Fiction, Vol. 8.1, March 2014
When the cops brought Noel back to Penny’s house last night, Penny was not surprised, not angry. More like dismayed. This wasn’t the first time it had happened. “We recovered your missing possessions,” the officer said. “Most of them, anyway. The wooden jewelry box and the Chippewa Lake souvenir teddy bear weren’t at the pawn shop. She walked away with about fifty bucks for the coin collection and the gold purse.”
Penny stared at Noel. She looked defiant, lips curled in a smirk with a spark of satisfaction. “How could you do that?”
Noel just shrugged. “I just felt like it. You weren’t using those things anyway.”
The officer told her that she had the option of pressing charges, and Penny was ashamed that she actually, just for a moment, considered it. Noel had stolen money from her before. She’d gotten in-school suspension a month before for calling her English teacher a bitch. One night before dinner, they’d screamed at each other about whether Noel was gaining too much weight and she smashed a dish on the floor. It had been too much to take.
Noel is her foster daughter. It’s Penny’s job to help Noel, but sometimes she wonders if that’s really what’s best for either of them.. Penny is only thirty-one, but has a secure enough job as the facilities coordinator for the middle school where she lives in Kent, Ohio. She feels like she can handle the job, wants to do something for troubled girls, to give back for having escaped the despair of her own teenage years. Before Noel, there was another girl, Janie, an incest survivor who came to her beaten and broken, but gradually came out of her protective shell. She joined the drama club at the high school, made friends, graduated with honors, and now attends Ohio State on a full scholarship. But Noel is different—sullen, confused, reckless, a selfish streak in her that Penny tries as best she can to attribute to the horror she’s been through.
The police report hasn’t stopped running through Penny’s mind since the day she first read it. It told her the facts: On September 27, 1996, Bob Jasper of Ravenna, Ohio shot and killed his wife Suzanne, then turned the gun on himself. At age twelve, Noel was hiding behind the recliner and saw the whole thing—the thick splatters of blood soaked into the carpet, the exit wounds in their foreheads like jagged hilltops. She isn’t pretty—short, stocky, with a lipless smile and waxy brown hair that she only washes when she feels like it. Noel has been through three foster homes since the murder, and now, Penny understands why. There is a reason for Noel to be like this, and Penny doesn’t want to hurt her any more than life already has. She has done everything she could—arranged Janie’s old bedroom for her, bought a new quilt and curtains. “This is your private space,” she told Noel. “The rest of the house is communal. But this room is all for you.” She wishes now that she hadn’t said that. Noel spends all her time in that room.
Today, Penny sits in the office of her social worker, Renae, a slender woman with brown hair tied in a bun, whose office is filled with photographs of her basset hounds and the hundreds of children she’s helped place in foster care. “It’s the last straw for me,” Penny says of the night before. “After everything we’ve been through, she pawns my stuff. It’s not even that the things I can’t get back were worth anything—not any money at least. I just don’t know what to do with her anymore.”
Renae watches her patiently. “You’ve lasted a long time with her,” she says. “Three months is good. Whether you realize it or not, you’ve been doing well.”
“Doing well?” Penny said. “You call having the girl you’re supposed to be taking care of stealing and insulting teachers doing well? She needs more help than I can give her.” Penny tries not to cry. It is in her best interest to cry, but she refuses, even though her throat is squeezing inward. “Renae, I don’t think I can take it anymore. I think I want to give her up. I can’t connect with her. I don’t know what she wants.”
“You know,” Renae says. She rests her chin in the palm of her hand, leans forward intently. “Some of these kids have been through multiple foster homes. The real troubled ones. Most of the time I insist they keep trying. Noel’s been through three families since her parents died. Three families who threw her out. Three families in four years. Let her have a chance.”
Penny agrees and walks out of the office. As she drives home, she tries to think of what makes Noel work inside, whether she sees the shooting in her dreams, if she’ll be sitting in math class, taking a quiz, and the images suddenly break through the thoughts of limits and equations. She struggles to penetrate the question of Noel, of whether she can bring her back from her own world of blackness, or if she is too far gone to even try.
