Paintings by Julie Adler
lready, what a day. The bird is battering itself against the window. There’s a nest somewhere over the doorframe. Claire can’t open her eyes because of what she might see—their clothes scattered on the floor, the glass of orange juice and water on the bedside table with the pulp settled to a cloud at the bottom and her lipstick blotted on its rim, accusatory somehow, as the glasses she unloads from the dishwasher, clean save for her stubborn lipstick, are also accusatory. She has to wash them twice. In the kitchen now is a stack of dirty dishes, though when she and her husband, Hal, returned from last night’s party she plunged her arm into the greasy gray dishwater to scoop the drain free of food. She had walked with the oatmeal slop in her hand to the bathroom to blame him. “This is truly disgusting,” she said. “This is what happens when you don’t rinse them.” But it was her fault, too, for making oatmeal every morning and leaving the dirty pot on the stove.
After that they fought because she had wanted to leave the party earlier than Hal did. He was drunk, and he left the fight to take a shower. She followed. He stood under the stream of hot water with his eyes closed and his hair plastered to his forehead while she talked at him. And then, unexpectedly, she was sobbing. Hal hugged her, and the water streamed between their stomachs.
As she was crying there was a real, solid kind of grief in her chest, but there was also a cold part of her that rose out of that to watch. That part knew that by crying she had won Hal’s tenderness, and a portion of the hot water. She had won by making him feel guilty.
The watching part of her was emotionless, in a way Claire never was. For her, it felt like everything, joy or sadness, took root. Twenty-eight was too young for the broken blood vessels under her eyes. It wasn’t just bags but tiny purple veins, as though burst from the effort of crying.
But then there was this cold entity that watched. Werewolf, she thought, and this disturbed her. She had rarely acknowledged this second self, not because it was small or didn’t often make an appearance, but because it was ever present. And in the past, when she had become aware of it, her private thought was that this witness-self was something that brought her close to God. She had never thought it was malicious. Werewolf. The water ran between them, and her stomach turned. She thought, What if I am bad?
In bed she climbed on top of Hal and had sex the way she did when she was drunk. To fall asleep she said a mantra to herself so she would stop thinking about badness or goodness.
The next morning she isn’t thinking of those things. She is thinking of the hangover she may have, and she’s afraid that opening her eyes will confirm it. Hal’s arm is slung over her body. Some drama peaks in his dream and his hand spasms, squeezing the little pouch her stomach makes when she lies on her side. It startles her. The sudden awareness of her sagging stomach makes her queasy. Though she shouldn’t feel that way. It is a good body.
It’s hangovers that make her body feel uninhabitable—physically but also, perhaps primarily, because she is wracked with guilt. She is married, she has her own family unit now, and soon, perhaps in a year or so, she hopes to have a baby. Still, the morning after she drinks, her mind goes right away to her parents. And thinking of them makes her feel sad, as though she’s let them down. It makes no sense.
She wants to sleep all day, but today is her Sunday with Paul. Though the idea of driving to get him, eating cheap pizza, and going to the trash kind of movie he likes feels nearly unbearable.
By now Paul has probably showered, dressed, and put on his cologne, and is waiting outside for her, as he does even on the coldest days, even when she calls to tell his aide she’s running late. Or once, when she had to cancel, the aide couldn’t get him to come back inside. Not for a couple hours.
She gets out of bed, knowing she can bear it. Even Paul’s cologne (her own doing, a present from the discount bin) that he douses himself with is something she will bear.
Today needs a lot of makeup, and she takes her time bringing her face back to life. Her eyes are rimmed red from the crying. Hal comes into the bathroom and runs his nails across her bare back. “That was some hot lovemaking,” he says. Their lovemaking, like her crying, is slightly hazy. But she knows she was somehow different. Better, maybe. As in, wilder.
Hal is in and then out of the shower, and she is still finishing her makeup. The mirror keeps fogging with his steam so Claire has to wipe it. He wraps his arms around her and puts his mouth to her ear: “Hello, werewolf.”
