He crawled in and curled up.
“Come out,” she said.
“I am like a pill bug. Or a hibernating bear. Oh, fine," he said. "I can at least lie on the other bed for a while.”
So Aggie and Jed lay on the separate mattresses as the rain slashed against the window. He settled his arms under his head.
“I did,” he said, “once like someone.”
Aggie rolled towards him. “Ah.”
“It took me so long to be able to say even that, though.”
“Tell me,” she whispered into the corner of her pillow. Her voice was an electric current, pulling him like a velvet magnet. They were both in shadows, except for the leap of a candle.
“I don’t know," Jed said. "I lost her in the end. I don’t know why I say it that way, because nothing even happened." He was watching the ceiling undulate in lights of orange and silver and gray. "That was probably good, because that was the closest I ever came to – I mean. The closest I ever wanted. . . Well, you know, me and my ideals.”
“Tell me about your ideals.”
He grinned. “Don’t you want to hear about the girl?”
“Then tell me about the girl,” with mildness.
“There’s nothing to tell,” said Jed. "Not really."
“I think I know about you by now,” said Aggie. “Maybe it was an intellectual admiration. Maybe it was an acknowledgement of an equal, or a tip of the hat to a worthy adversary. But it was nothing more.”
Jed shifted his arms under his head.
“If it was anything else," said Aggie, "you would have burned.”
He stared directly in front of him, at the word ‘hecatomb’ carved into a plaque of wood, leaning against Aggie’s wall. Where had he heard that word before.
"Well," he said.
The peak of his tongue was a flame, and he intuited strangely that his response would hurt Aggie. So he swallowed it.
“Jed,” she said.
“Tell me about your ideals.”
“They would bore you." He rubbed his elbow.
“You’re a pagan.”
“So I don’t have principles, or wouldn’t be interested in yours? Jed, I’m an intellectual before I'm anything else. And I’m thirsting to drink you down.”
He laughed, and his laughter was a field of poppies and burrs. “Well, you could say I have a blank slate standard."
“Let me guess what that means. -- No, I can't. Just tell me.”
“It just means that I am committed, on my wedding day, to giving everything to my bride," he said. "Heart, mind, soul, and body. To her, forever. And if not to her, then to no one else. Ever. Nothing can ever be written on my heart, except for her name.” Jed had the sense that it was not his own voice speaking; that he was watching an old version of himself reciting a script. He was looking down at a young boy, lying on a mattress in a girl's room -- crossing ankles, his sleeves rolled up, touching his bare elbow above his head -- picking at a scab, a red bloom from a scrape with an apple branch. There was something shell-like there in the figure. And his present self, shapeless, was hovering elsewhere in observation.
Aggie's mouth, ever quick, turned peony-patient and explorative. "And have you anything written on you now?" she asked.
"No," he said, listening to the staccato rain against the glass. Being with Aggie made him exquisitely aware of dirty details, of exciting and intimate shapes of his own heart. He felt his attic angles, his garden spiders. He looked at the line of cream dust across the windowsill. "Nothing really," he added. He felt his temples begin to beat, and yet, again, he had the sense of being in front of himself -- of watching his youthful version.
“Who is your bride, Mr. Spearman?" Aggie asked. "Maybe you've had one all along and you're hiding her in a cellar. Or in that house on the lake!”
“I have no Bertha,” Jed laughed. “I don’t know at all who my future bride is. But if she exists, then she’s my bride now as much as she is my bride in the future. And I want to honor her today. Tonight. Any day. Until I die.”
“Well, lucky girl,” Aggie said.
They were quiet for a time, listening to the rain on the window. It pattered now.
"The rain is slowing a bit," he said. "You know, I've held this promise since I was fourteen-years old."
“Jed," said Aggie, "do you mind if I play the devil’s advocate?”
"Sure." Jed's mind stumbled; he cleared his voice. “Go right ahead.”
"This is all I've ever want to do in our friendship, you know -- is to be your mental sparring partner. Helping you to examine all sides of your philosophies. Lending you the vigor of my mind. Not to give you answers, or new views --"
"No, I know you don't do that. You are so respectful, Aggie." His voice almost caught in the realization. "Always have been."
"Just if it's even to help you even strengthen your own side.”
“Aggie," Jed said, "you are my worthy adversary. No one else ever has been. So get on my shoulder and play my demon.”
“It's just this," she turned to him and tucked up her knees; one pointy knee of her cargo pants was patched with a green fleece, "I'm wondering -- no, I'm a bit afraid, if you let me dare to say that -- I am afraid that your ideal is going to hurt you in the end.”
