, maybe Aggie doesn't have access to laundering facilities."
"Who needs more than soap and water?"
"We have that new washing machine your mother bought. You know, your mother could offer to wash her clothes here. She would do it."
"Yes, and that would be such an incredibly kind thing to offer." Jed tossed the ax into the wood pile, and a creature scattered. He walked past his father, leaving his half-filled lemonade glass on the shelf. Then he turned around, surprised at his own panting in his chest. “Maybe, Dad, did you ever consider that she jerked away from you because she could tell you didn’t like her?”
“I never said I didn’t like her, Jed.” Mr. Spearman was shading his eyes, surveying something beyond Jed. "It's just. She has sort of a different personality. She's sort of different." Maybe his father was looking at the rhododendron bushes bordering the field.
"Well, so am I. Very different. So I guess she and I fit,” said Jed. "Dad! Look. Just let me have my own friends. Okay, Father? And don't worry about me. I'm not going to go around burning down churches or taking up laudanum or something. I am still the same me. Alright?"
"You're not exactly, though."
"Well." Jed turned. "I’m older than you last knew me." He looked up at the sky. "But I'm still the same Jed."
"I just hope you eventually find your way back to God, Jed," said Mr. Spearman. “That's all I hope. I guess we all need that in our family.” He gave a tap to the door frame as if testing its security. "Myself included."
The green sky was muted with murky yellow, and the trees tossed in soft whorls. Jed's back was still to his father and he slid his hands into his pockets. "But why is this suddenly important to you?" he asked. "That's what I don't understand. You never seemed to care before. I went to church more than you. -- And I'm not saying that as an offensive thing; it's just a fact."
"Well, that's just it right there," Mr. Spearman said. "You've surprised me lately. That's all. You used to be the religious one," and he smiled warmly: "Our holy boy."
* * *
Jed dipped his finger into a liquid puddle of wax.
When he lifted his hand, the wax congealed over his nail like a soft cap. It hardened, gray-white, and smelled of spice.
"I've got a riddle for you, Ag," he said.
"I love riddles."
"What no longer exists when you say its name?"
"A secret," she said promptly.
"Gee, you're good," he said. "But that's not it."
"Then let me sally forth on my mind," she said. She rolled over onto her back on her bed and put her hands under her head.
Jed was sitting in a chair in Aggie's bedroom and hovering over a bayberry candle. He dipped his finger again into the cup of a hot puddle.
"While you're thinking," he snapped the hardened wax pieces off his finger, “-- what time is it?”
“Quarter to two in the morning.”
“No, it’s not.”
“Oh, sugar. Wait. Sugar.” He shook the last of the wax off. “Aggie, I’ve got to go back.”
“It’s pouring rain.”
“No, no, I really have to go back,” he stumbled up.
“There’s no moon. It’s pitch black. There are potholes. And that rain is the icy, pelting kind.”
“I’ll be fine," he said, stuffing his arms inside his coat. "I’ve ridden in worse.”
“No, you haven't.”
“I’ll be fine.”
Aggie sat up. “Are you serious? You're not serious. They’ll find you in a ditch in the morning.”
“I'll be okay.”
“No, really. Listen to me. Think of the horrors I'm going to go through, never knowing if you're alright. I have no phone here. You can’t tell me you've made it.”
He was wrapping a scarf around his face. “Then I’ll come over tomorrow first thing.”
“Sure. You’ll be hacking with a cough tomorrow first thing. You’re going to die of pneumonia.”
“Naw,” buttoning his coat.
“Really. Really, Jed. Aw, come on. Are you really that nervous of being with me at night?”
"I've never stayed," talking into his scarf, "with a --"
"Well, then, that's perfect!" she said. "Our friendship is about breaking ground in new frontiers."
“No,” he said, suddenly, pulling his mouth up, “it’s about you, too.”
“Oh, it’s about me. Oh, you dear boy.” Aggie fluffed her pillow with her hands and laughed. "You courteous boy."
“What?” fumbling a button.
“I don't think anyone has ever worried about my reputation," said Aggie. "Ever. Come on now! Who is actually going to know or care? The turkeys that trot across the yard in the morning?”
“That's attentive of you, but he’s plastered till noon. It's mistaken chivalry if you want to go risking your health for my honor. Five miles in cold rain for a standard I’m not even upholding.”
“Well,” said Jed, “I'm upholding it."
“Ah. So your principles are endangered by my presence.”
“No, but –”
“So what is the problem? To whom do we answer? To society? Do you answer to your parents?”
“To my conscience.”
“Then have a talk with the old boy." She hit her pillow with a soft thump. "Tell him firmly that if you leave now, and if you catch your death or swerve into a ditch, the guilt is going to be on the mind of an already guilt-ridden Aggie, who is fragile like a twig and would probably snap if something happened and it was her fault. And if you stay, tell your conscience that you're staying only to be warm and dry. You are simply going to be two friends sleeping under one roof. In separate beds. No more than that.”
"I don't know." Jed paused on the last buttonhole. “It’s not a lack of bravery,” he added.
“Of course not. To stick to your principles I know you would pedal back if it was Adam’s Flood.”
“Noah’s. Wait, you really didn’t know that?”
“Buzz off. Will you stay and make me happy? And will you do it for your own safety?"
“I seriously am going to be somewhat upset if you go back at this hour and in this weather.”
He felt a flash of anger. “You are manipulating me.”
“Oh, yes. Yes, Jed, I am manipulating a friend to try to keep him alive. You're being a bit of a fool.”
He looked around the room. “Do you have a light?”
Jed saw Aggie glance around the room, too. Both of their eyes fell on a flashlight on the desk. “Yes.”
“And do you have a rain jacket?” he asked.
“No. I don’t.”
“Does your dad have a rain jacket?” he persisted.
“No. – Well, fine, probably.”
“Check for me, will you? Please?" said Jed. "And then if he doesn’t, I will stay.”
Aggie went downstairs, and Jed heard her rifling in a closet.
“Please,” he said under his breath. “Oh, please, heaven. Please, please, please.” The words stumbled on his tongue, and tasted of rosewood, and musty beads.
Aggie’s shoes came pounding up the stairs. “No. No, rain jacket. It was on your word of honor.”
“Alright,” said Jed. He looked around the room. “Then I’ll sleep under the desk.”
“You’ll – what,” she spluttered.
“Yeah, I’ll make a little nest,” said Jed.
“I have two mattresses right here.” Aggie jabbed her hand at the second pallet in the room.
“I’d be more comfortable under there,” said Jed.
“Oh, you’re a new one,” she said. “Look at you. You with your little nest. Here, have a pillow. Take two or three.” She threw them at him. “There. Your nest is made.”
* * *