The sudden clarity of that word, breathed against her ear, jolts her. It was like gunpoint, which is crazy, but that was her thought—a gun.
It’s like he’s found her out.
“Don’t call me that,” she says.
“You’re pretty proud of yourself aren’t you? Fooling everyone.”
“Am not,” says Claire. “I hate that game. I hate being werewolf. It makes me so nervous. My main strategy is just pure ignorance.” She does, she hates the game.
He runs his hands over her hip bones.
“Hello, it’s me,” he says. “I’m your husband, remember? You can’t fool me. I see you. You’re playing the game right now.”
“Please,” she says, and can feel her palms and feet begin to sweat, like they did when she was picked as the werewolf. “I really don’t. I don’t get it.”
“Come on, now. Drop the fake-innocence shtick. There’s no one watching.”
“Give me a break,” she says, applying her lipstick. She feels like she is shaking but draws her lips in neatly.
She turns around to kiss Hal. His beard is wet, and his mouth tastes of mint and last night’s drinks. He tries to dart his tongue into her mouth, but it is too fast and wet for her to enjoy. She pulls her mouth away and burrows her face into the warm, soapy-smelling darkness of his neck.
Hal does know her, of course he does, and he’s right, of course. She’s still playing.
Then she thinks, but I really don’t know how the game is played. And it really does make me nervous.
And who is defensive in this way? It is the werewolf. She thought it was Claire for a moment, but it was still the werewolf.
Well. The game does make her nervous. Last night, when the party was winding down and the group gathered to play Werewolf, Claire’s feet and hands began to sweat. And yet she announced to Hal, just loud enough for the circle of players to hear, that she was scared to death of being chosen as werewolf. That whoever was God, who did the choosing, better not pick her. She was naïve, she was nervous. But the werewolf was not. Through announcing her fear, she ensured she would be chosen as werewolf, and that the others would not suspect nervous, sweet Claire. Already the werewolf was strategizing. But Claire was separate from that. Claire was afraid.
In the beginning, she really didn’t understand just how the game was played. At least, certain minor components, like the detective or the guardian angel. But what she did understand was her own role as werewolf, in which everyone would close their eyes and pretend to be a town that had gone to sleep, and then God, played by one of her friends, would tell the werewolf to open their eyes and “kill” someone. At this point she felt her face change from its peaceful, sleeping state to something maniacal and feral, and she’d open her eyes and point to the person she wanted to kill, careful not to rustle her dress as she pointed. Then she’d return her face to its sleeping peacefulness so she could wake authentically as a townsperson and talk over who they all suspected the werewolf to be.
After each killing, Claire tried to be kind—defensive of those who were accused of being the werewolf and suspicious only of those making accusations. And throughout each round Claire asked questions about how the game was played, whose answers, in all honesty, she did not have figured out. (Though again, was that the werewolf playing the game, posturing innocence even in her private thoughts? Yes, it probably was. This freaked her out.)
She reapplies her lipstick, which is smudged from kissing Hal.
It was effortless to play the part of a townsperson. She just played herself. All she had to do was shut off the part of her brain that knew she was the werewolf. In that way it didn’t feel like lying. She was a terrible liar (or rather, lying upset her, so she chose to be terrible at it) but in high school and college had been a good actress, and between killings she thought nothing of the werewolf.
At the end of the game, once everyone had been killed off with no votes accusing her, she revealed her identity. Her friends shook their heads in disbelief and laughter, and glanced sidelong at her, saying things like, “You think you know someone.”
Because she couldn’t deceive her closest friend at the party, or Hal, she killed them off in the first and second rounds so she wouldn’t have to.
She says to Hal, “You’re right. I’m a mastermind, and I’m playing the game right now.” It comes out sarcastic when she means it to sound genuine, a confession to uproot the werewolf’s strategy.
How absurd, to be thinking mastermind about a silly game that necessitates manipulation and deceit. That’s just how you play if you want to win.
