catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 9, Num 1 :: 2010.01.08 — 2010.01.21


Clutching Dust and Stars

Wear Your Own Skin

This is Chapter Nine of Laryn Kragt Bakker’s new novel, Clutching Dust and Stars (read chapters one, two, three, four, five, six, seven and eight), published by *culture is not optional and available for purchase now.  This is the last chapter in our serialization; please purchase the book to read the rest of the story!

Wearing sweatpants and a sweatshirt seemed to increase her level of laziness. She yawned, lifting her head from her arms. The silk shirt she had worn to the costume party on Saturday pressed against her hair-she had cast the shirt onto the desk that night and hadn’t moved it since. It was partly draped over the melted mass of candles that made up her shrine, hanging down and covering the wax lumps like a coroner’s shroud.

It had been a mediocre party at best. She and Tink were supposed to have spent Saturday piecing together their costumes with items that Natalie had been collecting all month from the store, but Tink couldn’t concentrate, and Natalie had ended up doing both of them. She should have traded costumes with Tink, but she hadn’t thought about it in time. Tink walked around the party all night with baggy patched pants, a tight striped shirt, and a painted clown face that was not masking the little frown that kept creeping into place. They had tried to use some spray-in hair coloring to turn her hair fluorescent red but it just ended up looking like somebody had tagged her head.

Rob had shown up with a huge translucent red garbage bag upside-down over top of him, with holes for his head and arms, and paper tassels glued up and down the seams. He had drawn some lines and circles on it with permanent marker, and it was only because she had seen the fake newspaper faceplate he had printed that she knew he was trying to be a blood fluke. Shawn, ever creative, was a spook, wearing the white sheet off his bed on top of himself, with two small holes cut out for his eyes, though he had gotten sick of it after a short time and draped it around himself, transforming it into a toga. Dara had painted her face and hands all white, with fake blood trickling from her mouth and darkened eye sockets-an undead corpse.

Nat had been a pirate, with a bright red silk shirt and black pants, and a homemade eyepatch that kept flipping up. She had spent an hour sewing the patches onto Tink’s pants before she had started to rush things. It wasn’t as fun when you were doing it all by yourself. She had pulled her hair back and tied it in a rough ponytail, and blacked out one of her teeth, but unfortunately it didn’t look real next to the genuine gap between her front teeth.

Dara pulled out a cake early on in the evening and they gave Natalie a few birthday cards and sang. Rob had included a little coupon in his, good for “one free hour of time,” which was kind of cute-daylight savings time ended that night. After the birthday portion was over, it almost seemed that nobody wanted to be too happy, for Tink’s sake, and so they all sat around and drank beer in the living room, subdued. At one point she almost laughed just looking at the couch full of characters: the depressed clown, the listless corpse, the Greek philosopher downing his fourth beer. It’s not that they were like that they whole night-they did laugh a fair amount-but there was an overall mood of sadness in the air and the laughs seemed disconnected from each other, separate. It was too bad. Dressing up was supposed to be fun.

As children, she and Scott had never been allowed to go out on Halloween night to collect candy. They heard the urban legends every year-the razor blades in the apples, the kidnappings and sacrifices. But most of her friends went every year and nothing happened to them. The church began to have a program one Halloween-Reformation Day-evening so that parents could offer an alternative to sitting at home with the lights out and trying to ignore the doorbells and knocks at the door.

Of course, the only thing that accomplished was to make the kids resentful. They ended up sneaking out when their parents were talking downstairs and the rest of the kids were all chasing each other around, hitting as many of the houses near the church as they could. They learned something about mercy on those nights, coming with no costume and asking for candy apologetically at a stranger’s door.

“What are you supposed to be?”

“A girl?”

The last time they had done that, her parents had found out afterwards when she spilled her candy out across the table at night and her mother, who had put the church’s goody bags together that year, didn’t recognize most of the candy that she displayed.

She wondered why it was that people enjoyed the costumes and masks so much every year. It was something that everybody did every day, in a way. The disguises were just a bit more elaborate. Sometimes at the store she imagined all the people that came in as costumed actors, playing a role. Wasn’t it J. Alfred Prufrock who said, “We prepare a face for the faces that we meet?”

When she tried to think of herself in that scenario, she felt like she was always always straining for her lines and her delivery, hoping she got the words right and wishing she could control the moods.

She wasn’t much of an actor. Her own thoughts and emotions were like tiny shards of glass under the skin, or stones in a farmer’s field-they always worked their way to the surface. She thought of the secret she had kept from Rob all these years, thinking he’d never be back and didn’t need to know. She had almost forgotten it until he came back. Now it was burrowing its way out, inching toward the surface of her skin.

She knew she had to tell him, but she was waiting for the perfect moment, which she knew would never come. It was like peeling a Band-aid off slowly.