“Yes," said Jed. "Yes, people have said that to me before.”
“That it might keep you from -- oh, I don't know why I'm stuttering. I can't talk. Let me. . ." She coughed into her cupped hand. "There. It's the cold damp air. I'm afraid it might keep you from ever getting close enough to a girl. Close enough to marry her!” The words started coming out fast then, as if Aggie would not say them unless she was citric lightning. “Real intimacy is knowing someone. And how can you know someone if you keep yourself from them – if you keep your distance in body and soul?”
“Oh, I’ve seen the drawbacks." Jed inserted his hand underneath his head. "I have actually been re-thinking it lately for those very same reasons. I do know it lost me Evelyn. I am aware that I have no tools --" then he turned his face away and dropped his casual tone, and the long-delayed blush suddenly flooded his neck, "that I have no idea how to cross that chasm towards another human being. Towards a girl. But I can’t help feeling like I’m still protecting the future intimacy with my wife.” And then he was hot, and present in the room. He was embodied, and no longer reading from the script of his past. The currency and physicality of it frightened him and he knew his ears were visibly red.
“Because I’ll come to her with no residue. I don't know.”
“But we all have residue. Your bride will have residue. No residue means an unlived life.”
Jed twisted the blanket around his hand. "Yeah. No. I don't know."
“I didn’t mean,” said Aggie, “that you aren’t living life. You obviously live life. I just mean when – when you meet your future wife – the woman you want to come close to – I’m afraid you won’t actually do it. Even if you want to.”
“Because of my blank slate. Yeah.” He rubbed his hand over his mouth.
“Exactly. Do you see what I’m saying? I’m saying it only out of care for you.”
“I know. You know what," Jed said, putting his hand down hard into the mattress, "you can't even tell a girl you love her, until your next mouthful is a proposal. I mean, I get that. I see the integrity in it -- wanting to back up your love with your life. But you can't even say what's on your heart, before. So Aggie, I don’t know how it’s done. I actually have no idea how two people get close.”
“Aw, that's alright," she crooned. "That's alright, Jed. Really. You know it more than you think. It's the most natural thing in the world."
"Of course it is! It's how our species has continued up to this point. It's in our genes. Intimacy is -- well, it's just what we’re doing right now. Oh, hush, I saw your look of panic across your face. You're so transparent. I’m not writing on your slate right now, Jedidiah Spearman. And if I do make a tiny smudge, I give you full permission to erase it. Alright? Or is the chalk indelible?”
She put her hand through her curls with what looked like smug satisfaction to Jed. "That's good.”
So he said, “No, don't worry -- you’re totally fine."
“Oh, am I fine? Well, how kind of you. And you've had no smudges on your slate so far?”
“A couple," said Jed. "I've had a couple."
"Well, see! You've had experiences." But Aggie's voice sounded laced with disappointment.
"But not experiences like most boys can claim --" he adjusted to honesty. "I don't know if I can count that one girl because we didn't even really. . .you know. One time I asked her to dance and she put her head down on my shoulder. That's it. That's my biggest smudge. Small to most people, but to me it was something else." He felt his heart contract slightly, and then he shrugged it off hard. "She danced with my friend afterwards. And that was sort of it. And then another girl touched my hair once. I think I was eighteen. She said she wanted to feel how thick it was, and she put her fingers through it, while we stood against a wall and she was smoking a cigarette. She was older than me, and I let her do it. There was no point in stopping her. But I feel ridiculous even mentioning this to you. Or the fact that I remember it, and count it." He laughed. "Am I stupid? Or what? Oh, no, wait, no. Another girl asked me pick her up when I was that age, too. She was saying to her friends that she was fat, but obviously wanted to prove the opposite,” he said. “So I picked her up. She was like a hay bale. But that’s all.”
Aggie twiddled a pen in her hands over and over. “Well, Jed. Aren't you the most washed-up boy ever. Ruined,” she said. “Your chances are over. Too many women have had you.”
“Agreed, I’m tainted for life,” he laughed. “Never to be worthy of a fair maid. Oh, look, I recognize this sounds stupid and has damaged me in ways. And I know it isn't entirely the way I want to go anymore.”
“Isn't it?” gently.
"Yeah, no." Jed paused and listened. "Say, the rain has stopped."
"I hadn't noticed."
They were quiet, Aggie tapping her pen, Jed listening to the solemn drip.
"It sounds very over," he said. "I guess I'll go home," but he suddenly felt no desire behind his words. "There's the flashlight, anyway." He stood up.