But it’s not the game, she thinks, in the car to pick up Paul with the radio blasting for distraction. It’s what the game reveals: that all the sweetness and kindness and feelings and tears that she displays to the world could be driven by some essentially bad second self.
She isn’t sure what that second self wants, but it has something to do with winning.
As a child, she was a liar. She remembers only three lies, but with a clarity that recalls the cold watchfulness she slipped into during their aftermath.
Only one of them seems to matter, but she lingers in the other two.
The first, she was waiting for the school bus with her dad in his truck. It was raining. The bus sped past their driveway without stopping, so her dad honked the horn and the bus pulled over. She had to get out and run through the rain. When she boarded, a girl who was in her first-grade class said, “Hey, isn’t it your birthday?” The way she said it was somehow mean, because the girl was a bully. The bus lurched forward, and Claire nodded yes and braced herself down the aisle of seats. It wasn’t her birthday. It was the day before her birthday. The bus driver overheard and he made the bus sing. At school they announced the lie over the intercom, her class sang also, and her teacher gave her a doughnut with a candle in it.
She cried as soon as she came home and saw her dad. He listened to what had happened and lifted her into his lap, even though her rain gear was dripping wet. The next day, her real birthday, passed like any other regular day.
The second, playing Marco Polo on the playground, she ran with her eyes closed into the slide. She’d just grown in her front tooth the month before. Her mouth was bleeding, and she ran her tongue over the jagged stub where her front tooth had been. When she opened her mouth, her friends gaped and said, “Oh my God,” some screaming and some laughing. The teacher let her look into the classroom’s bathroom mirror, and then her parents came to pick her up.
She told them that someone had pushed her into the slide. They wanted the bully’s name. In Claire’s teens, when her fake tooth still gave her problems (a root canal, bloody gums), her dad said, “Come on, out with it, stop protecting that little fucker.” But she laughed out of fear and shook her head. She couldn’t confess. Too much time had gone by.
And then there was the third.
She was sitting on the pink window seat at her grandma’s house. It must have been Christmas, because Paul, her cousin, and his little brother, Reuben, were there with their mom, Aunt Ray. Claire was six at the time, which would’ve made Reuben seven and Paul nine. She can even remember her shirt: plaid and red. Her mom knew something was wrong, even before Claire left dinner and went to the window seat to be alone. Her mom followed.
Here’s what she didn’t want to tell, what she had yet to tell anyone: earlier that day, a man who worked on her grandmother’s farm took her into an old gardening shed that had been converted into a playhouse for the children. There were bunk beds inside the playhouse. They climbed up to the top bunk. The man took his pants off and asked her to touch him. She doesn’t remember if she did or not. All she remembers is that he kissed her, deeply enough so that she could feel that he had no teeth, even though he was a younger man. She wanted to get away, but was afraid of going down ladders.
So instead she told her mom that she’d been playing with her cousins in the bath that day, and Paul went outside and came back with a stick and poked her with it.
Her cousins were upstairs getting ready for bed, and her mom took her hand and led her to the bottom of the stairwell, and yelled up for them, her voice shaking in fear and anger. Paul and Reuben came and stood on the stairs, in the Christmas hats that Grandma had knit for all three kids, lumpy hats with bells and too many points.
“Paul,” said Claire’s mom, “did you poke Claire with a stick?” “What?” asked Paul. And her mom said, “So you didn’t go get a stick while Claire was in the bath and poke her with it?” Paul shook his head. Rueben shook his head also and said, “We didn’t even have a bath today.” Then Aunt Ray came to the top of the stairs and Claire’s mom explained again what had happened. Ray went down to where Paul was standing on the stairwell, his cheeks red as he started to cry. She put her arms over his shoulders and asked, “Did you hurt Claire in the bath?” And Paul said, “No,” and Reuben said, “I swear it, he didn’t.”