She picked the pirate shirt up and threw it onto the bed so that she could light the candles. Maybe a handful of times during a year she was tempted to break all this wax away and take the wooden boxes out from inside. She tested one of the candles on top, pulling it toward herself. It bent slightly and cracked away from the wax that held it in place. She didn’t go further. This was cosmetic damage and easily repaired. She could never bring herself to break the whole shrine apart. It had taken so many years to grow.

She held the candle upside-down over the shrine, building up the rivulets and drip patterns with liquid wax. How many candles had dripped themselves out onto this thing over the years, spread themselves flat, running down to the fake wood grain laminate of the desktop? One of the rivulets overflowed its banks and landed on her left hand and she flinched back. But it lost its heat so quickly. The splash of red wax was already hardening on her hand.

She held the candle over her hand, dripping wax onto her fingers and knuckles, one firey little drop at a time. The pain was intense for a fraction of a moment and then faded. Each drop fused onto the other drops, but still kept its own shape, the soft shadowed outlines of circles overlapping within a solid field of red. Drip. Drip.

When the back of her hand was covered, she held it up in front of her. It was like a glove, a second skin. She jammed the candle back into its socket and touched the wax on her hand with a gentle finger. The coating of wax, already hardening, spread the pressure from the touch across the entire hand. She clenched her fingers into a claw. The wax whitened at the edges of the cracks, peeling up at the knuckles like scales. The underside of each scale held the pattern of her skin, a miniature landscape of parched earth, cracked and dry.

If she dripped wax over her entire body and then peeled it off in little fragments like this, she would have a copy of herself scattered around her feet. A self portrait. A broken woman. She peeled the skin off of the back of her hand and fed the pieces one by one back into the flame, watching them melt.

She wondered how Tink was doing, whether she had found Wade. She had left at least two hours ago-it was almost ten o’clock already. Wade hadn’t called on Saturday even though Tink had tried to call him a few times during the day. He lived with his parents, but he had his own line. Once, Tink had called his parents on their line to ask where he was, and his mother answered. She said she’d get him, but when she came back to the phone, she said he must have stepped out. Tink thought he was there, but didn’t want to take the call.

Natalie tried to make some sense of what she knew. She had answered when he had called Friday night.


“Hey, Nat, is Tink there?”

“Yeah-we’re waiting for you to get here!”

“Oh, uh, okay, can I talk to her?”

“You’re not going to bail on us, are you? You’re the one who wanted to see this thing in the first place.”

“Well, I might, I’m sorry, but I’ve gotta talk to Tink.”

She growled into the phone and called Tink, who bounded down the stairs two at a time, her braids lifting and falling each time.

“Hello-o-o,” she sang into the phone. “Hey. We’re waiting for you!” Her forehead tightened slightly. “What’s wrong?…What?…Hey! Wade-”

Tinker was silent for some moments, listening, and then she held the phone out and stared at it.


“He’s not coming tonight?” Nat asked.

“No,” Tink said.

Nat leaned down to tie her shoes. “It doesn’t matter. We can see whatever we want now.” She looked up and Tink hadn’t moved.

“He just dumped me. Two lines, and on the telephone.”

Tink was holding back tears. “I’ll kick his ass!”

Nat straightened up. “Oh, Tink.”

Tink didn’t say anything as Natalie moved toward her to hug her. “What did he say?”

Tink shook her head, biting her lip, then pushed past Natalie, slamming the door behind her.

If Rob hadn’t shown up in the meantime, things might be a little smoother between her and Tink now. Every so often she’d go off about how Nat and Rob were together and she was all alone, and Nat would have to emphasize that they weren’t together, and she was right here with Tink. It was a quick turn-around: one day she was pressuring Nat to do something so Rob didn’t slip through her hands, and then the next she was pleading with her not to.

When Tink had returned that night Natalie had gotten the other side of the conversation, and Tink knew only slightly more than Natalie. All Wade had said was that he needed some time away from Tink and wouldn’t be around this weekend. No explanations.

He hadn’t returned any of Tink’s phone calls for a few days. She thought he was screening his calls, but then she caught him yesterday when he answered the phone. She had started off with small talk-she’d missed him at the party Saturday night, what had he been up to these past few days-and then, phrased delicately, the question: What the hell is going on here?

He responded no less cryptically than the night before. He said he was confused about things and needed to think, and he’d give her a call later in the week. Tink was unsure of the status of anything, what had caused the problem in the first place, and whether it was something that would pass.

It was completely unfair of him, cutting things off but leaving threads attached, so she had told Tink to go over to Wade’s place and get the details. She deserved to know what was going on. At first Tink had refused, claiming that she didn’t want to throw a wrench into anything, but after a day she was starting to cave. Tonight she went.