"Alright, Jed," said Aggie, and surprised him with the lack of resistance in her voice.
He sat down again. "Wait, no, I have another thought," he said. "Another way this has hurt me."
"It's a little hard to explain."
"It's strange," he insisted.
"I dare you.”
* * *
Dawn's water broke. Jed winged five stones against Aggie's window, but before she could wake, he turned and walked away.
The morning sky was petal-pink and the droplets had stilled. Only tree-dew dripped, clicking on the cold ground. The world was spun in peach and crystal.
Jed had kept his promise: he had pedaled back to tell Aggie he had not died in a ditch. There was phlegm in the back of his throat, and he swallowed it.
The rising sun sparkled on the grass and darkened his boots as he stalked towards the woods. The world was utterly still, and glistening.
He snapped into the forest and pushed through the bracken. The woods was tangled and bare. He stomped and stumbled. The growth was thick and twisted and he scarred his shins but he kept walking. Then he stopped in a clearing, just before the cow farm.
Jed stood by a tree and watched a thin stream burble for a long time. His jacket was over his arm. The sky went from conch pink to orange.
“One thing I really do feel like I’ve lost out on,” he had said the night before, “one way my philosophy has hurt me…”
“Yes?” Aggie had prodded.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about this. The ways we show love. I think we all do it differently, as people. What do you think is your way?”
“I want to be near the person I love,” Aggie had said. “You could buy me a thousand roses, and sit with me for fifteen minutes –”
“And those fifteen minutes would mean more to you than the roses?”
“Yes," she had said. "I try to give my time to people.”
“I guessed that about you," Jed had said. "Now do you know the way I mainly show love?”
“Easily. You say it with language. I knew that straight away. Jed sees the world, and he loves it, and he says it."
"You wrap people up in words so snuggly they’re like warm sweaters.”
“But there’s a second way, too. And this is how I feel I was hurt. This is how I was stunted.”
“Tell me, Jed.”
The sky hatched dove-gray, soft as a moth's wing. But it was still pink on the horizon.
Jed knew she was coming before she came.
He listened to the muted thump of Aggie’s shoes behind him, wet-slap on the leaves. He did not turn. He sagged against the tree and felt its moisture sap between his shoulder blades.
Jed then wadded up his jacket and dropped it. He eased himself down on the ground. He knew his back was a widening circle of blue. He leaned fully against the trunk, letting the droplets collect across his shoulders. His hands were limply in the center of his crossed lap.
Aggie was now behind the tree; he could feel her warm red presence. He heard the pop of her knees. She must have crouched.
“Give me your hand,” she said, behind the trunk.
Jed automatically stretched out his left arm and looped it behind the tree. He held it palm-up.
Aggie laid her hand in his, palm-down. It was bird-boned and delicate.
“This is a hand,” she said
Jed was silent.
“Feel it,” she commanded.
He continued watching the stream burble, dance and kiss with the orange light. Then he buckled. He curled in his fingers.
“That’s the back of a hand, Jed,” Aggie said. “Touch it. Rub it. See, it’s not very soft – despite my inconsistent reforming stints with Pond’s cream. But feel how supple the skin is. Even give it a little pinch. You can gather the skin. Now go ahead and feel my palm.”
He had gone limp again. So Aggie took her other hand and moved his, to rub in circles around her palm. “Satiny,” she said. “Feel that? Now further down is the heel, and the wrist bone, which has a knob because I broke it. There’s the start of the wrist.” She shoved his thumb in between her tendons. “It’s tender. And the base of my thumb is fleshy. Feel that. Now go up my fingers. Go on.”
He did. He climbed her fingers with his fingers. “Those are knuckles,” she whispered, “those little wrinkles.”
Independently, he touched the tip of her middle finger. There was a hardened hangnail. He rubbed her nail.
It was glassy. “So smooth,” he said, his voice breaking as if in adolescence.
He skated his thumb softly over and over her nail.
“There,” she said, giving him a squeeze and a shake, “and that was a hand.”
She dropped him. He let his hand fall and hit the wet ground at his side.
A perennial bird erupted into song then: it whirtled and tweedled.
“Let’s have breakfast," said Jed suddenly. "Let’s scramble eggs.”
"Silence," said Aggie.
Aggie continued, "I thought of the answer to your riddle. Silence no longer exists when you say its name."
“But I've got no eggs.”
“Yes, you do. I brought some over last night and left them in your kitchen.” Jed stood up, unfolding himself and stretching all his ligaments, and he did not look at her as they walked back, Aggie in front, and he behind.