Reuben was always defending Paul, because Paul had Down syndrome and was smaller than Reuben, though he was two years older. It went like that for a long time, her cousins, who were her best friends, looking down at her in bewilderment and her aunt with her arms over Paul’s shoulders, saying, “But it’s true, I gave them their bath last night. They didn’t take a bath today.”
Why Claire told this lie she doesn’t understand. She said Paul had poked her, but she doesn’t remember specifying that he poked her between the legs, though she must have said so. And she remembers the lies she told in the doctor’s office later that week so vividly, as though the resolution of her life was turned up for that one moment, but turned down again for the part where he examined her, which she doesn’t remember at all. She remembers sitting on the edge of the exam table in her paper gown, searching her imagination for details to make the lie richer—Paul went outside (here she imagined him going out the back door) and found a stick in the snow (she imagined him searching by their grandma’s hedge) and brought it back inside, where he jabbed it at her. “It still had some snow on it,” she told the doctor.
Years later her mom would remark on the calmness and clarity with which Claire was able to express what had happened to her. And at only six years old. Her mom recounted the story many times, but only to Claire. How brave Claire was for such a little kid, and how her mom had known, had just known, that something wasn’t right. Her mom used the word “abuse” for what had happened with the stick in the bathtub. Though of course it was complicated, since Paul was also so little, since he had Down syndrome.
Why Paul? She could just as easily have accused Reuben. Or was it possible that even at age six she knew that Paul was the weaker one, that people would only believe the lie if it were her word against his?
Afterward, at family dinners, whenever Claire spoke, Aunt Ray watched her with a knowing look that said, They think you’re so sweet but I see you. She’d draw her son into her lap and stroke Paul’s hair and cheeks and let him eat with his fingers off her dinner plate, and she’d watch Claire. Or so it seemed. Claire—with her good grades, dance recitals and plays all through middle school, and then high school while Reuben stole candy, then lighters, then beer, and Paul got fat. Paul ate and ate and ate at these family dinners, heaping his plate with spaghetti and garlic bread; and though as a little boy he was so thin his skin was almost translucent, he grew into a 200-pound, five-foot-tall teenager. One summer night their grandma had yelled at him across the dinner table, “Stop jamming your face,” and said to Ray, “Your boy’s a pig. Why don’t you teach him manners?”
“You’re all a bunch of assholes,” Ray said. She pushed her chair back and it fell over. She went out on the porch, slamming the door so hard behind her that it bounced back open and stayed that way, as Ray’s cigarette smoke came into the kitchen.
“Oh that’s good, swear in front of the kids,” Grandma yelled out to her. “No wonder your boys are such animals.”
Paul continued eating his spaghetti, neatly dabbing his mouth with a napkin after each bite. Claire began to clear the table. “Good girl,” her grandma said.
And through boarding school and college and afterward, when she brought home clean-looking boyfriends and then married one of them, she was a good girl. She picked up Paul from his group home every Sunday, and they went to the Y and floated around and then they went to Denny’s for dinner, or sometimes the sub-sandwich place, and afterward a movie at the theater or else she bought him VHS tapes for a dollar apiece at the Goodwill. She never watched those tapes with him though—she’d only once visited his group home, a trailer that smelled of overcooked batches of hamburger meat that the aide cooked up for nightly dinners of Hamburger Helper. On the night she had stayed for dinner, the aide, a slouchy, nearly humpbacked woman on oxygen named Pam, had them all take hands (sticky, clammy hands) while she recited the Lord’s Prayer. After Pam prayed, Paul said he would like to say a prayer also, and he put his hands together in front of his heart and said that the Lord had made this his family, and would He please protect them all, and then with his eyes squeezed closed, he said he could hear Grandma saying from heaven that she loved everyone and that Claire was an angel, amen. Claire forced the gray meat into her mouth and drank the glass of water full of ice cubes that tasted like freezer. The other kids were looking at her, but they weren’t really kids—they were one man and one woman, though the woman kept licking her hands and the man wore a bicycle helmet with neon-green racing stripes down the sides.