Natalie blew the candle out, resting her chin on her hands. The smoke rose, thinning into a narrow thread as it wove its way up to the ceiling. She was already a full day past twenty-six years old. That was more than halfway to fifty-two.

She woke up cold when the front door opened and closed. Her face felt bent where she had been laying on it, and her mouth was dry. Good thing she had blown that candle out before she had fallen asleep. Her bedroom door opened and Tink slipped in, closing it behind her and flipping on the light switch.

“You awake, Nat?”

“Just about,” she said with her eyes closed against the sudden light, which blazed through her eyelids and into her head.

Tink sat on a corner of the bed.

“What time is it?” Natalie asked.

“It’s late.”

“Did you find him?”

“Yeah. We’re back together.”

“Just like that? What was the problem?”

“Oh, he was just a little confused, but we worked it out.”

Even as groggy as she was, she knew that Tink was holding back. “You sound like he did on Friday. What does that mean?”

Tink breathed and exhaled before she spoke. “I told him I wouldn’t spread it all around,” she said, “so you have to promise not to tell anyone.”

“That sounds serious.”

“Do you?”

“Okay already, you know you don’t have to ask like that.”

Tink looked down at the comforter she was sitting on. “Well, he was out with his buddies and they got a little hammered…”


“And he somehow wound up in bed with someone.” Her voice was barely audible.


“You heard me,” she said.

“When did this happen?”

“I don’t know, Friday night I guess.”

Natalie didn’t want to press it too hard-she could tell Tink was still processing it herself. But she still had questions. “So, did he call here before or after this happened that night.”

Tink stared at her without saying anything.

“I don’t know,” she said finally.

“If he called before he went out, then it was premeditated,” she said slowly, “and I think he called too early to have finished an accidental round-trip to someone’s bed.”

“Listen, just drop it. We worked it out.”

“What does that mean, exactly? You ‘worked it out.’” But an idea occurred to her as she said this. “You didn’t sleep with him tonight did you?”

Tink got up and walked toward the door, and Nat began to follow her.

“Did you?”

Tink whirled around, her face pinched. “Drop it, okay? Just because I am not a nun-”

But she broke off without finishing it. They faced each other for two breaths, not speaking. Light glinted off of Tink’s wet cheeks as she turned back around.

Natalie stood looking at the inside of the door for a few moments after Tink had closed it behind her. Somehow that had gotten out of hand. Is that what Tink thought of her? Is that how she described Nat to her other friends?

She peeled back the comforter and inserted her body into the opening. Nat hadn’t slept with anyone since Rob moved away. She found herself even thinking in euphemisms about it, as though she were keeping the details from herself. The intimacy of sex carried with it a sense of danger. She couldn’t believe Tink had slept with him again so soon. It was like rewarding him for infidelity.


When she woke it was still early. It was one of those rare awakenings which are instantaneous and complete-she opened her eyes and was not groggy, with the final frame of her dream fresh in her mind. She swung her legs over the edge of the bed and picked up the notebook that was on the nightstand beside it, opening it to the bulge that was a pen closed inside it.

Her dream journal was filled with fragments, residual images and short scenes that remained in her head during the moments after waking. She uncapped the pen and started to write.

There are two “teams,” one of men and one of women. We each have rolled up newspapers and have to whack a certain amount of the other team’s players on the legs. They are trying to get up the stairs into the rooms of books at the store and we are trying to keep them down. Each time they get whacked they have to start again outside the store. It’s a lot like the childhood game of “lava” because you have to hang on counters, tables, chairs, and can’t touch the floor. When you whack someone the floor underneath them opens up and they fall through and eventually come in through the door again. They were near winning-it was just me and Tink and Dorrie, hanging from the banisters leading upstairs and all these guys were crowding around, and Wade hit Tink so she fell through the stairs. I yelled and jumped at him off the banister and everyone stopped, like they were shocked, and I hit the ground in front of him but didn’t fall through, and everyone just stared at me.

She stared at the page but no interpretation formed in her mind. She had the dreaming part down, but she had no idea what to do with them once she had them, how to find out what they meant. As soon as she came up with a possibility (did she feel threatened by Wade?) another possibility presented itself (was she being too protective of Tink?) and so she was left guessing. Maybe she was trying too hard.

She flipped back a few pages in the notebook. She recorded her dreams in spurts: there were entries for a number of days in a row, and then nothing for weeks or months.

This was from last week:

I’m in an empty room on a chair, tied, bare light above (like those gangster interrogations). My head is tilted back far and I can’t move it. I think I’m naked-I feel the texture of the ropes on my skin. I see Rob standing beside me, he’s wearing a balaclava so I can only see his eyes and his mouth. He’s looking down at me, or at his hands. His arms are moving but I can’t see what he’s doing. I feel cold wet stripes across my body, like peroxide on bare skin, and he backs up to look at me from a distance, and if I strain my eyes as low as they can go, I can see he’s got two cans of spray paint in his hands.

