AUDREY DATES MURPHY in a city far from home. They often go down to the docks past midnight in this foggy city that smells unclean. There are ratty Christmas garlands on icy benches flanking a dirty white lighthouse.
It's blistering cold, but they stand there stubbornly. They've been standing there for a while, staring out at the floating ice and chunky black waves, recovering from a long argument that's worn them out.
Murphy has his arms wrapped around his chest, watching to see how long she'll stare at the dirty white paint of the lighthouse and the graffiti. It's back to zero. She's not budging. It's been a long, cold night.
Audrey always reads the graffiti. In bathrooms, subways, alleyways. Sometimes she records things in a notebook he never gets to read. Here, amongst the illegible scrawling, there's a big heart shakily rendered on the rough surface. Inside it says: JERRY AND FELICIA TOGETHER 4 EVER! It makes her feel lonely, but she won't budge.
Let's smoke this thing, he says at last. She shrugs, so he goes ahead and unwraps his arms. He finds the lighter in his jacket pocket and lights the joint he rolled in the van and has been clutching in his hand this whole time. The lighter makes a fierce red spot in the grey air. They each have a few tokes. It looks like it'll snow.
This is ridiculous, Murphy says cheerfully. Let's talk about something. Anything! Tell me something about yourself. Something I don't know yet. Something I'll never know unless you tell me right now. It's a stretch -- trying to get her to let it all go and just be normal.
You really want to know? She says flatly.
Of course I really want to know.
Example? Audrey is curt.
Okay. He expects this. He passes her the joint and exhales. So I have a recurring dream about swing sets. I've never told anyone before.
What kind of swing sets?
Your average children's swing sets, he says. I'm stuck on one. Can't get off the fucking thing.
Dream or nightmare?
Nightmare! Isn't that fucked up? He laughs, then draws hard on the joint.
He pauses and looks out into the white night.
What about you? he says. Dreams? Nightmares? Hopes? Fears? Secrets? She makes him wait a long time for the answer.
I collected postcards as a child, but I stopped. My favourite movies are Mary Poppins and The Shining. How's that?
Come on, he laughs. You can do better than that.
She thinks for a while, starting to enjoy the smell of the pot.
Okay. How's this? Someone got mugged next door to our cabin in the middle of the winter and came to us for help. It looked like this outside only with more snow. Tonnes more snow. I was just a kid. I must have been like seven or eight ... I remember we were listening to Lionel Ritchie. My dad made us hold barbeque forks for self-defence.
Hang on. Back to Lionel for a second. Were you dancing on the ceiling? Murphy laughs uncomfortably before examining the joint and offers her a last haul before tossing it into the dark water.
She looks at him flatly.
No, seriously, that is freaky, he offers.
No kidding, she says. Actually, "Hello" was my song of choice.
Ahhh, "Is it me you're looking for?"
Exactly, she says, with the slightest grin.
Now we're getting somewhere, he thinks. The water in front of them is slapping against itself, against the dock, invisible at times under the shifting fog. Behind them it slides up the shore and headlights creep along the road picking out their two figures on the dock, illuminating them momentarily, leaving them again in the dark.
So, what happened? he finally asks.
We never heard, she says. At least I never heard.
They stand in silence for a long while. Murphy hones in on the sounds of the swooshing traffic far behind them.
How about this, she says, pointing to the heart on the lighthouse. What can you do with this?
It is his turn to pause and make her wait.
Ah, I was waiting for you to ask, Murphy says. Obviously this inscription is old, he begins. These folks aren't kids anymore. They wrote this when they were in high school. Now they are in their thirties--late thirties, he offers. They live in the city still, where they have lived all their lives. She is a teacher. He is a ... dentist. No, maybe a psychiatrist.
It's something Audrey and Murphy started to play months ago, watching people -- or more often, traces of people -- guessing who they were, what they were thinking, where they came from. This was a good sign, Audrey starting this tonight. Audrey liked this game. It made her feel good and safe to be a couple with rituals.
So where are Jerry and Felicia tonight?