After dinner Claire sat on Paul’s bed and watched one of the VHS tapes she’d bought him, Air Bud it was called, about a golden retriever that played basketball. His room smelled of dampness, dirty hair, and potato chips, and there were two towels tacked over the room’s only window. An air-conditioning unit was on, and the air fluttered the towels out into the room. There was a knocking noise, which Claire thought was someone at Paul’s bedroom door, but when she answered it, she saw it wasn’t someone knocking on the door but the boy with the bicycle helmet banging his head against the hallway wall. She never visited for dinner again. But afterward she kept Paul out for longer and took him to the nighttime movies sometimes, which cost $5 more than the matinees, and let him get whatever he wanted at Denny’s, though she knew it was wrong to let him eat like that (double bacon cheeseburgers with ketchup and extra pickles, but no onion, mustard, lettuce, or tomato) with his weak heart and all. That people with Down syndrome died early was a thing she knew but didn’t understand, had never looked into enough to understand; and she couldn’t look into it, could hardly think about it. She had never seen a person with Down syndrome that had gray hair or wrinkles, but then again she hadn’t seen many others with Down syndrome at all, only a memorable few, perhaps a dozen.
n the back of her mind, Hal’s voice is looping, You’re playing right now, and the wheel grows sticky beneath her sweating palms. Right now. And now.
What Aunt Ray had always implied, with her sideways looks: You’re pretty proud of yourself, aren’t you? Fooling everyone. Even as Ray folded Claire into hugs, the soft of her body and thick arms and wool sweaters warm and mothering, when she pulled back there was appraisal and challenge in her eyes, like a mother bear startled with her cubs and ready to charge. Or so Claire felt. It was Claire’s own mother’s sense that had intuited some kind of truth—the man, the swaying bunk bed, his nakedness. Ray had that same mother’s sense for Claire’s lie—the lie, the lie—as she stood behind her son in the stairwell, with his Christmas jester’s hat and his too-big woolen socks, and put her arms over his shoulders, as if to say, “This isn’t true” and “I am his armor.”
When Claire was 17, Aunt Ray got sick, and she knew she had to confess. But first she confessed to her mother.
Most of all it troubled her how she’d let her mom tell and retell and retell the story of the lie to herself and to Claire, as if it were some sort of exemplary triumph of motherly intuition, and of Claire’s maturity in being so clear and so honest.
The brain is a tricky place, and in certain moods Claire trusted the confusion that followed her confession.
“But just a second,” her mom said, after Claire told her about the man (“Oh, honey,” her mom had said, and started to cry) and confessed that she had made up the whole story about Paul. “You say you were upset about the man, whatever happened with the man, but the stuff with Paul happened over Christmas. Your grandma didn’t have hired help at Christmas. That must have been the summer, when the man did that to you.”
But the unreliable time line didn’t seem like the point. Claire could have simply been thinking about the man, perhaps what happened with him had happened on a different day, months earlier, but was on her mind when her mom cornered her on the window seat. Claire’s head was in her mom’s lap, and her mom was petting her hair. “You poor thing,” she said. “This kills me. You were so little. Little kids don’t deserve this kind of shit.”
“But see, I know the whole thing with Paul was a lie,” Claire said. “I’m certain. I can remember, so distinctly, how it felt to tell the lies. At the doctor’s. Making up all that stuff about the snow. All of it.”
“What else do you remember?”
“Not much else,” she said. She didn’t. Everything around the lies was blurry.
Her mother recalled how after she confessed what Paul had done to her, when she went pee she would scream and scream. “It stings,” she would scream, “It stings.” When the doctor examined her, he had found small cuts on her labia. But he would not look inside her; he thought it would be too painful. He thought perhaps a piece of the stick was still inside, but said he would let it come out on its own.
Her mom pet her hair, and Claire cried into her lap, as they talked about the strangeness of memory, and how ashamed she must have felt, with her aunt and her cousins looking down at her from the stairwell, denying her story.
“But it’s true,” Claire said, “we hadn’t had a bath that day. I know we didn’t have a bath.”