* * *
"Ginny," yelled Jed. "Sister."
"What," she hollered back, swinging her leg over her bike. Her hair was wrapped in purple silk, and her skirt was the color of wet mussels. She was outside the front fence, and Jed was hurrying down the driveway to catch her.
"You going over to Martin's?"
"Well, look, I'm walking with Aggie in the woods and I can't go to the store like planned," he said. "Can you just grab bread and a pound of bologna for me? We're running low for the kids' lunches."
"Sure thing, Bob," she said.
"You're the best!" he shouted as she pedaled off. Aggie came around the bend a moment later, and skidded to a stop under a bare oak. She waved as the cold breeze rippled through her coiled-cayenne hair. She stood up on one pedal and crowed,
"I have thought of a definition for myself, Jed. For what I am!"
"Tell me," he laughed, strolling down to her.
"I am an amorphous collection of buzzing curiosities cleverly concealed inside of a human-suit."
"Shoowee." He opened the gate. "That's a mouthful. But that's you."
"Or this, shorter," she said, angling her bike against the fence, "-- I'm a conglomeration of wonderment."
"And a girl with a birch map," he said, "begging the boy to run with her."
"To find the pot of gold."
"Except it's going to be black diamonds today," said Jed, pushing aside a branch of hemlock near the fence. The branch was as heavy as petticoats, and he led the way underneath onto a coarse path. Crossing behind the Spearman house was a railroad that ran the coal route from Plympton into Boston -- but it had been discontinued the decade before.
As they walked the remaining rails, the leather soles of their shoes became blackened with dust.
“This hill was made artificially," said Jed, their footsteps crunching. "The land was uneven so the builders in the 1800's piled up the dirt, using donkeys and carts. And look at this bridge. I wanted to show you this. It was built around the Civil War.”
"But how do you know that?" asked Aggie, flopping on her stomach and leaning over the granite slab. She was upside down, half-way under the bridge. "Some old-timer tell you?" Her voice echoed, and the dying light of day made triangles and teacups over her sweater and slacks.
"No," he said, "I can tell by the style of the nails."
She zapped her head up and looked at him, with that smile that he was learning was just for him -- and his heart became an opening lotus. But Jed continued as if he didn't notice her: "And the way -- see these grooves in the granite? The way those were made."
"You spectacular dabbler," said Aggie, pushing herself up to a crouch; her fingertips were wet with mud. "You grunger in the grave of time."
"Grunger in the grave of time," said Jed. "Aggie, how do you come up with stuff like that?"
"I don't know." She scooted to the side, away from him, to clamber down the steep hill, holding onto a tree branch, and stepping down the granite. He watched her sweater, the way the setting sun melted in gold through the porridge-colored weave. "I think you inspire it, actually. You call it out somehow. I don't feel like talking like that with everyone. I want to. But not everyone is as receptive. They'd think I was crazy."
"You are crazy," Jed said. "We are both crazy."
“It's a delicious sort of crazy," said Aggie.
They climbed down the steep hill, leaning back and holding aspen branches. At the base, Jed immediately felt the cool dampness emanating from the tunnel of granite.
“This had to have been a place of tryst!” said Aggie. The archway dripped, and the stone sides were covered in wet moss.
“That’s exactly what I’ve always thought," said Jed.
"Have you ever trysted with anyone here?"
"Come on," said Aggie. "You can tell me."
"Lots of times, with lady squirrels."
"Can't say I like your taste," she choked. "They're ugly broads."
"But I like to imagine this place eighty years ago," said Jed, "when women in hoop skirts probably met their sweethearts here. The men waiting under the bridge, dressed in blue uniforms. See, look at this groove.” He cradled his finger in the scoop of granite, but his other hand was on a beech tree, and he happened to glance over at the trunk. “Wait a second.”
“What is it?” Aggie nearly slipped on a mossy rock.
Jed spread his hand over the bark and ran it up and down the trunk. "There are carvings. Look at all these names."
"Have you ever --"
"No, I haven't! But how have I never noticed it before? This tree has been here forever. I've been coming here forever.” On the gray bark was etched and gnarled and carved dozens of names, from the base of dying grass, to above Jed’s head.
“Because now we’re together," said Aggie, close to him. "That’s the magic.”
He bent down with his nose to the bark. “T and V, 1937," he read aloud. "Truman and Victoria."
"Are there a Truman and Victoria in town?"
"No, I just made those names up. But if I thought hard enough, maybe I could figure it out."