Tonight? Ah, well she's pregnant ... with their third child. The first two are twins. She's at home. The kids dream about math because they are both sort of geniuses. They home-school.
Of course they home-school!
Jerry is out getting drunk with his friends because he's seen so many schizophrenics today his head is spinning.
Okay, Audrey says. I'll buy that. But she's feeling dizzy and very cold now.
Let's just go home, she says. She is starting to shiver uncontrollably.
No, no. Hang on. Your turn. He smiles.
No, let's just go.
Just a quick one. What do you see when you look into their heart? He points to the scratching on the lighthouse. What do you see for Jerry and Felicia?
No. I don't want to.
She is silent for a long while, staring blankly forward.
Come on. He smiles, reaching around her shoulder and rubbing her arm to warm her up. What is Felicia doing right now? Sleeping? Sitting up listening to Lionel Ritchie? Audrey says nothing.
Come on, Aud. He tightens his arm around her enthusiastically. Whatta ya got? Play the game -- You started it. Plus, I have "Hello" running through my head, thanks to you.
Fine. She begins calmly, feeling around inside herself for the story. Felicia is a thin woman, even though she is pregnant. She is one of those slim pregnant women with just a perfect ball of baby. But she has a red face. Round. Bulbous even. And you are right ... she's listening to music. Let's go with that.
Uh, huh ... go on.
That's all I got. She opens her palms to the skies in defeat.
Come on, Audrey. Tell me, what makes this woman tick? He tries to wrap his arms around her from behind.
And then we can go? She shrugs him off. He nods.
Once upon a time Felicia and Jerry went away for a weekend to a little motel up in the hills. In the daytime they went skiing, played around on the hills. After a dinner of cheese fondue and Caesar salad they went for a walk in the snow, and then, in the middle of the well-lit parking lot, they got mugged at gunpoint. Let's say Felicia was even violently raped at gunpoint and never recovered and we'd better, therefore, scrap the children. They couldn't have children and Jerry resented her for the rest of their lives.
Intense, he says. Nicely done.
No, not nice. She shrugs his arm violently off her. Maybe they live in a bad part of town and never go on vacation anymore and she won't leave the house, which, incidentally, has a brown shag rug, which is always a little damp, and - and - and - and -
She flaps her hands around looking for the words. And they are both fucking miserable because she is afraid all the time and because they're trapped in this -- this fucking thing and he helps everyone recover ... except
Hey, whoa ... slow down, Aud.
Maybe she is super crazy ... and maybe Jerry is about to leave her because she just keeps wishing they had never gone for a walk.
Audrey turns on him with all the pent up fury of their evening, her face blotchy red and white, her eyes baggy and verging on tears.
You're just feeling paranoid. You're fine ... I'm here. Audrey? I'm sorry, I shouldn't have brought the pot.
Audrey is staring out into the white sky, feeling herself get very still. Murphy puts his arm around her again. Nothing. His arm feels weightless on her, like things do when you are numb with cold. She hears the little noises, the familiar buzzing, the little waves, the little loose waves of thought, of plastic hitting plastic, of crunching and outdoor rustling, of things that might be about to happen, the kind that makes you look behind you in a panic on a well-lit city street. Things shaped in ice and snow that make you scared of windows.
Murphy stands somewhere in Audrey's peripheral vision for a small eternity, before she hears his voice. It's started to snow. It seems like it should snow very hard.
Hey, Aud? Sweetie? You okay? You're just not feeling well. Everything's cool. You're just feeling crazy from the pot. It's cool. Do you want to head back?
Just ... just stop it. I'm fine. I'm cold. I'm fine.
He holds her more tightly and she shivers uncontrollably. She feels his cold fingers gently tuck into her coat sleeve and find their way to the skin of her wrist. Audrey looks up and stares across the water and the two of them are silent again, as his fingers stay and seem to melt on her skin.
They begin the walk back to the van. He holds her tightly and they move as one figure slowly along the dock away from the open water.
Are you okay, now? he asks. Are you okay? I lost you there for a bit.
I'm fine, she says. Can we just not talk? She concentrates on emptying her thoughts, pouring them out to be lost in this big, cold space.