She couldn’t remember anything before or after this scene. She didn’t know how she got in the chair, or if she got out. It intrigued her, the way dreams sometimes had moods that didn’t match the content. As she read what she had written, she realized that it didn’t come across quite right just to list the details. In the dream she had a detached interest, as if it wasn’t her own body that she were looking out of, that was tied up naked to a chair.

Here was one from last month.

We were playing a game where you see who can get to the top of the mountain first-no holds barred. I was playing with a large lady (never seen her before) and I ambushed her, knocking her legs out. She rolled down a hill and over the cliff (which was accidental) and I stood on the edge and watched her float down-it was like watching spit fall off a bridge-she floated and took forever to land. In mid-air her head separated from her body and when she hit, there was blood all around. I thought for sure she was dead and I felt horrible. She got up and stuck her head back on and started climbing the mountain and when she caught me she picked me up by my feet and starting whacking me back and forth on the ground.

It was disconcerting to have a book of dreams and not know what they meant, what the messages were. Here was a book of what might be words from God, in a language that she knew how to read but didn’t understand.

She went into the kitchen and pulled out the milk and cereal. Was Tink still going to be mad today? She could hear the sound of the cereal crunching in her mouth and tried to chew quietly. She swallowed and made a loud gulping sound. The silence amplified her noises, these small reminders of her physicality: water in the throat and a digestive gurgle.

It was still almost half an hour before she usually left for work. Most days she got up about twenty minutes before eight, dashed through the shower, ate quickly, and hopped on her bike. So it was still about ten minutes before she usually woke up.

She stood in the shower longer than usual, letting the water hit her body and trickle down like warm rain. The sensation of water on skin was so elemental, so real. She closed her eyes and let it run down her face, over and between her breasts. She heard something in the background, a noise behind the sound of falling water that was out of sync, mechanical. She turned the water off and recognized the sound of her alarm clock.

She burst out of the bathroom wrapped only partially in her towel and fumbled with the alarm clock, looking for the right button. The sound cut short. She was clutching her towel to her front and her exposed skin, still wet, was cold. She noticed her hands were shaking as she set the clock down, moist fingerprints visible on smooth plastic.

She closed her door and finished drying herself. Her whole mood was changed. A peaceful early rise had somehow become an attack. That was how she felt: under attack, worried that something else was going to happen.

“Have a little trouble waking up this morning?” asked a bleary-eyed Tink when Nat came into the kitchen again.

“No, I woke up too early and forgot to turn the alarm off before getting in the shower. Sorry.”

Tink started to peel a blackened banana without responding.

Nat wanted to make some kind of a connection before leaving for work. “I was in the middle of my shower when it went off.” She smiled. “So I was tearing from the shower to my room just about naked. We haven’t done that since Shawn moved in.” Before Shawn had answered their newspaper advertisement another girl, Amy, had lived with them for almost a year. They used to run around the house in their bras and underwear, acting like school girls, snapping each other’s straps and pulling underwear up from behind.

“Yeah. I think I stepped in some of your water outside my room.”

“Oh…I’m sorry, I haven’t had a chance to dry that yet.” She felt like the whole morning was apologies-not the way she had hoped the first conversation after last night would go.

She had fifteen minutes before eight o’clock, so she decided to walk. She took an umbrella, but it wasn’t raining when she left so she used it like a cane, imagining how Rob must feel.

Today was Halloween day. Last night was what her friends used to call “Gate Night” when they were young, the night when the gates of hell were opened, or something like that. Mostly it was the night when they’d take a few eggs from the refrigerator to throw on cars-one year she tried to buy a dozen of them from the store but they refused to sell them to her. Lynden, the town she had grown up in, was a town that decided what was good for its citizens and what wasn’t: it was still hard to find a place that would sell alcohol on a Sunday. You had to go outside the city limits.

She hadn’t gone back to live there after she’d come down to Bellingham for school, but she still went to visit her mother once in a while. Lately she hadn’t been going up at all-she had her mom come down and they met in a restaurant and talked over a meal or a cup of coffee. It wasn’t just that she didn’t have a car, because she could borrow one quite easily. She was always scared that if she went up there, she was going to run into her father somewhere on a street or in a store.

Her mother had seen him a few times, but couldn’t bring herself to go up and talk to him. She thought they lived south of town and that they went to the church that was directly across from the church that her mom went to. Luckily the morning service across the street finished an hour before hers, so she didn’t have to worry about walking outside after church and accidentally seeing him on the other side. She had mostly gotten over the whole situation, but still tried to avoid reminders.

