Fall for Anything: Excerpt
My hands are dying.
I keep trying to explain it to Milo, but he just looks at me like I’m crazy.
“They don’t feel warm–they haven’t.” I squeeze the tips of my finers as hard as I can, which hurts. “They’re not numb, though…”
“Maybe you have that… Raynaud’s disease,” he says. He takes my right hand and studies my fingers. They seem healthy, pink. He shakes his head. “They’re not blue.”
“But they’re cold.”
“They feel warm to me.”
“They feel cold,” I insist.
“Okay, Eddie,” he says. “They’re cold.”
I jerk my hands from his and then I rub them together. Friction. Heat. Milo can say what he wants; they’re freezing. It’s the hottest summer Branford has seen in something like ten years, but I haven’t been able to get my hands to warm up since it happened.
I hold them up again. They don’t even look like my hands anymore. They don’t even look like anything that could belong to me, even though they’re clearly attached.
“They’re different” I tell him.
“Would you please put your hands down?” he asks. “Jesus.”
My hands have changed. I catch Milo looking at them sometimes, and I see it on his face that they’re different, no matter what he’s saying now.
We’re at the park, sitting on the picnic tables, watching a summer world go by. Kids play in the fountain with their parents. Pant legs are rolled up and big hands are holding on to tiny hands, keeping them steady against the rush of water. The smell of burgers and fries is in the air; food. It reminds me the fridge at home is empty and I have to go grocery shopping today or my mom and I will starve.
I don’t even know how long the fridge has been that empty but I noticed it today.
“What’s in your fridge?” I ask Milo.
“Doesn’t matter,” he says. “My mom isn’t home.”
We’re stuck between my house and his lately. He hasn’t been allowed to have girls at his place unsupervised since he hit puberty and I don’t like hanging out at my place now.
It’s too depressing.
“That’s not why I asked. I have to go grocery shopping and I don’t know what to get…” I rest my chin in my hands. “And I don’t want to do it.”
He hops off the picnic table. “Let’s just get it over with, okay?”
We make our way out of the park and go to the grocery store. I’ve barely stepped through the doors when I decide it is The Saddest Place on Earth.
Everyone just looks sad.
We end up in produce. I give myself a headache over the kind of math you have to use to buy food, which you need to live. I don’t even know what I want or what we need or how much I should be spending or what’s reasonable to spend. EVERYTHING HERE IS A STEAL, if I believe the signs, but there are two grocery stores in Branford, so I don’t know.
“It’s not hard,” Milo says, but even he sounds kind of unsure.
It is hard. I’ve never done this before.
I never had to.
We head to the frozen foods and I start shoving TV dinners into my cart and then I go to the dairy aisle and get cheese and bread because it seems less hopeless than TV dinners. And then I stand there, lost. What’s next? This is what grown-ups do.
It’s such a waste of time.
“Hey,” Milo says. “You here?”
“I’m here,” I say. I think.
I head back to the freezers and grab some frozen vegetables. I read somewhere they’re better for you than fresh because they were picked at a perfect moment in time and frozen in it. Fresh vegetables aren’t really fresh because as soon as they’re out of the ground and on their way to the grocery store, the best parts of them have already started to fade away.
“I should get…”
I trail off and turn in the aisle, trying to ignore the sad faces shuffling past and then I grab some ginger ale. Ginger ale is usually only for when we’re sick and I know we’re not technically sick, but every time I’m at home, I feel like I could puke so that must be close enough.
When we step inside my house, all the lights are off.
It wouldn’t be a big deal since it’s summer and it’s the middle of the day, but all the curtains are drawn too. It’s like some kind of permanent dusk or twilight here now–those two points in twenty-four hours where it’s too early or too late to do anything. I’m discovering those moments feel like they go on forever. Milo reaches for the first light switch he sees, but I stop him and bring my finger to my lips. I keep it there until I hear it.
“You’d feel so much better if you had one room that was neat and clean…”
Enemy presence confirmed.
Now I just have to figure out how to sneak the groceries into the fridge and leave again before she notices I’m here.