"Here's an older one, on this side. Joe and Emily, 1911," said Aggie.
"Hot dog, can you believe it? Right as we were saying this was a trysting spot. This can't even be possible.”
“Hey, this one here's really old," said Aggie, crouching down in a frog squat. "M and S, 1899. Say, now Aggie and Jed, 1946. – Just joshing, of course.”
“Can’t we have a friendship mark on this tree?” Jed said. “But I've got no pen-knife on me.”
"I can try." Aggie scratched at the bark with her nails, but she only made a line of green.
"That's alright," said Jed. "Besides, we should get back before it's dark. Look at the sky right now."
It was aging afternoon in the final edge of November. The hyaline sun was leaning across the cradle of trees. The clouds were creamy and orange.
"It's a glacé sky," said Jed.
"November is a feathery month," said Aggie.
“That’s exactly it. It’s sullen and soft,” said Jed. "And the sunsets are dove-colored. Don't you think? Blue, peach. And iron-gold."
"They’re cold sunsets."
"They’re mourning dove sunsets," said Jed, "that's exactly what they are."
And he felt a movement in his belly, the need to be near Aggie as they both looked up: he knew the sunset was sweeter, and the edges of twigs against the sky were sharper and more tangled because she was near. He had never known a spice to life like this.
No, he had known it -- but a long time ago. The last time was when he was a boy of fourteen, running through the ravine with his neighbor, playing Huck Finn and the slave, with the smell of warm denim and the need to take a raspberry thorn out of his companion's heel. His friend had long since moved away.
"Altogether November is my favorite month," declared Aggie, "besides for the other eleven ones."
"You like all the months?" said Jed, with surprise. "I hate some."
"Actually hate. I loathe March and April. I resent them. January and February are fine: they're violent, but I accept that. I can push through. I get stircrazy, but I also feel tough. Then after that, there is a limbo period. You know, with no sudden warmth or color. March and most of April are when the New England spirits lag. We're at the bottom of the barrel with gorgeousness. It's all thin: there's only slime."
Aggie was wordless as they walked from plank to plank, so he kept shaping his clay thoughts. "It's a waiting period -- that emptiness right before life pushes itself all out. I believe spring is possible in winter only because the weather has momentum, and I can see the rude energy of the earth. Then the snow melts and there's suddenly this inertia and ugliness and everything is stripped, and for those few weeks of early spring I believe that all of life and all of the year is going to be muddy and gray. It gets into my soul. The mud gets into my soul. What," he looked over at her, at Aggie's bent head, and the stripe of white down her scalp, "do you never lose hope like that?"
"No. Even now there's life under my shoes." Aggie gave a stomp with her loafer. Black dust scattered. "Do you know," she rounded, "that beneath our feet right now, even as the leaves are decaying, the seeds underground are preparing to burst into color again in spring. They’re playing dead for a reason. They're hiding and lying still to enrich themselves."
"That never occurred to me," said Jed.
And though his face was cold, he felt that unseen green crackled underfoot, sparking up tingles through his leather soles, and warming the skin of his heels.
Aggie and Jed were now elevated on a naked knoll, nearly home. The rickety trees threshed the sky: winnowing clouds of gold billowed upwards. They rounded a bend suddenly and came in full view of the sun, which had torn through the smog.
Then the lambent yellow whispered away. Aggie and Jed stood, rooted, watching. The sky opened like a monarch butterfly, sweeping aside the gray with wings. The smoggy ash was gone and the sky was pure orange.
Jed and Aggie were transfixed, the girl's curls standing out like electricity. Then the orange flitted away, and the sun gathered itself like an arrow.
Within moments, the sky bled. Without leaves, there was no protection on their heads, and the red light dripped through twigs, onto their hair.
"We need to hurry back," said Jed, in a hushed voice, “before we’re completely submerged in black."
"I love that. I always loved watching that as a kid," said Aggie. "The whole sky becoming like a bruise."
There was a gathering purple-gray through the trees.
"It's going to be completely dark by the time we get back."
"It's okay. I have a light on my bike."
"Actually, want to hear a poem, as we walk?" said Jed. "I think it describes this sunset."
"Say it," said Aggie, as they turned around.
Jed put his hands in his pockets and culled his throat. "Well, here it goes. Let me see if I can remember it. Something, brute beauty and valor... something, something, something. Then fire. Yes --
And the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!"
The moment slowed; Jed's voice slowed. His tongue lipped and spreed. Rich roundness, sizzled thuds:
"No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion."