“You’re right. Not with water. You were in the tub though, playing naked. That’s what you told the doctor.”
“I don’t remember.”
“I’m amazed you remember any of it,” her mom said, kissing Claire’s hair. “You were a tiny doobie. And everything turned out OK. Why don’t you give that little girl a break?”
Claire thought about herself as a little girl, standing at the bottom of the stairwell, and wanted to soften to the image. But what she saw was a six-year-old too tall and too smart for her own good, coolly repeating the narrative of her lie, caught up in the course of it, too cowardly to unravel it.
“Aunt Ray knows,” Claire said. “That’s why she hates me. I know you don’t see it, but I do. She looks at me funny.”
“Oh, Ray’s just a bitch. Excuse me, I love her, she’s sick, but she’s also one of the best bitches around. So cut her some slack. Cut yourself some. Don’t be so hard on yourself all the time,” her mom said. “That kind of shit will hurt you.”
And the part of herself that invests in being a good daughter, wife, and friend, the part that she grooms every day and puts lipstick on, the part that takes Paul to dinner and screams, “Swim like hell, Paul!” at the Special Olympics, believes that through a trick of memory she deceived herself all these years into thinking she told a lie when really she never lied at all.
Yet in a cold, reserved place, a dark, blue-colored place somewhere down beneath her heart, is the solid certainty that the doctor got something wrong. In this place, which is something like a cave, she is certain—she has no doubts whatsoever—that she lied.
When she pulls into the driveway of the group home, Paul is sitting on a boulder on the lawn, dressed all in red, cross-legged and huge like the laughing Buddha.
“Hello there, beautiful,” he says, which he pronounces boo-tiful, a word Claire sometimes parrots to Hal (“Good morning, bootiful”) without thinking about it.
“You’re beautiful,” she replies.
He runs his hand through his hair. “I know it.”
“What’s with the red? It’s striking.” For years he’s worn monochromatic outfits, alternating white or black, but the red is new. She bought him these red pants, she recognizes, along with a white-and-black pair, in the women’s plus-size leisure section at Walmart—women’s because they are linen and have a drawstring, which made them better than any of the men’s pants.
“I’m the Red Avenger,” Paul says.
She laughs. “I love that. Who do you avenge?”
“Oh you know, bad guys, Doctor Doom, Riddler, that sort of thing.” He lists a number of other villains from the movies that she doesn’t catch the names of.
“So, baby,” he says, pretend yawning and stretching so that he can throw one arm around her shoulder as she drives. “How about, for our date, there’s this great Italian restaurant I know of.”
“Oh yeah? Here in town?” He’s squeezing her arm, leaning close to her face.
“OK, OK, stud,” she says, “breathing room…” He draws his arm away and says, “OK, OK, jeez. I can take a hint,” but he is smiling, joking. This is part of their routine.
“They have new pasta specials there, really nice pastas, and salads. It’s called Pizza Hut. You ever eaten there?”
“Let’s do it,” Claire says.
Settling in across the booth from him, she sees he is wearing a headset, what looks like a Bluetooth earpiece.
“Sweet phone,” she says. “Who do you talk to?”
“Lots of people,” he says, shrugging. “My brother in Vermont sometimes, you know, it was my brother’s birthday so I called him the other night. And my darling cousin,” he gestures largely at Claire across the table, “and sometimes, you know, I talk to my mom, Pamela, stuff like that.”
“You talk to your mom?”
“Yeah, I talk to my mom, Pamela, you know, my friends.”
“What does your mom say?”
“That you and I are going to get married.”
“I miss her.” Claire does not really miss her. There are a few moments that she misses. Like when Aunt Ray drove into town every summer in her Chinook RV. There were two beds and a hot plate in the back. Ray would take them to the lake, and afterward they’d play house in the Chinook, getting sand between the sheets of the two beds. And after the lake, that sand was gritty on her scalp for hours. She’d lie in bed scratching her head, her fingernails dark with sand. But that was more about missing her childhood than it was about missing Ray.