“–get Eddie to clean the living room up, start your day there every morning. Have your tea, center yourself, and let it motivate you into creating a new routine. You can’t stagnate, Robyn. I was talking to Kevin about it. You have to force yourself to adjust, basically…”
I back into Milo because all her voice makes me want to do is run, but our grocery bags rustly against each other and just like that, it’s over for both of us.
“Eddie?” Beth’s voice is glass-edge sharp and goes straight up my spine. Milo rubs my shoulder with his free hand. “Eddie? Is that you?”
I turn on the light. “It’s me…”
We step into the kitchen. Beth is there, her arms crossed. Behind her, I glimpse my mother. She’s at the table, wrapped up in Dad’s old housecoat.
“Where have you been? Beth asks. She nods at the bags. “What are those?”
Beth has been my mother’s best friend since way before I was born. Beth is what happens to mean girls after they graduate high school. Beth is what happens to mean girls after they graduate high school and turn forty. Beth is what happens to mean girls after they graduate high school, turn forty and develop gerontophobia and thanatophobia, which means she’s unnaturally afraid of getting older and dying, which would be sad if her endless Botox injections and vitamin-popping and paranoid trips to the doctor weren’t so mockable. She’s always hated me. She wishes Mom and Dad never got married or had a kids because my existence just reminds her of how old she’s getting.
Beth has spent every waking hour trying to emotionally bleach this place out and turn it back the way it was, but it will never be the way it was.
Beth is driving me fucking crazy.
“They’re groceries,” I tell her. She holds out her hands and I give the bags over. Milo does the same. “The fridge was empty.”
Mom wordlessly opens her arms and gestures me forward. My heart inches up my throat and I go to her, burying my face in the housecoat. It’s starting to smell less and less like him and more like her. She grips me tightly.
“Leave a note,” she whispers. Her voice is crackly. “Next time you leave the house, leave a note, okay?”
I nod and she lets me go. I feel Milo watching us. Sometimes I hate that he does. I know he can’t help being in front of it, but he doesn’t have to look.
Beth riffles through my purchases. “These will have to be returned. You can’t have this in the house. TV dinners, Eddie? Processed food is like eating death–”
“But the fridge was empty–”
“I know. Your mother called me.”
Beth opens the fridge with a flourish, and where once was nothing, now is everything, and everything is lame. The crisper is full of bright colors; vegetables. Cartons of yogurt line the bottom shelf and from here I can see she’s organized them alphabetically by flavor. Cottage cheese. Hummus. She goes into the cupboards, opens them, and I spot boxes of couscous and tabouleh and dried beans and I completely lose interest in food forever.
She closes the door and stares at me accusingly.
“How did you let it get down to nothing?” She sets my bags on the floor in front of me. “Take these back. We don’t need them.”
“But the ginger ale–”
“Take them back,” she repeats firmly. “And by the way, your mother and I were talking. We thought you could clean up the living room–to give her a space where she can create a new routine. Begin the process of starting over. I was talking to Kevin and Kevin said–”
“Kevin as in Kevin your esthetician?”
Milo snorts and Beth turns red. She takes a deep, cleansing breath–at least that’s what she calls them, but I don’t think deep, cleansing breaths go in and out through the narrow spaces between clenched teeth–and after a long moment, she smiles very, very sweetly, which is what she always does before she spews her sugared venom at me.
“I’m just curious–what about that idea sounds unreasonable to you?” She crosses her arms. “Please tell me, Eddie. Let’s have a nice talk about this.”
“Can’t.” I pick up the grocery bags, ginger ale and all. “I have to take these back.”
I glance at Mom again, looking for some kind of reaction. She hates when I fight with Beth, usually implores us both to stop, but she’s quiet, her hands clutching her housecoat closed.
She’s staring at the wall, where there is a photograph of my father.
In the photo, he’s laughing.
Milo and I have this drinking game about Beth: every time she annoys me, we drink.
She annoys me a lot.
“So what do you think Elizabeth Bathory is doing right now?” I ask.
“I don’t know,” Milo says.
I tilt my face toward the sun. Beth stays out of the sun as much as possible. She doesn’t want wrinkles or cancer, but she’s a walking spray-on tan because she doesn’t want to look old either. For her next birthday, I’m going to break into her house and fill it with clocks.
I take a swig from Milo’s flask and hand it back to him. He screws the top back on. He inherited the flask from his grandfather and stole the liquor from his mom. The circle of life.
“Do you think she’s gone yet?”
“Beth?” he asks. I nod and he laughs. “No. She’s going to stay there until you get back so she can give you the last word.”
“I fucking hate her.”
“I know you do.”
We’re sprawled out on the dry, yellow grass next to the Ford River, which curls through Branford. This summer is so dry, the water barely trickles by the stones that peak far past its surface. It’s painfully low. You could walk across it and never get your feet wet.
“Watch this,” I say, getting up. “I mean, watch me.”
“Twist my arm.”
I give Milo a look. He returns a lazy smile. I stand, slip out of my sandals, and edge my way down the bank. I place one bare foot on a large, sturdy rock and move to the next closest rock easily, even though it’s smaller. I hop to the next and the next and then I’m in the middle of the river, which seems far enough. I face Milo and he claps.
“Take that show on the road,” he calls.
I bow and make my way back to him. I settle on the ground and ease my head against his outstretched shins, like they’re a pillow. I stare at the sky. It’s clear, no clouds or anything.
Just the sun, until it burns out billions of years from now.
“What are you thinking?” Milo asks. I hold up my hands. I don’t even say anything and he goes, “Eddie, please don’t make me feel up your hands again.”
“Because I won’t.”
“I bet if I asked, you would.”
Milo would do almost anything for me. He’s been my best friend since the second grade, when a brief but weird obsession with the original Star Trek got him sort of ostracized at the same time all the girls in our class decided a girl named Eddie must actually really be a boy. By third grade, we weren’t so outcast anymore, but we were beyond needing other people. We still are. Anyone else who happens on the both of us, they’re just temps.
Like that girlfriend he had that one time.
“Tell me about that night,” I say.
He shakes his head.
He would do almost anything for me.
I look back at my hands.
“They are dying.”
He turns his head toward the water and squints, like he’s caught sight of something very interesting, but it’s a lie. The sun is on him and he looks like he just rolled out of bed, but he always looks like that. His longish brown hair is always messy around his head. His blue eyes are always kind of sleepy. I lower my hands.
“So, are you going to be home later tonight?” he asks.
“Later, like when?”
“Like, after ten.” He’s leaving me soon. I can feel it. Mostly because he has a part-time job at Fuller’s Gas and it’s getting to be that time. “I have to go to work.”
“I’m crashing early tonight,” I lie.
I like to make my nighttime escapes unnecessarily dramatic because it makes it easier to ignore the weight in my chest. I can briefly fool my body into believing I’m going on an adventure.
The adventure starts when it’s late enough that everyone is asleep, usually just Mom, but sometimes Beth. Tonight Beth is staying over. I get out of bed as quietly as possible and then I open my window, fighting with it, because the house is shrinking or the window is expanding–I’m not sure–and when it’s open, I crawl onto the roof, which slopes down, and make my way carefully to the very edge of it on my butt until my legs dangle over the side. It’s not a long drop by any stretch of the imagination, but it feels farther standing up, so I don’t.
I’m still impressed with the fact I can jump off the roof and land perfectly each time. Okay, not the first time. Definitely not the first time. I landed hard on my knee that time, but it wasn’t enough to keep me from leaving. It was enough that I bled, sticky red all down my leg–but that just told me I was alive.
It is so easy.
I land. The ground is a shock against my feet, like it always is. Landing makes me dizzy. My cell phone vibrates in my back pocket. Milo. I ignore it.
I grab my bike and I just go.
Branford is so still this late at night. Shuts down after nine o’clock. There are no cars headed anywhere and the roads are silent. Every so often I pass a house with an air-conditioner in the window and its rattling drone fills the street. When it fades, there’s only the soft rush of my bike wheels on the pavement. The first night, I walked. It’s too far to walk.
I come out here every night.