He looks like a lawyer, Noel thinks. Except for his hair. It’s long and red-blond and tied back with a ponytail. But everything else about him seems mature, educated—thin-rimmed glasses, long jaw, blue dress shirt with maroon tie. All day they’ve been announcing that there will be an assembly this afternoon, but Noel hasn’t heard anything about the speaker and doesn’t really care anyway. All she knows is that it’s better than being in college prep English. She leans back into the itchy red auditorium chair and shoves her book bag between herself and the arm rest.
They’ve pulled down the big screen used for PowerPoint presentations, stuff like safe driving and STDs, which is dumb because Noel’s only had sex a few times and isn’t old enough to drive and Penny would never let her anyway. A bunch of kids file in from the hallway and now there are two boys on either side of her because the auditorium is packed and they’ve grabbed the last two seats in her row. Noel isn’t sure who they are, which means they’re sophomores, maybe juniors—she’s only a freshman. The two boys carry on a conversation leaning across the armrests, talking over her in low, blurred voices that she’s trying not to listen to.
The principal strides onstage. He is a big guy with thick, dark eyebrows and a perpetual laugh on his face. He explains that the speaker is the foremost expert on the Kent State shootings. They’ve gathered here to learn all about their heritage on the coming anniversary of the tragedy, what their parents have carried for almost thirty years, what happened just a few miles away from where they now sit, the four students who were shot. The expert is not just an eyewitness, the principal says with a dramatic point of his finger, but was actually shot in the wrist by one of the National Guardsmen. Noel slumps in her seat and rests her chin in the crook of her palm. This is demented—bringing the whole school down just to talk about four kids who got killed. Four? Try all the people who died at Columbine.
The man who was shot in the wrist takes the microphone and begins to tell his story. He was an activist in the anti-Vietnam group on campus and was around for everything—when they buried the Constitution on the commons, the riot downtown, the burning of the student military building. To her surprise, she doesn’t want to fall asleep the way she usually does in assemblies. She finds herself sitting up straighter, listening. Maybe it’s the way he talks—hard, accentuated words, spitting syllables, an intense, outward gaze. She admires him, that he experienced something so horrible and wants to do good in spite of it by telling others what happened.
He turns on the projector. The auditorium lights dim. Four rectangles begin to fade onto the screen—faces, hair, eyes. When the black and white photos have materialized, there are two boys and two girls, yearbook pictures, headshots with tilted chins and white smiles. These, explains the man who was shot in the wrist, are the four students who were killed. He says their names like lines of a poem, using a laser pointer to indicate their pictures. William. Sandra. Jeffrey. Allison.
She matches the names to the photos, but her eyes linger on the last one, a girl with dark, flipped hair, almond eyes, a strand of pearls around her neck. She seems to look out from the span of years, straight at Noel, and Noel can’t stop looking back. The man clicks to the next slide, a collage of pictures from when the students were young, unposed, seeming even more alive. Noel picks out Allison quickly—a childlike smile, waving her hands at the sides of her head, sticking out her tongue—and watches her closely, as if the girl might speak to her, come out into the auditorium to take her hand. It reminds her of a picture of her mother in high school, wearing a green chiffon dress, mouth open like she was surprised or about to say something, and then the camera flashed.
Somewhere far away, the man who was shot in the wrist continues to talk, but Noel isn’t listening anymore. When the projector flicks off and the principal asks students to thank him with their applause, Noel feels disoriented. She walks to seventh period with a swirl of thoughts in her head, imagining that Allison is walking alongside her.
Noel’s heard Penny call her for dinner about sixty times. She’s at her computer in her bedroom, searching for images of Allison Krause on the Internet. There aren’t many—the college photo from the assembly, the one of her wiggling her hands at her cheeks, and then, at last, some she hasn’t seen. Allison and her boyfriend bent backward against a car, the angle of the shot oddly close to their faces, like they took the picture themselves. Allison posing against a wooden background, looking stylish, like a girl singer from back then, long hair and leather jacket. Her grade school picture, where she isn’t smiling and her eyes are big and almost terrified against her pudgy cheeks. A panoramic photo taken of the whole hill where the shooting happened, where, someone later discovered, Allison was a small shadowy speck at the top, near a pagoda statue. They’d tried to enlarge her from that small corner of the picture, but the image is grainy, almost indistinguishable as a human being.
Noel saves the photos to the desktop and lines them up in a row, so she can look at them all at once. She does the math—Allison died when she was twenty-one, making her just six years older than Noel. This comforts her, like these minuscule facts, these photos, force Allison out of death and into this room, into Noel herself.
The door bursts open, and Noel springs open an empty Word document where she should be typing a paper on Beowulf. “I’m busy,” she says.
Penny leans against the doorframe, arms crossed over her chest. She looks pissed off and Noel feels a prick of satisfaction at this, being able to get to her. “Noel,” she says. “It’s dinnertime. Now.”
She slumps forward, elbows on the desk. “I’m not hungry.”
Penny moves toward her, her footsteps seeming cautious, and puts her hand on Noel’s shoulder. Her touch feels like a shock and Noel recoils. She won’t look at Penny’s face. “Honey,” Penny says. The words sound so forced to Noel, and she thinks Penny is trying way too hard. “You have to eat.”
Noel stares down at the keyboard. Penny sits on her bed, and Noel can feel her eyes on her. Penny’s presence makes her frustrated, jittery. She feels herself flush and tense, can feel her neck pulsing.
“You know what?” Penny says. “We’re not so different, you know. When I was your age, I’d rather chew glass than do what my mom said. For a while, I was totally gone—I could have cared less about anything, unless it was my boyfriend, or feeling sorry for myself.” She stops for a moment, and Noel can hear Penny breathing, a catch in its rhythm. “There’s food in the fridge if you get hungry.”
Noel lets the hours pass. She reads about the shootings, the events that led up to them, about Allison—how she was an art major from Maryland, her father was a Holocaust survivor. That the day before she died, she put a daisy in the barrel of a National Guardsman’s gun. She was rushed to the hospital where she died from internal bleeding, her boyfriend hanging onto the stretcher. The pictures from the shooting itself haunt Noel, and though she tries not to, she can’t stop imagining it: Allison going down on the warm asphalt of the parking lot, her life punctuated by those few photographs.
At night, Noel lies with her eyes closed, waiting for sleep. She imagines Allison owning a nice apartment on campus. She imagines her coming up to Penny’s door and saying, “I’m here to get Noel.” They drive off in Allison’s car—one of those old yellow VW bugs with peace decals on the back. That night, Allison puts her to bed, and just when she’s about to pull the covers up to her neck, Noel begins to cry and says it’s been all too, too, too much, and Allison crawls in next to her and holds her tight, says I know, honey, I know, until at last Noel drifts off to sleep.
It’s occurred to Penny that she could still convince Renae. She can’t make her do anything. She could go to Renae’s office and tell her that it just isn’t working, that she can’t get through Noel’s hostility and can’t even find a place to begin. Penny spends too much time worrying about what’s going on in Noel’s head, trying to find ways to placate her, and the truth is, it’s completely exhausting. The agency would take her back, and Penny could wait for another girl to arrive, someone she might actually be able to help.
But every time she thinks of doing this, she ultimately remembers what it was like to be fifteen herself, fifteen and unwanted. It was nothing like what Noel had experienced, but it was still painful and isolating—divorced parents, a father she saw sporadically until she left for college, an absent mother who was with her various boyfriends more than Penny. Penny spent as little time at home as possible, and when she was fifteen, she got into a relationship with a twenty-five-year-old man and stayed with him whenever she could. Most nights at home, she lay in bed with the radio on, looking out the window at the silvery leaves of the trees, letting the disc jockey’s voice become a person, sitting across the room, telling her stories.
The only happy memory she has is this: a day at Chippewa Lake Park near Akron, an amusement park that was all sugar and red. This was in the last months that her parents were still together, when everything must have been disintegrating and they were pretending it wasn’t, for Penny’s sake. They’d both taken her, bought her ice cream and helped her win a big teddy bear, held her hand as the Big Dipper plummeted down the long hill at the end of the coaster. Her favorite thing, though, was a ride called The Tumblebug, with rounded cups of cars that rose and fell on a winding, sloping track. On either side of Penny, her parents wrapped their arms around her shoulders and they screamed and screamed with delight. The ride was over as quickly as it started. She wonders if Noel has memories like that. She hopes she does.
Now, on her lunch break, Penny walks down the road toward the high school. The side entrance has a glassed-in wall that looks into the cafeteria. She spots Noel immediately, sitting at the corner table eating meatloaf and a small salad. Now and then, Noel takes a bite of food, but most of the time, she’s staring forward, smiling in a pleasant way Penny has never seen in her before. It is as if there is another person sitting across from her, blocking her view of the window, so she can’t see Penny at all.
As she’s walking down the hall to her locker after Spanish class, Noel imagines the conversation in her head, Allison’s light, carefree voice. Noel’s not stupid enough to respond out loud—people already think she’s a freak, even though she doesn’t do anything particularly freaky, except wear plain-colored sweaters and boot cut jeans instead of flared pants and tight, colored long sleeved T-shirts. It’s not like she’s a nerd or something—she doesn’t even really care about school and just wants to cooperate and graduate, if she can. She likes to remain anonymous.
At lunch, she imagines that Allison sits across the table from her, and it’s like Noel can see her perfectly: like in that picture of her with her boyfriend, but her shoulder-length hair curled and less wild, more like the yearbook photo, like she knows she’s at Noel’s school and should dress accordingly. Allison picks at her lunch. “This food is gross,” Allison says.
“Well, this is what we get every day,” Noel responds in her mind. “Penny offers to pack me a lunch, but I’m no charity case. She hates me anyway.”
Allison’s head falls to one side and her disgusted face melts into concern. “You shouldn’t say that. I bet she really doesn’t.”
“No, she does, actually.” Noel tosses her half-eaten lunch in the garbage can behind her. “She just needles me all the time about crap that means nothing—getting better grades, trying to open up to her and make some friends. Oh and here’s the real winner—she’ll tell me to eat and that I need to lose weight all in the same breath. She’s nuts. Like I said, she hates me.”
“Please don’t say that,” Allison repeats, and for a minute it sounds like she’s begging. “She’s only trying to help.”
“Why are you taking her side?” Noel says. “What do you know about it? You had a family. You’ve never been like me.”
Allison fluffs her hair and rests her elbow on the table. “I know. But you can’t spend every minute of your life being angry. It doesn’t get you anywhere except more anger and then you just feel worse. And in the meantime, everything else is going by you, and you’re just stuck, you know, like you’ve got your feet in a giant field of muck and it’s just dragging you down.” She reaches across the table and takes her hand, and Noel feels peaceful, like something hard just shriveled up inside her. “Please,” Allison says. “Just think about what I’m saying.”
The bell rings, and the cafeteria erupts into a cacophony of squealing chair legs and a scurried gathering of book bags. “We better go,” Allison says. “You’ve got math next, right?” Noel makes a face, and Allison laughs. Her whole face seems to grow wider, warmer. “Mellow out, babe,” she says, and slaps her hand on Noel’s shoulder. “We’ll get you through it.”
“She’s talking to someone who isn’t there,” Penny says. She’s sitting at the social work agency, across from Renae, who leans back in her chair, arms crossed, listening with one eyebrow raised. “Look. This is it. It’s just beyond me. I can’t cope with it.”
She tries to read Renae’s response, but it’s impossible. Her face is blank and neutral. “And now this,” Penny goes on. “She comes home the last couple days and I can hear her talking to someone in her bedroom. She doesn’t do it in front of other people, or in public, or else I’d probably be even more concerned. At first I thought she was talking on the phone, like she’d finally made a friend, but when I picked up the extension there was no one there.” Her eyes pool and she tries to inconspicuously wipe them away on her sleeve. “I can’t ask her about it. She’ll just bite my head off. Sometimes I think it’s really just better to not do anything.”
Renae watches her, seeming to understand. “Penny,” she says, “I know you’re trying. She’s not Janie, and I realize that. But try to understand her feelings—she’s practically a child. She’s in turmoil.” Renae pauses and rolls her eyes to the ceiling, like she’s thinking. “I hesitate to use the word ‘imaginary friend.’ But the truth is, she finds the world after her parents to be frightening and without compassion. So she creates somebody who will give her the comfort she needs.”
The words sting. “So she’s not satisfied with me,” Penny says.
“Well—” Renae looks like she’s trying not to wince, and Penny knows she’s right.
Penny scans the office, the collage of photos that covers the side wall, each one smiling, some seeming forced, but most full and happy. She thinks about the night before, when she passed by Noel’s room and heard her singing along with one of her records, in a high, light voice she’d never heard before: All your life, you were only waiting… When she peeked through the keyhole, she saw Noel jumping up and down on the bed, arms extended in front of her, as if she were grasping someone’s hands, and when the song was over, she collapsed on the bed laughing, then grabbed her pillow and hugged it as if it were a person.
“I hate to cut this short,” Renae says, “I really do, but the candlelight vigil for the May 4 shootings is tonight. I helped organize it this year.” She stands up and slings her purse over her shoulder. “Are you coming?”
“No,” Penny says. “To be honest, I’d forgotten all about it. I really don’t want to go—I feel weird about it. I was barely a blip on the radar when it happened.”
“That doesn’t mean anything,” she says. “One of the survivors just spoke at the high school this past week. Your daughter was probably there—you should ask her about it.” The word hits her like a hard punch in the chest.
“It might give you something to talk about.” She shakes Penny’s hand. “Good luck,” she says. “Let me know how things go.”
Penny thanks her and walks down the hall, the sound of Noel singing in her room a buzz in her ears that won’t go away.
“You got a boyfriend?” Allison asks Noel.
They are sitting on a small bridge that overlooks a stream weaving through the park just a few blocks from Penny’s neighborhood. Allison wears a grey T-shirt with KENNEDY emblazoned across the chest and blue sneakers. She lies on the bridge, eyes closed against the sun. Noel sits against the railing, stretching her legs out in front of her. She’s got on a pair of pedal pushers she bought at the outlet store across town—when she tried them on, part of her felt like they were too tight, but Allison had insisted they looked fine, and encouraged, she bought them. Noel wiggles her legs up and down and decides she likes the way the denim clings to her knees.
“No way,” Noel says. “Boys never pay me any attention. Can you blame them?”
Allison tilts her head in Noel’s direction and gives her a look. “Um, yeah I can.” She rolls onto her stomach and folds her arms across the wooden surface of the bridge. “You’re pretty. You know, you need to give yourself more credit. If boys don’t like you, it’s about them, not you. You know, I had trouble with guys, too. But then, I guess I got lucky. I knew Barry was the one the minute I saw him. Something about his eyes, I think. We were both freshmen. We were going to go to Buffalo together on his motorcycle when—”
There is a sudden distance in Allison’s eyes that Noel can’t recall seeing, a kind of blue gaze toward the ball field, the stream beneath the bridge, the reflection of the sky. “We should go home. Penny’s probably wondering about you.”
“No,” Noel says. “I like it here. When I was a kid, my dad used to take me to play on a jungle gym just like that.” She points to a decrepit, rusting structure across the park. “He’d help me swing across the monkey bars.” Noel remembers him so vividly, his beard against the back of her neck, his big hands on hers, how he cheered as they reached the end of the long row of aluminum bars. But then, in her mind, his smile fades, he grows angry, he shouts and pulls out the gun. The question rises back up in her. What happened between then, and then, and now? But somehow, the answer seems less important. She’s here now, and thinks of what Penny said—about being unhappy and alone; how once, Penny was just like her. Looking at Allison, picturing her in her mind, she feels herself begin to believe her.
“Allison?” Noel says. “What’s it like to get shot?”
She seems caught off guard by the question at first, then leans her head to one side like she’s thinking. “Why do you want to know that?”
“I just do,” Noel says.
Allison mouth tightens, and she closes her eyes a moment. “It’s not too bad,” she finally says. “I mean sure, it hurts, but only for a minute. Like getting an electric shock when you touch someone after walking on a carpet. Just kind of sharp. But then it’s like it never happened at all.”
Noel thinks of her mother’s body, splayed across the floor, her mouth open in a grimace, the way she was shouting at Noel’s father one minute and quiet the next. She thinks about how Allison is pretty, lively, and runs her words over in her head. An electric shock. Noel knows what that means. It hurts, but after a moment, it’s gone.
Allison stands and helps Noel to her feet. “Come on,” she says.
Still, she doesn’t want to leave. Her father, those days in the park, are back in her head, and she clings to the fraying threads of them. “Wait,” Noel says. “Just a minute. Then we’ll go.”
Allison punches her arm playfully. “We’re not going yet, dope. We’re going to play on the jungle gym.”
Noel feels baffled. “We’re what?”
But Allison has already run across the bridge and halfway toward the playground. “Come on!” she calls over her shoulder. Noel looks up ahead with a kind of excitement she hasn’t felt in years, a smile swelling across her cheeks. She takes off running after her.
They swing across the bars together, first one by one, then at the same time, from different ends, chicken-fighting at the center until Allison loses her grip and lands in the grass below, and they both laugh, and Noel doesn’t even think about how this must look, kicking against the air, laughing as she fights against nothing.
Penny waits at the kitchen table. She doesn’t know where Noel is. Lately, she’s begun to stop wondering, but what she’s just discovered has her genuinely worried. It’s one thing to internalize grief, and for a long time, that’s what she’s assumed Noel’s behavior was. But this is something she just doesn’t understand.
She shouldn’t have gone in Noel’s bedroom. It reminds her of her teen years, when she was trying to hide her relationship. She did a good job of it for awhile, until her mother broke into her room one day and found all the evidence—diary entries, letters she’d saved, even some Polaroids they’d taken for kicks one afternoon at a seedy motel. There was a huge blow-up that left Penny’s voice raw, and she’d taken off and stayed with her boyfriend for the night, putting together a plan to flee the state, but her mother found her the next morning sneaking back into her room to pack and told her that if she didn’t agree to stop seeing him, she’d press statutory rape charges. Penny didn’t think she’d ever really loved him, but if she did, it was then, when she knew that her happiness wasn’t worth ruining his life. Maybe her mother did it because she cared about Penny and knew she could be in danger, but it wasn’t so much breaking it off with the man that had lingered. It was that violation of the little trust in Penny’s mother that still remained for her, the way she had invaded Penny’s private world in such a blatant, unrepentant way.
When Penny got home from seeing Renae, Noel wasn’t in the house. Her bedroom door was cracked open. Penny had gone in out of concern, an impulse, to see if there was something she could gather to help her understand. Sure enough, she found it. A stack of printed-out old photos lay in a pile in the corner of her desk—all with the same girl, with a pretty, heart-shaped face and bright eyes, like she was gazing off to a place she imagined herself heading to. The girl posing against the hood of a car with a bushy-haired man. The girl and the same man mounted on a motorcycle, giving thumbs up to the photographer. The girl holding her hands up to her face, mugging for the camera.
She seems vaguely familiar, and then Penny remembers the newspaper from yesterday, now in the recycling bin. It is damp from dew and rain, but when she checks the front page, there’s that same girl, accompanying a story about the anniversary of the shootings. Her school photograph, along with pictures of the other slain victims, is near the corner column of the story. Penny sinks against the chair, trying to understand why a fifteen-year-old girl would display pictures of a woman who’s been dead for thirty years, like an altar, a shrine. She stares at the paper, tracing the oval lines of Allison’s face, remembers the picture of the Jaspers that came in Noel’s file, how Noel’s mother’s hair curled around her chin in perfect curves.
Noel bursts through the door. She comes in with a funny smile on her face, as if she’s just been laughing at something. “Hi Penny,” she says, and Penny is surprised by how civil she sounds, how something seems to have been lifted from her. She opens the cupboard, takes out the peanut butter and bread, and begins to make a sandwich.
“You’ll spoil your appetite,” Penny says gently. “I’m making a pot roast. It’s been in the cooker all afternoon. Sit down.”
Noel shrugs her broad shoulders and sits at the table, folds her hands in front of her face. Penny reaches across the table and puts her hand on top of Noel’s, and for the first time, she doesn’t jerk away.
“Who’s Allison Krause?” Penny asks. She says it point blank, but Noel doesn’t seem ruffled. She gets a Pepsi out of the fridge and cracks the can open.
“One of the kids from Kent State,” she says. As she speaks, her voice grows higher and intense. “I learned about her at an assembly at school. And then on the computer at home. Did you know she worked in a mental institution in high school and got a man to talk who hadn’t spoken in fifteen years?”
“No,” Penny says cautiously.
Noel’s face crinkles. “How’d you know about her?”
This freezes in Penny, and for a moment she can’t speak. There’s nothing but the hum of the radiator from the basement, the oniony smell of pot roast. “Her picture was in the paper,” Penny says. “For the anniversary of May 4. She was very pretty. I was just curious.”
Noel’s brow furrows like she’s thinking this over, and she nods. “Yeah. I’m curious about her, too. That whole thing was so sad. She died in the hospital, but I like to think she died in her boyfriend’s arms. He really loved her. They were going to take a road trip on his motorcycle together.” She looks at Penny with an interest Penny hasn’t seen before, and it twinges a stroke of hope within her. “You ever have a boyfriend, Penny?”
That she would actually ask her this question makes Penny want to laugh with happiness. A breakthrough. “Yes,” she says. “I was about your age. He was much older than me, and it didn’t work out. But I wasn’t in love with him. I was more in love with rebelling. I know that’s a horrible thing to admit.”
“No,” Noel says. “It’s not.” Penny wonders if Noel is thinking about her own behavior, and for the first time, she feels a connection between them. They smile at each other.
“I had a boyfriend, too,” Noel says. “The second family I lived with. He was my foster brother. They didn’t know, but when they found out…” She cups her hands together and looks down at the table. “I think that’s why they kicked me out. I’m a bad person like that.”
Penny reaches across the table and unclasps Noel’s hands, folds them against hers. “You are not,” she says. “You are not a bad person. You’re a good girl, Noel Jasper. You’ve been through a lot, and you’ve got to remember that. You’ve survived.” Across the table, Noel’s lip has begun to sputter, and she hides her eyes with her hands. “I care about you. And I want you to do well. Make your parents proud. No matter what happened, they would want you to.”
And then, Noel is kneeling on the floor, her arms around Penny’s waist, her face buried in her stomach. Her shoulders shake. Penny runs her fingers through the tangles of her hair. “It hurts,” Noel says. “It hurts every day.”
“I know,” Penny says.
They stay that way for a good while, Noel finally shedding her rough exterior, becoming vulnerable. Penny feels wanted, needed, and hopes that for the first time, Noel can feel that, too. Then, Noel climbs back up and goes to the kitchen sink, slaps some cold water against her face. “I think,” she says, walking back to the table, “that Allison was lucky that way. And she never even knew how lucky she was. She was beautiful and brave, and her parents loved her. Her dad has never stopped fighting for her.”
“She was lucky,” Penny says. “But you’re lucky, too. You have a home, a chance to go to school. I want to help you. Renae wants to help you. And someday you’ll find a boyfriend, too, someone who will love all of you, even the part that hurts.” She grins. “Maybe you’ll even get lucky and find a boy like Allison’s boyfriend. He did seem like a really nice guy. The two of them looked so happy together.”
The smile on Noel’s face falls, and Penny realizes her mistake. “How did you know about her boyfriend?” Noel asks.
Penny hopes Noel doesn’t notice the widening of her eyes, how she draws in a sharp breath. “The newspaper had a picture of them, too,” she says.
“No they didn’t.” Noel’s skin is pale, and her hair seems darker against it, almost black. “You’re lying. How did you know?”
Penny bows her head. She can’t think of an excuse. She remembers what she told Noel the first day she came, about her bedroom being hers alone. But she can’t say it out loud, and knows she looks ashamed, and that says it all for her.
Noel’s head shoots upward. Her jaw tenses. “You—” Noel begins, then swallows and starts over. “You went in my room? You went through my stuff?”
Penny bites her tongue. She doesn’t bother to tell Noel to watch her tone “No. I didn’t go through your things. I just looked at the top of the desk. And saw those pictures.”
“That doesn’t matter,” Noel says. “You came in my room. You spied on me. How am I supposed to trust you? Don’t you know what that even feels like?”
Penny can’t speak. She squeezes her fists tight, her thoughts racing, and knows Noel’s right. She wishes that she’d tried harder to talk to her about her parents, helped her process it, instead of responding just the way she would have when she was her age—denial, frustration.
Noel grabs her coat from the rack hanging in the hallway outside the kitchen. “I’m going out,” Noel says. “Just leave me alone. I need to be by myself. Don’t come after me.”
Penny hears the door slam. She sits alone at the table for a minute, angry with herself. She gets up and goes to the living room and looks out the window, where at the end of the street, Noel is nothing but a small, dark dot. Then, she goes back into Noel’s bedroom and picks up the pictures, looks at Allison’s face—beautiful, in muted orange and blue, she and Barry beaming, thinking of the road ahead of them, the motorcycle taking them there, fast and hard and eternal.
Even though it’s getting dark out, Noel walks downtown. On weeknights—even some weekends—the corner of Main and Water is a ghost town, the storefronts are closed, there’s the sound of traffic and not much else. An art gallery with magenta tapestries and hemp jewelry has one lone light bearing down on the window display, but there’s no light anywhere, save for the glare of the streetlights. She walks up the inclined road of Main Street, past Spyro Gyro and the record store and the abandoned brick hotel. In her mind she sees her mother falling, she sees Allison falling; they both fall together. And then she sees herself fall, too.
Somehow, Noel’s ended up near campus and decides to go to the candlelight vigil. She’s never been to the site of the shootings and thinks it might help, being there with other people who know how it feels to be lost, to have something so awful happen to them that it never goes away, not even after thirty years. She crosses Lincoln Street and sets off across the commons, and thinks it’s strange to be walking on the sidewalks, the routes that Allison took to class, past the rock that students paint with messages and fraternity letters, where she probably drew a daisy once, in delicate strokes.
And then there’s the hill, just like in the pictures, the victory bell and the pagoda, the spot where Allison was captured in a photo, though just a dark figure with arms outstretched, indistinguishable. The air is full of tiny candle lights, like Glo Worms. Someone is playing “Norwegian Wood” on an acoustic guitar, a serene scatter and rise of notes. There are people gathered all over the lot, around the places where the students’ bodies were found, the plaques in the asphalt lit by the soft waver of the candles.
Noel finds Allison’s spot quickly, her name encircled by gifts of smooth rocks and daffodils. She kneels on the pavement, then feels herself lowering until her cheek is pressed against the ground and the wet stem of a flower. She sees her father’s face at the monkey bars, feels her mother kissing her forehead at night, remembers the sheets pulled over their heads, feels the emptiness of packing her suitcase four times—leaving her parents’ house, leaving the foster homes. Her body clenches up. And then, she rests against the pavement, held up by her elbows, the dirt and grime against her skin. She exhales slowly and feels released, like something has gone out in her, into the candle-smoke of the May night, its leaving shaking her ribs, then letting them slacken and rise and fall.
Somehow, Penny knew Noel would come here. She parks on the other side of the lot, away from the parade of thirty-year mourners. It’s odd to her that, watching them, she can feel the heaviness of their decades-old loss, and that famous picture comes to mind—the one of the girl crying over one of the bodies, her mouth open in a sob, arms outstretched and raised in unbridled grief.
Penny gets out of the car and keeps watch against the driver’s side. She sees Noel then—standing up like she’s been kneeling in prayer, and there’s a look on her face that Penny’s never seen before, placid and opaque, her eyes like the dots of question marks. Noel gazes down at what must be the plaque on the ground, Allison’s name etched in stone. Perhaps Noel will walk in later tonight aware that something has changed, ready to move on. Perhaps she won’t. But if she does, Penny will tell her everything—the long nights of playing the radio when her mother was gone, the Polaroids in her desk drawer, the constant fear of being left alone, how long it took her until she finally shattered it, climbed upward. The carnival and cotton candy, both her parents’ hands in hers, the last day she was happy.
Penny slams the car door and walks with shaking steps across the parking lot. Noel is so focused, so lost in thought that she doesn’t hear her approach, until Penny places her hand on her shoulder and pats it. They stay that way for a long time, surrounded by flickering candles, the last of the guitar chords falling away into the amber air.