“Don’t you miss her?” Claire says.
“Well, sort of. I mean, I talk to her whenever I want.”
He shrugs again and closes his eyes, adjusting the headset so his mouth aligns with the microphone.
“Mom?” he says. “It’s Paul. Are you there?”
But then the doors to the kitchen swing open, and the pizza is coming toward them. He opens his eyes and says, “Sometimes she’s not there.”
If Claire were playing against Aunt Ray in Werewolf, Claire wouldn’t kill her, though her aunt would be her biggest threat because she was the only person who was convinced that Claire was deceitful. It made your motivations too obvious, if you killed off your enemies too soon.
But life wasn’t like Werewolf, and Aunt Ray had died, at 46, of an ovarian tumor that spread throughout her body. Before she died she drove to Maine in the Chinook for the last time, settled Paul at the group home, and went to church with Claire and her mom, though none of them were year-round churchgoers under normal circumstances. Ray—who was almost six feet tall, and broad with a beautiful, stern face—had a glorious, full-throated wail of a voice that didn’t fit with the quavering sopranos surrounding her, and she closed her eyes and stomped and swayed when she sang. Claire thought maybe she wasn’t the only one who felt small and weak next to Ray, chided simply being in her presence—perhaps other women felt this way too, men even.
In the hospital, Claire had feared Ray might finally call her out, but she didn’t even look at her. Ray had each of her sons’ hands on either shoulder, Claire’s mom holding one foot and her grandma holding the other. Claire’s hand didn’t have a place, and so she rested it limply on her aunt’s calf, against her bare skin, not sure if she should squeeze or pet her there. The leg seemed perfectly strong, as did her aunt’s body beneath the hospital gown, but Ray’s face had grown small and gaunt. Before she died she talked about cheeseburgers and Reuben’s trombone playing and the new movies coming out and the dance that Paul was choreographing with the residents of his home. Then she stopped talking. She looked back and forth between her sons, taking in Rueben, then taking in Paul.
In the end Claire concluded that Ray didn’t have even one ounce of energy to bother with something so small as a false accusation over a stick. What was the consequence? Here were her teenage sons, flanking her, with their hands gripping her shoulders—Reuben’s long, guitar-playing fingers and Paul’s thick fingers, and the rings he liked to wear. They were almost grown-ups. Paul would have to keep on in the universe without his mom. They talked about everything—their lives, school, girls, all of it, even what they’d had for lunch that day. It was all vitally important. There was not one iota of spare space in Ray’s heart to bother with the lie that had consumed Claire. And Claire saw that it didn’t matter, lie or no lie—both were trivial. Trivial to Ray and to Paul, at least, and that was what mattered.
he summer after Ray died all the kids from town had gathered at the river to play on the rope swing. Claire took Paul out of the group home for dinner at their grandma’s, and after dinner she took him to the river. He was a good swimmer. All the summer kids were there—nameless batches of tan girls and boys who drove up from Connecticut to vacation for two weeks at a time, and the locals were there, too. They played a game called Crocodile Pit. You had to swing from one bank of the river to the other. When Paul took off his shirt, no one gawked, but she could sense their eyes on his pale, round belly, which sagged over the top of his swimming trunks. Everyone made it across the Crocodile Pit too quickly, in minutes, it seemed, and then it was only Paul and Claire alone on one side of the bank and the whole gang of kids on the other, watching and laughing and waiting. A boy swung the rope back to them.
“I got this,” Paul said and cracked his knuckles. From across the bank, someone yelled, “Yeah, man.”
“You sure?” Claire said. He nodded to her, “I’m sure,” and gripped the rope. He leaped off and swung gracefully out over the river, everyone cheering and hooting, but his momentum wasn’t strong enough to carry him all the way to the other side, or he was simply too heavy. He swung just inches short of the bank, and everyone let out a collective “Awww” as he swung back toward Claire, slower back and forth, until he hung clinging to the rope over the middle of the river.
