“Why don’t you stay?” he asked. “I can go into another room. Say the words.”
The words wouldn’t come.
Noah sat next to me, the bed shifting under his weight. I felt his warmth as he leaned in, brushed my hair aside, and pressed his lips to my temple. I closed my eyes and memorized it. He left.
The rain lashed his windows as I buried myself in his sheets and pulled the covers up to my chin. But there would be no shelter in Noah’s bed or in his arms from the howling of my sins.
SITTING NEXT TO NOAH WHILE HE DROVE ME home the next morning was the worst kind of torture. It hurt to look at him, at his sun-drenched hair and his worried eyes. I couldn’t talk to him. I didn’t know what to say.
When he pulled into my driveway, I told him I didn’t feel well (truth) and that I would call him later (lie). Then I went to my room and closed the door.
My mother found me that afternoon in my bed with the blinds shut. The sun slotted through them anyway, casting bars against the walls, the ceiling, my face.
“Are you sick, Mara?”
She closed the door and I turned over in the membrane of my sheets. I’d been right; something was happening to me, but I didn’t know what to do. What could I do? My whole family moved here for me, moved here to help me get away from my dead life, but the corpses would follow wherever I went. And what if the next time it happened, it was Daniel and Joseph instead of Rachel and Claire?
A cold tear slid down my burning cheek. It tickled the skin next to my nose but I didn’t wipe it away. Or the next one. And soon, I was flooded with the tears I never cried at Rachel’s funeral.
I didn’t get up for school the next day. Or the next. And there were no more nightmares, now. Which was unfortunate, because I deserved them.
The oblivion when I slept was blissful. My mother brought me food but otherwise left me alone. I overheard her and my father speaking in the hallway but didn’t care enough to be surprised by what they said.
“Daniel said she was doing better,” my father said. “I should have withdrawn from the case. She’s not even eating.”
“I think—I think she’ll be all right. I spoke to Dr. Maillard. She just needs a bit of time,” my mother said.
“I don’t understand it. She was doing so well.”
“Her birthday had to have been hard for her,” my mother said. “She’s a year older, Rachel isn’t. It makes perfect sense for her to be going through something. If nothing changes by her appointment Thursday, we’ll worry.”
“She looks so different,” my father said. “Where’d our girl go?”
When I went to the bathroom that night, I turned on the light and looked in the mirror to see if I could find her. The husk of a girl not-named Mara stared back at me. I wondered how I would kill her.
And then I dove back into bed, my legs shaking, teeth chattering, because it was just so scary, too scary, and I didn’t have the guts.
When Noah appeared in my room later that evening, my body knew it before my eyes could confirm it. He had a book with him: The Velveteen Rabbit, one of my favorites. But I didn’t want him there. Or rather, I didn’t want to be there. But I wasn’t about to move, so I lay in bed, facing the wall, as he began.
“Long June evenings, in the bracken that shone like frosted silver, feet padded softly. White moths fluttered out. She held him close in her arms, pearl dewdrops and flowers around her neck and in her hair,” he said.
“‘What is Real?’ asked the boy. ‘It is a thing that happens to you when a girl loves you for a long, long time. Not just to play with,’” Noah said. “‘But really loves you.’ ‘Does it hurt?’ asked the boy. ‘Sometimes. When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.’
“She slept with him, the nightlight burning on the mantel-piece. Love stirred.”
“Swayed gently,” he said. “A great rustling. Tunnels in bedclothes, an unwrapping of parcels. Her face grew flushed—”
So did mine.
“Half asleep, she crept up close to the pillow and whispered in his ear, damp from—”
“That is not The Velveteen Rabbit,” I said, my voice hoarse from disuse.
“Welcome back,” Noah said.
There was nothing to say but the truth. “That was awful.”
Noah responded by defiling Dr. Seuss. One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish, became an instructional rhyme on fellatio.
Fortunately, Joseph walked into my room just as Noah recited his next title. The New Adventures of Curious George.
“Can I listen?” my brother asked.
“Sure,” Noah said.
Filthy visions of the Man in the Yellow Hat and his monkey desecrated my mind.
“No,” I said, my face muffled by my pillow.
“Don’t pay attention to her, Joseph.”
“No,” I said louder, still facing my wall.
“Come sit next to me,” Noah said to my brother.
I sat up in bed and shot Noah a scathing look. “You can’t read that to him.”
A smile transformed Noah’s face. “Why not?” he asked.
“Because. It’s disgusting.”
He turned to Joseph and winked. “Another day, then.”
Joseph left the room, but he was smiling as he went.
“So,” Noah said carefully. I was sitting up, cross-legged and tangled in my sheets.
“So,” I said back.
“Would you like to hear about Curious George’s new adventures?”
I shook my head.
“Are you sure?” Noah asked. “He’s been such a naughty monkey.”
Then Noah gave me a look that broke my heart. “What happened, Mara?” he asked in a low, quiet voice.
It was nighttime, and maybe it was because I was tired, or because I’d started talking. Or because it was the first time he ever asked me, or because Noah looked so heartbreakingly, impossibly beautiful sitting on the floor beside my bed, haloed by the light of my lamp, that I told him.
I told him everything, from the beginning. I left nothing out. Noah sat stone still, his eyes never leaving my face.
“Jesus Christ,” he said when I was finished.
He didn’t believe me. I looked away.
“I thought I was mad,” Noah said to himself.
I snapped my eyes to his. “What? What did you say?”