Natalie moved aside to let a guy struggle up the hill on his bike, breathing hard. Everybody’s got problems. That guy on the bike was probably wrestling with something in his head. All these people in their cars, waiting for the light to change, they probably wonder how they’ll make it through this day, or why they’re spending their lives like they are, or if there really is such a thing as hope in the midst of brokenness.

The lady in the car on the street beside her was looking straight ahead when her face cracked open in a huge yawn. She’s safe in her car, in her own little world. Natalie got one look before the lady accelerated off into oblivion, one glimpse to extrapolate her whole life story from. Did she have the answers? Either way, she’s gone now.

All we’ve got to do is pretend to be just fine and the world will keep on spinning and the people will keep dying and fucking and lying and being born. She was in one of those moods. The day had started off so well.

She didn’t know how long this was going to last with Tink. Maybe they’d be able to talk again tonight, now that the initial confrontation was past. If it came down to it, she’d probably even apologize and let it go. Tink was a big girl now, too. It was just that when you see someone making the same mistakes you’ve made many times, it seems like useless pain, unnecessary.

She and Tink had been living together for over two years now, and it seemed they had to have a good fight about twice a year in order to stay friends the rest of the time. They were about due.

They were close, but not intimate. There were still some fairly major things that Tink didn’t know about her. She was still trying to learn how to open herself up like Dorrie did. She’d been programmed from birth to appear good and if possible, to be good, but if you weren’t, at least pretend you were. So this idea of just living, and not worrying about people who are watching your mistakes more than your successes still felt foreign and she still felt lonely.

It didn’t help matters that whenever she talked to her mother, her mom would tell her about how the people in church had looked at her last week, or what she thought they said behind her back. Some of the people Natalie disliked the most were Christians, who could love everything in abstractions but when a real person was in front of them, she was anathema.

There were a few bags outside the back door, underneath her handwriting: DROP-OFFS HERE. PLEASE NO SCAVENGING UNLESS YOU REALLY NEED TO. She pulled the door open with her key and tossed the bags inside.

Dorrie wasn’t coming in until the afternoon today. Some days they both came early and stayed late, and some days it was just one of them in the morning. Dorrie ran this place but in a lot of ways, she didn’t act like she was the boss-she had asked Natalie if it would be all right if she came in later today, as though Natalie needed to give permission.

Tyler was going to come in this morning, too. He had the whole electronics section done, and had thrown out much of it. She was glad, because that stuff never sold anyway, and she didn’t know what was good and what wasn’t. She had started him on the books. She organized for an hour or so a day and then needed a break from it, so it was taking a long time. Already she could see a great improvement when she walked up there, and she thought they were selling more books lately.

She unlocked the front door and went to the back room to open the bags. She didn’t like arguing with Tink. She wished she weren’t alone in the store right now.


It was about half an hour before noon when Rob showed up. Tyler was upstairs with the books, and Natalie was ringing out a customer.

“Hey, Nat,” he said. “Is Tyler around?”

She tore off a receipt and dropped it in the bag. “Thanks,” she said to the woman before turning to Rob. “Tyler? Yeah, he’s upstairs. Why?”

“I want to ask him a question. I’ll be back.”

He gripped the banister and pulled himself out of sight. What was he up to? He had come over on Sunday afternoon for a piece of birthday cake that was left over from the night before and was still brainstorming for what he referred to it as his “next project.” At the party on Saturday night, he had been disappointed with the way the newspaper thing had gone in the morning, but he had shown her a list that he had in his pocket of what he hoped would become the seeds of future projects.

A woman who looked to be about Natalie’s age was browsing through the racks of children’s clothing near the counter.

“What are you looking for today?” she asked, stepping out from behind the counter.

The lady grimaced good-naturedly. “Halloween costumes. I guess I left it until the last minute again, huh?”

“Well, you’ve got a few hours yet,” Natalie said, looking at the clock on the wall. “What have you got so far?”

She held up a long, blue skirt that looked like it would fit her. “This is for my oldest son. I’ll have to cut it open up the front here and try and make some kind of a cloak or a cape out of it quickly when I get home. Now I just need something for my younger son.”

“Most of the obvious stuff is long gone,” Natalie said, “so you’re going to need to keep being creative.”

“I was afraid of that.”

“How big is he?”

“He’s six, but he’s small for his age.” She looked up at the clock. “I’d better go and get this cloak figured out. I want to have it ready when he gets home from school. I think I’ll just wrap Nelson up in toilet paper and masking tape again. He liked it last year.”

Natalie laughed at the image. “That thing’s been around here for a long time. Give me a buck for it and we’ll call it even.”

“Really? Oh, that’s great.”

Natalie stuffed the bill into the drawer.

“Have fun tonight.”

“We always do,” she said, rolling her eyes. “Bye!”

“See you next time.”

Rob came down the stairs with a huge grin on his face.

“What are you so happy about?”

“Tyler’s going to help me make a web page.”

“What for?”

“For everything! So I can put all my projects on it.”

“Great, I guess.”

“Anyway, I should go soon, I’ve got to go to work.”

“So you’re not fired after all?”

“No! Didn’t I tell you? I talked to Bobbi on Saturday and she had already heard a short message from Randall, but I explained it and she put me on probation, and said if I did it again I’d get fired.”

“So you’ve got a few more days of work, then.”

He smiled. “We’ll see. Randall still hates me. We worked yesterday and I don’t think he said more than five words in a row to me. I think it’s because of the shirts.” He pulled his jacket aside and she recognized the wild print of one of the shirts he had bought from the store.

“When I started wearing these he right away told me to stop, to wear white ones, or blue ones, but I pulled out the dress code he had given me and it only said ‘a buttoned, collared shirt,’ so I said I was going to keep wearing them. He took me to Bobbi for that, too.”

“And she said it was okay?”

“Well, not at first. I showed her the dress code, too, and she said she was sorry that it hadn’t been clear enough, but it was supposed to be white or blue, and so I told her I didn’t think they were out of place because we’ve got these tropical prints in the window, palm trees and beaches, and she bought it. She was even thinking of making these kind of shirts standard for everyone, like a makeover for the store’s image, but then she decided not to. That would have been great, seeing Randall having to wear them. Anyway, I should go.”

“Nice listening to you,” Natalie said.

Rob smiled over his shoulder as he walked away, then stopped and turned around. “What happened with Tink and Wade, anyway?”

“I guess they…worked it out,” she said.

“Oh, good.”

He was a few steps from the door and she was almost alone again.

She called out, “Why don’t you stop by my place after work?”


Dorrie came in at noon, just after Tyler had gone. Natalie talked and worked for a few hours with Dorrie but there weren’t many people, so Dorrie told her she didn’t have to stay if she didn’t want to. She went in the back and tried to paint but she couldn’t get herself into it, so she walked home. Tink wasn’t around, and Shawn said he and Dara were going out to eat and then to Dara’s place that night. Natalie wasn’t sure where the rest of the afternoon and early evening went-she slept and ate and prepared for the kids to come.

She answered the door for the first wave, the early ones, and then decided she wanted to accomplish something instead of just waiting for people to knock. She picked up Crime and Punishment, which she’d been trying to finish for almost a month now, bit by bit. She didn’t like Raskolnikov. But she was intrigued by Sonia, the faith-full prostitute. She was like a biblical character, one of the ones that Jesus was always having meals with.

Knocks on the door kept interrupting her, some timid and some violent, and she was having a hard time concentrating. She took a mixing bowl and dumped candy in it until it was almost full, stirring the foil-wrapped chocolate balls and the little toffee pumpkins with her hand until the mixture was more or less homogeneous. She set it out on the deck on a kitchen chair, with a sign taped to the back of the chair: HELP YOURSELF TO A HANDFUL.

She settled back in her room, sitting in her pillows with her back against the headboard and her blankets over her knees. She could still hear scuffling and voices from the deck now and then, and she imagined little boys wrapped in toilet paper trying to walk without bending their knees, with their arms extended. Once, a cat and a superhero knocked to tell her that the candy was gone, and she emptied the rest of the bags into the bowl.

Rob showed up shortly after. He knocked on the door and when she opened it he stood there with a goofy expression on his face. “Trick or treat,” he asked, his teeth dark with chocolate.

“Hi, Rob!” She stepped aside to let him in. “How was work?”

“Oh, the usual.” He sat down by the table and started peeling foil from around another sphere of chocolate. “Not much fun.”

“If I couldn’t find at least one thing enjoyable at work, I’d have to find a new job,” she said.

“Yeah. I don’t know. I’m kind of more excited about what I do outside of the job, you know? That’s just something I do so I don’t end up completely broke.”

She rubbed her hands together. “It’s cold! Do you mind sitting in my room? I’m going to wrap myself in blankets.”

She sat back down by the headboard and pulled her blankets around her again. “I lose my heat so quickly,” she said.

“I remember that. Why don’t you just turn the heat up?”

“I don’t think the house itself is that cold. It’s just me. I usually wear an extra layer. And it’s also partly the fact that it’s electric heat and we don’t have a lot of money.”

“I think everything’s electric in this town. Nobody wants to upgrade when the students have to pay the utilities anyway.”

He pulled the chair from by the desk and her book fell to the ground, scattering chunks of pages.

“Shit!” He tried to scoop them up before they scattered but it came up more like a deck of cards oriented randomly.

“Don’t worry about it, I’ll sort it out later. I’m just about done with it anyway.”

“No, I’ll put it back together.” He sat in the chair and spread the pages out on the desk. “What are the highlighted sections for-are you going to write a book review or something?”