“What do I do?” he shouted. The rope twisted him in one direction and then another.
“You’ll be OK, just let go,” Claire said.
“I’m too scared,” Paul shouted. “I can’t.” He was crying, and the kids at the other side had gone silent. He was crying loudly.
“Here, on three, just let your hands go, ready? One, two, three,” said Claire. His swimming trunks were slipping down his hips, and his face turned red from the effort of holding on for so long. Still, she was surprised by his strength.
“I can’t do it,” he said. She watched as his hands lost their grip on the rope, inch by inch, and he yelped and cried. The rope spun him round and round until finally, he fell into the water. He was screaming.
Paul resurfaced almost immediately. His body was always like that in water, effortlessly afloat. He could spend hours in the water when she took him to the pool, floating on his back like a pale, wide raft.
He crawled out on her side of the bank and pulled his trunks up. A boy from the other side of the river shouted across, “He’s cool, right? We’re going to go smoke,” and with that, the group crunched off into the woods.
Paul sat cross-legged on a rock. He was crying. It got dark and chilly, and his clothes were wet, and he wouldn’t talk to her. It was time to go, and she told him so. It was time to drive him back to his group home. She took his hand and they walked back to their grandma’s. His hand was sticky, but it wasn’t until they got back to the house that she saw the red marks across his palms, slick and raw, from where the rope had burned him. Regardless, there was no time to comfort him; they had to drop him back at the group home before nine. She said she would drive him. They drove the whole way in silence, and she dropped him off like that, still crying, holding a tube of Neosporin. It was an unfair mess that Paul didn’t have his mom anymore, and that he had to take his ointment and go inside and go to bed in a house full of strangers with his hands the way they were. But Claire was only 17 then. She owed something to Ray, to Paul too, but she didn’t know how to make good on it. So she started seeing him every Sunday. She’d only missed two Sundays in the past 11 years.
aul has finished the pizza, all but the one slice Claire took for herself, which she picked at. She could confess her lie to Paul, but what would be the point? He doesn’t need her confession. She imagines that long-ago dinner when their grandma told him to stop jamming his face with food, and how he contentedly continued eating, as though he were a cow grazing in a warm and pleasant pasture and she a fly. She knows if she confesses now that he will say, “That’s OK,” and shrug and then ask her if she’s going to eat her crust.
Instead she says, “Would you like to come live with me and Hal?”
Paul shrugs. “I guess so. If you want.”
It’s settled between them as quickly as that. In the parking lot, Paul goes over to a streetlight, crouches down, and puts his hand on the pavement.
“Something happened here,” he says. He does this a lot, a sort of mystic ESP thing, as though he sees a movie of the past playing in front of him.
“What happened?” she says.
“It was a war,” he says. But that’s all he will say.
At home, she lies in bed next to Hal and looks at him. She has not told him about her invitation to Paul, and for all he knows about her, he doesn’t know the secrets of her face tonight: Paul, Werewolf, her darkness. Her thoughts from earlier about the werewolf feel distant and crazy, hard to parse if she were to try to repeat them now in bed, like a difficult math equation she cannot solve twice. What remains is the vague sense that what drives her to goodness is not purity, but rather some dark place that needs to mask itself, again and again.
“Hey,” Hal says, and reaches out to the necklace he gave her on their last anniversary, an inlaid emerald. “Your hair is all wound up in the chain.”
So it is—a dark snarl of hair knotted by the clasp—and though she picks and picks at it, the hair is wound too tightly to untangle tonight. Looking down at her necklace gives her a headache.
She turns on her side and Hal puts his arm around her. He is a good man, and he loves her, so that must be proof of something. She knows Hal will come to accept Paul’s move into their home, though maybe not immediately. But Paul is hers, and Hal is hers, and so in time it will work out. And between her mantra, she thinks about the healthy meals she’ll cook Paul once he moves in, and the room she’s always thought of as the nursery that could be his room instead, and what color she will paint it.
Read more stories on VICE: