Wednesday, 13 February 2013
Dark Valentine (by Katherine Catmull)
People say love is life, is the great thing, makes the world go round, all that. It’s a powerful thing, that’s for sure. And it can lead you to some dark places. And I’m not talking about being sad when you break up, or whatever. I’m talking a lot darker than that.
This thing happened just a couple of years ago. I still think about it all the time. This boy I knew—he lived in your neighborhood, actually, on one of those streets named after a tree—this happened to a boy I knew. His parents are friends of mine, or they were at the time. They moved away, after all this happened, and no one around here hears from them any more.
Jack was twelve years old, and he was in love with a girl named Mindy. Both of them were dark kids, him with a sweet smile that he only broke out once in a while, and her with a hilarious little frown and a determined walk. People who say you can’t really be in love when you’re twelve? They don’t know what they’re talking about. Those kids were crazy for each other, and tender of each other, and nothing came between them. She went to his cello recitals and he went to her soccer games; and every night, before they went to sleep, they would video-Skype each other from their computers to say good night.
But one day she got sick, and it was the bad kind of sickness, the kind annoying girls who are into tragedy do reports on in health class. The kind you don’t get better from. The second time Mindy went into the hospital, her parents got her a smart phone, so that she could Skype and text with her friends—which mostly meant Skype and text with Jack, of course. And he sold his best comics, did extra chores, and begged his parents and aunts for early birthday money until he could get a smartphone, too. Just a used one, but it worked.
The last time Mindy was in the hospital, she and Jack Skyped and texted for hours every day. He fell way behind on his schoolwork, but his teachers knew, so they cut him some slack. She was in intensive care, and they wouldn’t let non-family-members visit. But at night Jack would sit on the edge of his bed, staring into the little screen, fingers texting away—or else staring at the grainy, moving Skype picture of her, sickly-pale against white sheets under the yellow hospital lights. Day and night he would talk to her softly, words no one could hear but her, and she would whisper back to him.
But of course, in the end, Mindy died. Most of the school came to her funeral. I went, too. They buried her with her soccer trophy, and her colored pencils—she was a really good artist, Mindy—and her bright purple phone, with the stickers on it from some band she liked, and the head of a unicorn she had drawn herself with black magic marker.
I saw Jack at the funeral. He didn’t walk past the coffin when his parents did. He sat in the very back corner, staring at the ground, holding his phone in two hands in front of him, staring at the empty black screen.
What happened next I found out about in pieces. Jack’s parents had me over for dinner a couple of weeks after the funeral, after the kids were in bed. Jack had a little sister who was almost three, then—her name was Eleanor, but they called her Booshie for some reason I never quite got. Anyway, Booshie got out of bed that night, came wandering down in her pajamas with a smiley stuffed possum she liked.
“Booshie!” said her mother. “Back to bed, young lady!”
“Mindy,” Booshie said.
And the table got quiet.
“No, no Mindy,” said her father, “Get back to bed now, Boosh.”
“Mindy Jack’s phone,” said Booshie. Her parents looked at each other. “Mindy Jack talking,” she added helpfully.
Her mom got up and kneeled down by Booshie. “You’re having a dream, sweetheart,” she said. “Come on, I’ll take you to bed.”
“No,” said Boosh. “Mindy Jack! Where Mindy?”
(“She loved Mindy,” her dad murmured to me.)
“Honey, you didn’t see Mindy,” said her mom. “Jack’s talking to someone else. Listen to me,“ and she held the kid gently by her little pajama’d arms: “Don’t make up stories about Mindy. Ever. You can’t ever make up stories about Mindy, Boosh. Do you understand?”
She didn’t yell it, her voice was calm, but Booshie must have picked up something in her tone, because she burst into tears and started shouting “I sorry! I sorry!” Her mother scooped her up and took her upstairs.
Jack’s dad and I sat around in a weird silence for a while.
“How’s Jack doing, after . . . everything?” I said, finally.
“Ehhh, not good. Not so great, really. Not good.” We went back to staring at our plates.
And after that I started hearing stories about Jack, from other parents in the neighborhood who heard stories from their kids. About him skipping classes, about him dropping out of orchestra. Sitting alone at lunch, typing furiously into his phone. Some kids claimed they saw him sitting way out in the empty soccer field at lunch, leaning against the goal, holding the phone in front of his face and talking, all excited, like he was Skyping with someone.
“But he doesn’t have any friends, my kid says, so who was he texting and Skyping with?” they’d say. “He never had any friends, really, but Mindy.”
Maybe six months after Mindy died, I had dinner with Jack’s parents again. Their downstairs bathroom was broken, so I went upstairs. And at the top of the stairs, I heard the strangest thing: this voice, only it almost wasn’t a voice—it was like a voice made of static. Whispery, jagged static that had somehow made itself into a girl’s voice. “Love,” the voice was saying. SSshhhhh, hiss, zzt, szzshhhh: Love, love, love, love.
It was coming from Jack’s room, and his door was just cracked open. I walked up to the crack and peeked in. I know I shouldn’t have, but that strange, staticky voice unnerved me.
Jack had his back to the door, so I could see the phone he was staring into. What I saw—it’s hard to explain, how it hit me in the stomach, how it made me stumble back.
It was a face, I knew that. It was the face of a girl, but it was the wrong color, purplish and gray, and it was only . . . I don’t know how to say it, but it was only pieces of a face. Or maybe the whole face was there, but some of the pieces were in the wrong place. A brown eye had slid down too close to the mouth. And the mouth was too wide, as if the lips were peeled back, exposing too much of black and grinning gums.
And that voice, that whispering, hissing voice, saying “love, love, love.”
I stumbled back, I stumbled down the stairs. I told Jack’s parents I wasn’t feeling well, and I went home. And I tried to forget about it, tell myself I misheard, I mis-saw—though for the first few days, that gray, grinning, lopsided face made it hard to sleep.
So we’re almost at the end of this story, which is this. A few months later, I was out late, walking our dog. We’d been out to dinner and stayed later than we’d planned, so it was almost midnight.
I don’t usually walk out beyond the Safeway, on these walks, but the dog hadn’t been out all day, and he wanted to keep going . . . and I forgot, to tell you the truth, I forgot what’s out there. No streetlights, for one thing. No streetlights, but the yellowy light of a low full moon rising just over that little hill . . . that hill that’s part of the cemetery.
I’d forgotten I was walking past the cemetery.
And just at that moment, when the sight of all those gravestones in the moonlight was making my skin go cold—just when I was telling myself not to be ridiculous, but still, still wishing I were home—just at that moment, behind me, I heard it again. I heard that voice, that whispering, hissing, staticky voice.
I froze. My dog pulled forward and whined. I turned around.
He emerged out of the darkness like he was a piece of darkness himself. He trudged down the road, his shaggy head down, staring at a glowing screen.
“Jack,” I said.
He looked up. He had changed since I saw him at Mindy’s funeral. It wasn’t just the moonlight. He was taller, and thinner, and his face was gray, and his eyes were huge and black in their dark circles.
“Jack,” I said again.
“I was losing the signal,” he said. I wasn’t even sure he was talking to me. He seemed to be talking into the night, or over my shoulder, or to the moon. “I was losing the signal, I thought it was almost gone,” he repeated. “But then I figured it out. It’s way stronger out here.” He smiled, a wide and unnatural smile. “It’s way, way stronger out here.”
“Jack,” I said, as he passed me. He started to run. “Jack!” I shouted. “Come on, man, don’t—“ But he had already disappeared into the dark.
I should have followed him. I know I should have, or at least called his parents. I’ll know that for the rest of my life. But I felt so cold all of a sudden, chilled right to the bone, and I turned around to walk home.
I did look over my shoulder, once. I saw a small, shaggy-haired figure up on that cemetery hill, outlined against the moon, kneeling over a grave.
So anyway. That’s the story. They found him the next morning, lying on her grave, face down. The grave was half dug up, as if he’d dug down with his bare hands. His fingernails were torn and bloody. He couldn’t get through the wood of her coffin, but his hand was pressed flat against the lid. He was dead.
And the weird thing was that when they found him, his phone was still on, was still hissing gray static, like an old TV—like something was still trying to get through.
They opened her coffin to make sure her body was all right, and found that her bony hand was pressed up flat against the lid, too. You can imagine how her parents felt about that.
So anyway, love. It’s not all pink hearts and flowers. It’s not all sweetness, the way you might think, the way they try to make you feel like it is, on Valentine’s Day.
I guess that’s all I wanted to say.