“No, I just highlight if something strikes me, in case I want to find it back without re-reading the whole book.”

Rob held up a page like an unlearned script, and read with enthusiasm.

“’What are you to do?’ she cried, jumping up, and her eyes that had been full of tears suddenly began to shine. ‘Stand up!’ (She seized him by the shoulder, he got up, looking at her almost bewildered.)

‘Go at once, this very minute, stand at the crossroads, bow down, first kiss the earth which you have defiled and then bow down to all the world and say to all men aloud, ’I am a murderer!’ Then God will send you life again. Will you go, will you go?’"

She grabbed the page from him. “Yeah, yeah.”

He collapsed in the chair, his shoulders hanging.

“What do you want to talk about?”

She considered all the things that they needed to talk through but which she never had the courage to raise: the reasons their relationship hadn’t worked the first time around; the short-lived pregnancy. But what if their tentative friendship changed for the worse after she told him? Her friends were becoming fewer and fewer.

“What’s this monstrosity?” he asked, nodding at the shrine.

“That? Well, it’s kind of grown into something I never really meant at first. It’s mostly wax, with a few things embedded in it here and there, like a chicken bone, and those three little boxes we got in Turkey, do you remember them?”

“Yeah! One inside the other. Why’d you put them in there?”

“It just kind of happened. I had a bunch of candles and I was playing with them and started dripping wax on things accidentally. Then I started doing it on purpose, coating things with wax, and it just started growing.”

“Besides all that wax down there, it reminds me of those candles in the cathedrals we saw, in a way. All lined up in rows and columns. These are just a little more crooked and odd sizes and colors.”

“That’s what it’s supposed to be, in a way. I like it when it’s all lit. It’s kind of a meditative thing, all these flickering flames.”

They both stared at the unlit candles, saying nothing. She had so much that she knew should be said; the silence was like a vacuum, and she had to steel herself to keep words from being drawn out of her. She didn’t just want to just dump it out in front of him.

“What was going on with Tink and Wade?” he asked, turning to her.

“I don’t know. Some kind of miscommunication, I guess. Tink didn’t say all that much about it. I…she asked me not to tell anyone any details.”

“Oh,” Rob said, sounding surprised and disappointed, as though he’d just been drawn outside the circle.

If she didn’t tell him now, she might never tell him. She practiced in her mind: Rob, I need to tell you, no, you should know something…Remember before you left…Rob, we were pregnant…Nothing sounded right. Come on Nat. Out with it. Vomit it up.

“Rob, there’s something…” She trailed off, realizing that she couldn’t stop now.

He didn’t say anything, looking at her intently.

“Back before you went to Seattle,” she started, but her voice was disappearing. She tried to clear her throat. “Just a sec, I need a drink,” she said, scrambling off her bed. She drank a glass of water in the kitchen, desperately trying to come up with some way to back out of this. It wasn’t right. It wasn’t coming out right.

“You okay?” he asked when she came back in.

“Yeah,” she nodded, making herself smile. “I was just going to ask you, you know, after you went to Seattle,” she paused, “why didn’t you ever call?”

“I-” and now he was the one clearing his throat. “I did.”

He paused for a second as she started to shake her head, then continued, not looking at her anymore, but through her, into the past. “It was a Friday night, the week after I came to Seattle. I was sitting there in front of the phone for at least ten minutes, trying to work up the courage, asking myself if this was smart or not…Finally I just did it, but you never answered. I got the answering machine, but I hung up without leaving a message.”

“And that was it?” she asked. She was remembering something she hadn’t thought about for years.

“Yeah, more or less,” he said.

“Did you ever try again?” she asked.

“Well…after you didn’t answer I was feeling like crap, right? And so I said to myself, ‘This is not what love is supposed to be like. You’re supposed to feel like you’re invincible, not like you’ve just been tied up with ropes and dragged down the highway.’ So I did this thing, I’m a little embarrassed about it because it’s complete BS,” he said, cracking his knuckles in his lap, “but I said, and I don’t even know to who, maybe just to myself, I said, ‘If she’s not there, it’s a sign and I’m going to just forget about her.’ And I hit redial, and you still weren’t home, so that was that.”

Her scalp felt like it was lifting from her head, levitating. “I was there,” she said. “It was the first Friday night after you left, and I was alone in our house, and thinking, ‘I wish he’d call.’ And the phone rang. And I walked up to it, from the living room, and the machine had picked up, so I was waiting for the message to start, screening my calls, because if it was you I wanted to talk, but not if it was anyone else. And then the message ends, and the beep beeps, and there’s maybe two seconds of silence and then a click.”

Rob’s eyes were glistening; she hoped he wouldn’t cry.

“And so I let out a breath, and I’m telling myself it probably wasn’t you when it rings again. I had my hand on the receiver and then I thought, ‘Whoever this is is calling back to leave a message,’ so I didn’t pick up, and as soon as the message played, I heard the click, and I yanked the phone but it was already disconnected.”

Rob’s upper lip curled up almost imperceptibly.

“Why didn’t you pick up?” he asked.

“Why didn’t you leave a message?”

They glared at each other and she was the first to blink.

“I mean, maybe nothing would have changed,” she said.

“Maybe. But maybe it would have answered a lot of questions, saved a lot of pain.”

“I don’t know. Maybe we needed some of the pain. We wouldn’t be who we are without it.”

“Maybe you needed it,” he said. “It’s the last thing I needed.”

She didn’t say anything, and a moment later he continued. “Damn! You were there?”

She nodded.

“Well, hey,” he said, “so you didn’t pick up the phone, okay. Why didn’t you ever call me?”

“The first while I told myself that you’d call, that I didn’t have your new number, and after a few weeks I guess I was starting to think maybe you didn’t want to. I wrote you a letter, but I didn’t have an address.”

“You did?”

“Yeah.” She pointed at the shrine. “It’s folded up in the middle of all that wax somewhere.”

“It is?” He turned back to the candles, his hands already reaching out. “Can I get it out?”

“No! It’s…listen, it doesn’t matter now. I don’t want to get stuck in the past.”

“I’m not saying I want to get stuck in the past, I just want to read what you wrote.”

“Forget about it. It was nothing important,” she lied.

“Okay then.” He drew back his arm.

“Listen, Rob, I’m sorry, it’s just…”

He came and sat beside her. The mattress sunk down underneath his weight and she lost her balance, tilting toward him.

“Hey. Don’t worry about it, yeah?” He put his arm around her. She leaned into him slightly.

“So, if we’re not going to be stuck in the past, where are we going to be stuck?” he asked.

She smiled. He was cute when he was trying to be smooth. “I don’t want to be stuck anywhere,” she said.

Rob smiled, considering this. “Fair enough,” he said. “But I have a question for you. Two years ago, you said you had to figure things out-did you get them all figured?”

“No,” she admitted, tasting something like disappointment. “But I’m starting to wonder if maybe that’s okay.”

He hung his head momentarily, letting out a breath and then lifted it quickly. “Okay. I’m asking you point blank, here. Where do we stand, you and me?”

“Honestly, I can feel a lot of potential. But for some reason I’m still a little scared. I guess, I haven’t had a serious relationship since…you, and it’s a little scary. So, if anything happens, it’s going to be a very slow process for me, and if you aren’t interested in that, I’d understand.”

“I wish I wasn’t interested in that,” he said. “But, what does that mean, exactly?”

“It means I’d like to talk more. It means we’d both have a little better idea of where we’re going, even if we’re not sure when we’ll get there.”

“That sounds fine,” he said and he kissed her awkwardly, leaning over and twisting to find the angle he needed. He tasted vaguely of chocolate. She wanted to kiss him, to feel his hands in her hair. But the thought was also scary. It had been so long.

“And one more thing. I’m not ready for anything…physical,” she said.

“Oh. Was it okay that I-?” He pointed to his mouth, eyes wide, and she laughed.

“It’s okay.” She kissed his cheek and he tried to kiss her again but she had pulled back and started talking. “But let’s not. I mean, I want to be clear that I’m not ready for a romantic relationship with you. I think we have a chance to become good friends again, but I don’t want to define it romantically.”

He sat back a little bit. “Why?”

“I guess I’m not ready for that pressure. I think it would be better for us to leave it ambiguous for now and just let it become what it becomes without trying to force it into being something it isn’t. Does that make sense?”

“It’s confusing. I’m not trying to pressure you into anything. If you need more time, that’s fine. It really is.”

When she was alone again, she lit her candles and turned out the lights. She felt unsettled, like she had just put everything on number thirteen and the ball was circling the roulette wheel.

She stared at the candles and tried to pray as the flames danced with her breath in front of her. She wasn’t sure what to pray because she wasn’t sure how she felt. Usually she just ended up with the sense that since she didn’t know what the hell was going on, she was just going to leave it up to God to work it out. How God can love such a bunch of sniveling, selfish creatures who continually take advantage of him, she couldn’t say. It was like she was a bloodsucker or some other kind of parasite that fixed onto God and burrowed in, sucking, using him, feeding on him. This is my body, this is my blood.

She blew out the candles and stretched her body upwards, arms raised, fingers splayed, opening herself up, and then leaned forward with her head down. Why was she still so nervous and unsettled about tonight? It felt like she and Rob had put their relationship on life support-it wasn’t dead or dying, but it wasn’t fully alive, either. There were still too many issues to work through. But if God can raise a man up from the dead, then surely he can resurrect a dead relationship?

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