Aggie was silent. The last syllable plopped like a pebble in a lake and disappeared. Jed bent his head to the side. His hands were cold in his pockets. He could feel the scud of an ivy-curl of frost in his face. The forest was utterly still, a darkling hush.
Aggie then shifted.
"Of course you would know a poem just like that," she said, in the wake of the maroon fog. "Of course you would apply it to a vision just like this."
"Can you believe those words? I wish I knew the craft that well."
"You do. You speak it. Maybe not like him but from the heart. Or her."
"It was a priest in Ireland wrote it, a few decades ago," said Jed. "And it seemed to me exactly as if it were about a November sunset, but it was actually to a falcon."
Then they reached the Spearman's property, and they both pushed through the hemlock tree.
Jed and Aggie walked over to her bike, leaning against the fence.
"Bye, Ag," he said, reaching out his arms. "I'll see you soon."
"Aw. Bye, Jed. Bye." She nuzzled her nose into his chest and Jed gave her shoulders a light squeeze. Then Aggie pulled back and her eyes twinkled like black grasshoppers.
“You know," she said, "if you’re going to be learning about physical intimacy, I have to tell you something, Jed.”
“What,” he stiffened.
"Do you think there's a difference between an embrace and a hug?"
"I knew it! You’re insulting my hug. What was wrong with it?"
"Nothing was wrong with it! I was just thinking there are two different kinds."
"Alright. And which one was mine?"
"Will you listen to what I think is the difference? Gee louise, lad."
"What is a hug, then?"
"I think a hug only involves the upper half of the body. You give hugs, Jed.”
“But not embraces?" said Jed. "What are those? Wait, let me guess. Are they longer-lasting?”
“No, I think an embrace involves the entire body. Legs, belly, everything."
"Oh, I see. Well, it sounds like you're saying that hugs are the sub-par version of embraces. So I'm the watered-down gravy, but not the meat."
"Now you’re being silly. You're reading into this," said Aggie. "It was a casual observation."
“So come on. Give me another one goodbye.”
“Another one what?”
“You know what. You silly.”
“But an embrace or a hug?”
“Your choice.” She stepped towards him with her arms open.
“No.” He stepped back. “No, you’re not getting one.”
Aggie stayed still a moment, her arms open in a circle: a suspended lather of questions. “Aw, what. What.”
Jed laughed. "No hug for you. Or embrace, either." He turned and opened the mailbox door.
"Jed." Her arms still hovered, empty arcs.
Jed looked at her fingertips, brown like acorns. Then he quickly looked down at the mail in his hand, and shuffled them -- white, pink, green, white. “Nope.”
He looked up, banged the mailbox door shut, and laughed. “Naw. I'll see you later.” Then he slapped the mail together in his hand and flashed her a grin. “Bye, Aggie,” and walked up his drive.
* * *
Sunny was standing in the doorway with a fist in her eye.
"I didn't mean to do it," she added. Her other hand held a flashlight at her side.
"Of course not, sweetie," said Jed. "It was an accident."
She wore a long pink nightgown, made of cotton, which fell straight down and stopped just below her knees. The hem was a silk ribbon, half hanging-off to the floor. "But I don't know why I can't stop doing it." The back of her hand was pinkened, from dry skin. And her palm bloomed with strawberry marks, where she had touched nettles earlier that day.
Jed was in the dark hallway, holding an armfuls cotton -- sheets, panties, and another nightgown -- all smelling of ammonia, strong and sickly sweet. "You don't have to worry about it," he whispered. "It'll stop on its own soon."
"But it's not."
"It will eventually," he said, shrugging up his bundle. "I went through the same thing when I was your age. I think I was ten when I stopped. It probably won't be that long for you. But even if it is, you're fine."
He stuffed the laundry into the bathtub, ran the hot tap briefly, and took clean sheets out of the cupboard. He returned to their bedroom and made up her bed by the light of the flashlight. Sunny stayed in doorway. Georgie stirred softly in her cot on the floor. Jed glanced at her. She rolled over onto her belly, hiked her bottom in the air, and slid her hands under her body. Her curls were fat and brown, and she always slept with her mouth apart: a red open shell, like a split clam in the ocean.
"There," Jed whispered. "Think you can fall back asleep, baby?" resting his hand on the top of Sunny's soft head. "Or do you need milk or something?"
"I think I can," she said, but her voice sounded otherwise.
"Really," he said, "it's okay. It was nice to say hello to someone this late at night. I was just downstairs writing, and no one else was up. Besides, I'm always happy to help. Okay?"
"Awright," he imitated gently. "Goodnight."