Just don't talk and just look at this snow. This is one of my favourite things. It's starting to snow very lightly, just enough to start filling in the dirty footprints on the dock.
THE NEXT MORNING the father yanked open the wooden cabin door onto a bright sunny day, waking the three children abruptly from their campout on the living room floor. First with the unlocking and then with the low incoming chill and the light. In the distance was the ski resort, the chairlifts heading steadily, reliably up and down the modest white hills.
Leaving Sundays was usually a big rush, but today the kids were more efficient, more ready to leave. Cale, Elliot and Audrey hauled themselves up off the floor, shivering and squinting, gathered up their bedding without having to be told twice, and headed back down the hallway to their bedroom. The hallway, with its tattered blue runner, always felt cold in the mornings, but that day it was especially so. Audrey found her book on the floor and replaced the bookmark at random. It must have fallen out the night before. She pushed a fading postcard of Orlando, Florida back onto the cedar wall where it was coming un-taped, and dumped her covers onto the bare damp-looking mattress. She dressed quickly, scanned the room like her mother did in hotels for forgotten items of clothing or toys and then returned to the relative warmth of the main room.
The children's three orange toboggans, which they had propped up neatly against the cabin (Audrey knew they had because that is what they always did), were strewn along the path from the front door -- one was all the way up near the car, sparkling with little stars of snow. Two pairs of skis remained propped up in perfect V's, the poles dangling by leather straps off the railing. Only one ski had dropped into the deep snow, cutting a sharp line like a shadow of its twin. Their father asked the boys to bring everything inside before taking the luggage out to the minivan.
Audrey climbed in first. Her parents were putting the last bags in the back. While she clambered into the last row of seats, she heard her mother at the back of the van say quietly to her father that they should stop by the station -- just to know.
Audrey spent the first ten minutes of the trip (up through the valley on the steep road, past the narrow unfrozen canal) trying to locate her spot in her book, trying to ignore her brothers' incessant questioning of their parents. Elliot wanted to know where they took the guy. Cale asked if Dad would have killed the guy if he came close. Cale figured he could. Cale sat on the left-hand side in the middle, where he always sat. Elliot, who normally sat on the right side in the middle, chose the middle middle so that he could lean forward into the spot between his parents and take part in the discussion. Their mother asked if his seatbelt was on properly, told him to lean back and sit properly, insisted there was no need to yell, she was right there. Audrey concentrated on her book and its soft pages that smelt of the library, and she did not look back to see their boathouse on the lake getting smaller from the top of the valley. She did not say, Bye boathouse, see you in the summer. Today she clenched the sides of her book trying to read.
Soon they pulled into the crunchy gravel of the police station lot. Audrey finally looked up. She had never noticed it before, but the station had been here by the highway all along, near the fruit stands where they always went, except in the winter when they were dry and empty. Her mother looked back over her seat and asked Audrey if she was okay, so quiet. Audrey said she was just reading.
Their parents got out of the van and went into the station together, leaving Cale in charge. The boys convinced Audrey to play "I Spy" with them, but then, on his second turn, Cale said, I spy the killer! and Elliot asked him, Where? Where? His head darting around like a puppy. Cale explained that they had just missed him, that there was a small jail behind the police station. Audrey saw the horseback riding stables behind the police station. She didn't see anything else. She didn't. She didn't see a jail.
Don't you see the bars? Don't you see him there? She didn't. She just didn't. She saw horseback riding trails and bits of snow blowing sadly over the grass.
Their parents returned, walking quickly. Their dad kicked his bulky black winter boots against the fender to get the snow off before climbing into the driver's seat. Okay, gang, off we go!
The boys started in with their questions, the two of them vying for that gap in between the front seats. From the back where she always sat, Audrey saw her mother's profile say something to their father. Then he said, Boys, make sure you're buckled up. Everything is fine. They got the guy and everything is fine. He looked into his rearview mirror at Audrey and smiled. Everything all right back there, Aud? We had a late night -- Why don't you tuck in and get a little nap and we'll wake you up for donuts.
Audrey smiled back, secured her seatbelt, and watched the grass sticking out of the snow on the horseback trails as they headed back into traffic, towards the highway and home.
THE MORNING BEFORE, the kids had been cross-country skiing and tobogganing on the hills that rolled down to the frozen lake. All day the snow had been falling slowly in thick flakes, building up a smooth curve against the window about a quarter of the way up.
Probably this happened. This is likely how the day had been going. But Audrey cannot fully retrieve the events of that day, cannot quite remember what the day was like until the frantic knocking on the window, the crunching of the snow, the three of them running down the hall into the big family room to see their father opening the front door, their mother reaching for the phone. The big room no longer warm, despite the fire. Audrey no longer cozy, but shivering.
AUDREY HAD BEEN almost falling asleep before the people came. Her brothers had been in their bunk beds and Audrey was beside them in her real bed when they heard. Her parents' nightly bath had run its course. The tub had filled, sounding loud and hot, muffling their parents' voices, then there was silence before the guttural emptying and the final swirl of water down the drain. Audrey was reading when they heard the people come. The book was a softcover from the city library. She was drowsy, but she was on the last chapter. The tape deck was on low like they were allowed to have it while they fell asleep.
Somewhere amidst the tinging sound of their father pushing the fire screen right up against the brick to keep the sparks from jumping out and the turning of the soft, worn page, Audrey heard a scraping and shouting. Horrible, repetitious scraping and scrambling.
THE GIRL'S FACE WAS RED and white, unsteady. Red with white blotches, and her hair was long, dark and damp with snow. She was squealing something, but it was muffled by the window pane and by the plastic window covering. The guy was shouting right through the glass, his face white coming out of the black night, the sweat freezing on his hairline. The soft contours of the snowdrift were destroyed, broken and angular. It was still snowing, white flakes dropping into dangerous uneven cavities and broken boot prints.
I'm sorry. I can't let you in. We have children, we can't let you in. We don't know who you are ... I hope you understand. Stay put. We've called the police and they're on their way. Just stay put. It won't be long now ...
That is when their father handed out the long barbeque forks. Even Cale started crying, standing up straight in the moonlight, bare-chested and skinny, pale and afraid in just his pajama bottoms, holding a fork the length of his forearm. There was a scraping sound against the aluminum house siding. The half full wine glasses were still on the card table and mittens were drying by the fire, leftovers of a family's winter holiday weekend, and a little girl fiercely afraid of the night.
WHEN THE POLICE FINALLY ARRIVED, Audrey was standing in pee-soaked flannel pajamas, holding a long-handled barbeque fork. Her father placed the huge kitchen knife on the manteltop before putting on his boots and heavy coat and going out the door. Her mother tightened the belt on her housecoat, explaining to the kids that it was the police and everything would be fine now. Their mother passed two blankets to their father to take to the people. Audrey could feel where the pee had dripped into her sock and it was itchy where it was drying on her calf. The darkness through the windows was replaced now with red lights, a white light darting around quickly. Boots were crunching snow.
When their father opened the door they could see how the police cars were arranged like a fan on the driveway at the top of the steps, lights pouring into the house. The lady was gone. The door closed behind their father walking out with the blankets. Their mother said, See, the lady will be safe and warm in the police car. The boys watched from the window. Audrey tried to see but they were blocking her view. She saw the man wrapping the blanket around himself as the snow fell. She heard him say, My wife, Felicia. There were many boots crunching snow and muffled voices and the slamming of car doors.
Eventually the door creaked open, letting in cold air, their father, and a very tall policeman. He was a thick tower of blue and smelled warm to Audrey, like coffee and seatbelt metal in the summer. He seemed warm and strong. There was a gun on his belt, which Cale pointed out to Audrey and Elliot. He was holding a notepad and when he reached for his pen their mother sent them down the hall so the adults could talk. The children didn't go far down the hallway. They tried to listen at the door.
We know who he is. He's a local -- well-known guy -- got his hands on a hunting rifle. Those folks were just out for a nice winter walk. Just walking. It was a well-lit area. Can't place any blame on them.
Then the policeman's voice got very low, almost a whisper. They heard their father's voice, deeper than usual through clenched teeth. Jezzus. Jesus Christ.
He forced them down the hill to the lake when he was done, the policeman continued, must have walked a ways and then clambered all the way back up.
She'll be fine. Just cold. And bruised of course. And there will be trauma. There always is, but they're pretty lucky as far as things go. They were crouched down behind your toboggans there.
Is there anything at all we can do? I wish we could have let them in, but we have three kids and we didn't know, their mother explained. You hear so many things.
Can't say I blame you. You did what you could. We'll take her straight in to get checked out. Course, we'll need your number and address.
Of course, their parents answered in unison.
When they were allowed back into the living room, Audrey asked if they could all sleep together on the floor in front of the fire. They went down the hall to collect their bedding and arranged three cozy sleeping spots in a row in front of the fire. Audrey changed into dry, warm pajamas, and tucked herself safely under the covers in her spot between the long couch and Cale. Their parents said everyone was safe. The doors were locked. It was time to go to sleep.
Their father lowered the blinds and turned off most of the lights, except the yellowish one on top of the piano, and one by the couch. But their parents stayed up for a long time that night, sitting on the couch, their children between them and the fire, and they drank wine and waited for sleep to descend to the floor. The boys talked about guns for a bit, arguing quietly over the difference between a sawed-off and a rifle and a pistol. Their mother insisted it was late and this was no time to be discussing things like that. They'd all have nightmares. They were supposed to try to think of nice things like Florida and fall asleep.
The boys eventually settled down. The parents sat up quietly. The fire crackled. The parents whispered once or twice. We'll have to pick up a paper tomorrow, her mother said. Audrey heard her dad check the doors again and another light went out by the couch, but he sat back down, rested his warm heavy foot against her back and Audrey knew they were both still there and would be until very late, and she fell asleep.
THIS IS THE STORY Audrey has settled on, the one beginning with a brief collision of sounds in the winter -- of a word sung and shouted in unison- - a woman calling Hello, banging on the window in the winter, and Lionel Ritchie crooning the same word into a child's sleepy mind from a small pink tape deck. The buzzing of an old tape deck and the banging on an old cabin door, so hard the wall seems to tremble. The word Hello -- the coincidence -- is what she has left out, the part that doesn't ring true, doesn't fit in. The part that is too hard to explain.
IT WAS IN THE NEWS the next day. They were at home in the city watching TV when their mother came in with the paper. The boys scrambled for it. She said there was no need to make such a fuss. Not to scare Audrey.
She was raped, Elliot yelled. That lady was raped! What does that mean? She's still in hospital too. Audrey curled her feet up onto the couch, warming them under her bum. She concentrated on the television, on Mary Poppins, the part with the tea party on the ceiling.
Is she dead? Elliot grabbed at the paper.
Boys! Stop grabbing! Their mother's voice rose suddenly in a slight panic. Then it returned to normal. It means he hurt her because he is sick. But things are okay now. The lady is fine now.
The boys kept talking. Audrey turned to them with her hands pressed against her ears and shouted. This is my favourite part! Be quiet! You know this is my favourite part!
Chill, Audrey. Jeez. What's your problem? Cale and Elliot laughed as they left the room. The jolly old man floated up to the ceiling of a dining room in London and poured the tea for the little girl in the blue outfit.
You know, Martin, Audrey heard her mother say before dinnertime. It must be the same guy. Remember when the Dwights' son came up to the motel from the docks with his clothes wet and claimed to have lost the canoe. Someone found him hiding out behind the pool shed. He wouldn't speak and his mother had to come and ask him what happened to his friend. That must've been him. They had him in an institution after that -- in Thunder Bay I think.
Jesus. Hate to be the bloody fool who decided he could go. On the other side of the half-closed door Audrey heard her father toss down the paper. Can I get you a drink? he said to his wife. Audrey, shivering in the evening shade of the dining room, was concentrating on each soft page of her book, passing the time until dinner.