Sunny crawled into her newly-made bed of fresh sheets. Jed thumped back downstairs, where the kitchen was softly lit. He slid down at the kitchen table and exhaled. He ran his hands through his hair, and then passed them over his eyes, pressing his thumbs into his lids until he saw red fireflies. Then he opened his vision and pulled his notebook out of his pocket and slung it out before him onto the kitchen table. A poem of some sort was being formed: or bits and pieces of one. Crumbs. Maybe the essay on Camus. Next to it was written The Stranger. The house was quiet, except for the soft ticking of the clock on the wall, its fingers pointing to nearly eleven. Ten-fifty. He leaned forward on his elbows and bit down on his pencil as if it were an ear of corn.
The quiet was broken as the doorknob jangled and squeaked open. Virginia whirled in, her cheeks leather-red, with a blow of cold air. She unwound her scarf, dropping a paper bag on the table. The bag rustled, fell over, and a package of bread slid out. Jed stopped it with one hand.
"How was Martin's?" he asked. The strip that held the eraser was metallic between his teeth.
"Didja have fun?"
"Did you remember the cold cuts?"
"Yeah, they're in there. Say, Jed," she laughed. "What did you do to Aggie Cooney?"
"Nothing." Jed twitched the pencil out of his mouth. "Wait, what do you mean what did I do to Aggie?"
"I saw her at the crossroads and she was acting really funny."
"What time did you see her at?" He pushed back in his chair. It gave a nervous squeak.
"Oh, hours ago."
"No, but what time, what exactly?"
"Early evening about."
"No, give me a guess."
"That's when she left here. But how was she acting? What did she say?"
"She just came up to me and said, 'Tell that brother of yours she knows what he means, but he doesn't have to rub it in. Refusing to hug her. She gets the message. She knows there is no hope. But did you have to be so rude?'"
Jed stood up. "Oh, no." He dropped his pencil and it rolled across the table -- "No, no, no, no, no" -- it pinged onto the floor.
"Why did you refuse to hug her?"
Jed grabbed his boots from against the wall. "Did Aggie say where she was going?" He was leaning down and scrubbing his woolen socks up his ankles. He didn't have to tie his laces because they were all already knotted.
"I don't know. Home, maybe. Why?"
Jed whipped his scarf down from the wall peg. "I have to go see her."
"I think she's a little bit crazy, Jed," said his sister. “What did she mean about no hope?”
"Leave this door unlocked, would you."
"You're going to walk to her house at eleven at night?"
"No, I'm going to bike there" -- Jed was half-way outside, his arm hanging through one jacket sleeve.
"Bear, I hope she appreciates you." Virginia ran to the door and held it open.
"No, this one's my fault. I didn't treat her right." Jed trapped down the steps at a rapid pace -- trudging to the shed, his hands seeking his coat zipper. The air was slapping his face and stinging his eyes awake. If his mind had been sluggish before, it was as curt now as if pricked by a dozen mosquitoes.
The pedals of his bike sliced through the crackling air. Lonely, dry leaves fluttered like stuck moths on their pins; the moon smiled garishly through the train tracks of branches. In twenty minutes he skidded down into the lane of Aggie's house, and then guided his bike wheels onto muted grass and silence. Then Jed hooked a few pebbles in his fingers and wheeled them against the glass of her bedroom window. Second floor, second from the left. The room was dark. Ping. Tang. Donk.
On the third wink, a hazy head rose in the mist of the window. Then the window shrugged up, with a lurch and gurgling screech.
"Are you in bed?" he hissed up to her.
Aggie did not lean out. "Obviously not." Her voice was like black freckles in a snow globe.
"I'm so sorry; did I wake you?"
"You didn't wake me."
"Can I come up? my bonny friend? My knees are knocking."
She drew her head in, and it seemed like the motion uncertainly bobbed along a line. "Do what you want," she murmured, or something.
"Wait, what? Yes, I can come up?"
The frame was black and empty.
So Jed looked around, left and then right, and then he hoisted himself up onto the porch railing. Some old bits of ivy broke off and fell under his feet. His hands reached up to the roof, and he grabbed the edge, and pulled himself up. Jed crouched momentarily on the shingles, and then crawled low up to the house. Then he plunged headlong through the open window. He went headfirst and dropped. His shin banged the wooden ‘hecatomb’ sign, and it fell over with a thump.
The bedroom was Aggie-less, and dark except for blue moonshine.
He stood, giving his shin a rub. He heard footsteps pattering fast up the stairs, and then Aggie appeared in her doorway.
"Oh," she said foggily. "I was going to unlock the front door for you."
"Sorry, I didn't know where you went," said Jed.
"Why are you here?" she demanded.
"Because I need a hug."
Aggie stared at him.
"Please. I really, really need one," said Jed. He lifted his arms and held them out towards her. "You don't know how much."
His arms stayed outstretched. "Please, Aggie."
Like a crab, she side-stepped into his body. Aggie's spirit felt like broken shards. Jed wrapped his arms around her robed body and tried to hold her pieces together -- gluing them to his sternum -- red, poison green, sparkling purple. Jed held Aggie and they breathed together. The open window spat icy air into the room and robed them with a chill. She breathed out, and an ocean of feeling seemed to flood out of her belly.
"It was the worst joke ever," whispered Jed. "I promise it was only to joke about how you said I don't give good hugs. I think my pride was actually a tiny bit torn. I didn't want to try something you told me I wasn't good at. So I was trying to laugh in the face of that. It misfired."
"It was cruel," her mouth said into his coat, almost biting his button.
"It was meant to tease myself, not you. More than that, I was being self-protective. But I know. I know, I'm sorry."
The top of her head was warm. It smelled like bumps, like oil, like slippery flesh. Delicious, and deep-sparked. He held her in the quiet and would not let go. Her robe was olive and cranberry plaid. Soft, though the flannel was threadbare. Torn under her arm. Her hair was seaweed puddles, smelling of salt, of fat deer musk.
She detached herself.
Jed asked, "Was that a good embrace?"
She sat down on her bed. "It was good," she said. "It was fine. I mean, it was good enough. It was grand. Brilliant. Brillious." The blankets were rolled back plumply, like a mallow.
Jed said, "You're talking like you're in a dream."
"I guess I was a little asleep."
"Then I did wake you. You're tired. You were actually in bed." Jed scratched a match. He lit a candle. It was bayberry wax colored, on her bed stand. "Lie back down again."
She did. Like a child, with bony bare ankles, she hiked herself under her covers. He saw a flash of her feet. It was the first time he had ever noticed them. They were squat and bare. Square shape, a shock of white. Each nail a little yellow. Each toe slim, like the taper of a cerith.
"Do you never wear socks to bed?"
"Socks sacrilegioius-iss-ness. Belaborous blanket fuzz feeling. Going to a symphony with cotton in your ears. Earsh. Frightful barrier...bilious. Socked supercilious."
"I can't hear what you're saying, dear. You're talking into the pillow."
She inhaled and moved her face. Jed saw the blanket rise, tighten. Her eyes were closed; her voice became clear as if with effort. "Do you wear them."
"Always," said Jed, going over to the window. He closed it softly.
Then he returned and he sat down on the bed, near her belly. Her legs were tucked up. He reached out her hand towards her head.
"I'm going to sing to you," he said, putting his hand onto her hair. "This is a song my father used to sing. He could sing, actually."
He brushed his hand slowly across Aggie's forehead.
"My father used to do this, when I was eight or nine," he said. "He would sit on the bed as I was falling asleep," and Jed, as a child, could hear the whoosh, whoosh, by his ear cavity.
"And why did he stop?" Aggie's eyes were closed now, a nut bulge. Raw baby birds. Across her lid-skins he saw skidded veins, violet-feathered. It was almost as if she had not spoken. But Jed saw a curl move by her mouth.
"I don't know," Jed said. "Maybe I grew too old."
Another stir of air at her lips, and a soft sound like a squeak, or sigh, braided with a moan.
Jed's heart wrench in a funny way, and then he wanted to smile, too.
"I'm not good," he said, "but don't laugh at me."
"Ish, pish, won't."
He began to sing.
"Love is a song that never ends
Life may be swift and fleeting
Hope may die yet love's beautiful music
Comes each day like the dawn."
And as he sang, Aggie mewled in a low and strange way. It was miniature, other-worldly to him. Like pips or seeds being shucked up by garden snails: frustration in her brow contracting and uncontracting, and then smooth peace ebbing into her softening chin.
"One simple theme repeating
Like the voice of a heavenly choir
Love's sweet music flows on."
Aggie had continued to mewl into the pillow as he sang. Then the last word faded, the last brush. She turned her head. She breathed once or twice. Her nose was a yellow half-moon against the cream-colored pillowcase. Her slippery hair dribbled down her cheek and whisked around her ear. Jed stood up, and backed away. He stepped out of the window onto the roof, and ran the pane down closed behind him.
* * *