Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Chapter Twenty-Nine: Under Savage Skies

The skies had opened up by the time Compass got out of her apartment and headed for Charlie’s. The agreed-on 30 minutes proved to be optimistic in the extreme, and Compass had to huff it up the hill to be within shooting distance of the deadline. Mark was already there, sitting at a table, gripping a cup of coffee with both hands. Compass slid into the booth across from him, sure the words “I called you my boyfriend” were carved onto her forehead. She forgot to worry about her own face when she saw his.

“You look terrible. Are you OK?”

His eyes were rimmed with red, and his shaved head had an all-over five o’clock shadow. Dark bags sagged under his eyes, and apparently he’d shaved his face with a machete and his eyes closed. Possibly using his feet.

“Rough night.”

“I’m guessing. What happened?”

“I slept in my car.”

“In it or under it? You look like you’ve been run over. And what’s that on the front of your shirt? Is that toothpaste or bird shit?”

“It’s toothpaste. OK, we’ve now established that I look like hell. Can we move on?”

“Not yet. You still haven’t told me what happened.”

“You’re right. I haven’t. A little lesson in social interaction, Compass: when people consistently dodge a question, it usually means they’d rather not answer it just now. Let it go, please.”

A little stung, Compas leaned back against her seat and picked up her menu. “Fine.”

The waitress came over just then, and Compass gratefully accepted her offer of coffee.

“Could we get some skim milk for the coffee, please?” asked Mark, opening several of those little containers of half-and-half and dumping them in his cup.

“I’d say it’s a little late for that,” said the waitress, nodding at the pile of cream discards.

“Oh, it’s for her,” said Mark, adding several seconds’ worth of sugar into his coffee.

“Huh,” said the waitress, grinning at Compass, “that’s either really considerate or really insulting.”

Compass shrugged and smiled back. The waitress gathered up as many of the cream packets as she could hold and walked off.

“What did she mean ‘insulting’?” asked Mark. “You drink skim in your coffee. Right?”

“I do,” said Compass, who’d opted for ‘really considerate.’

Mark picked up his menu and grumbled into it for a few seconds. The menus at Charlie’s were huge, unwieldy things which required serious study, so they each propped their separate menus on the tables and disappeared behind them. Cups of coffee emerged from behind the menus and then vanished again, emerged and vanished until finally the menus came down and both announced, in unison, that they were going to order the French toast.

The waitress duly reappeared, took their orders, refilled their coffees, provided them with a small silver jug of milk and went away again.

“So you decided to reply to your dad.”

“What, no warning shot across the bow, just directly into battle?” Compass unrolled her silverware from her napkin, fiddled with her fork.

“Come on, do you really think that was a good idea?”

“I wouldn’t have done it otherwise.”

“Are you sure you’re safe?”

“Of course I’m not sure. I haven’t been sure for quite awhile now. ‘Safe’ is no longer the ultimate goal here.”

“So what is the ultimate goal?” asked Mark. “Getting a happy family? Because that’s at least a jail term for your dad and a lobotomy for your mother away. Be realistic, Compass.”

“Look, I said I knew that wasn’t going to happen. This isn’t Disney; I know that. And you were the one who said I should do something instead of being so passive. So I’m doing something, and now you’re all over my case about it.”

Mark sighed. He put one elbow on the table and rested his head against his hand. “I’m sorry. I’m just wondering if maybe it’s time to get some professionals involved. Like the FBI or Scotland Yard or something. I mean, that guy died, Compass. It worries me, OK?”

“If we get law enforcement involved, then my mom goes to jail. Or at least goes on trial or whatever, and if she’s as sick as she claims, she really shouldn’t go through that right now.”

“Let’s go see her.”

“Huh?” Compass’s elbow slipped off the tabletop, and she nearly dropped her hot coffee in her lap.

“Let’s see if she’s as sick as she says she is.”

“And how’s that going to help anything?”

Mark stared at Compass for a long minute, long enough to border on the uncomfortable, have-I-got-something-in-my-nose sort of feeling, when finally he sat back and sighed.

“I guess it won’t. I just feel like she’s engineered this whole mess, and now she’s getting off scot-free.”

“Cancer is hardly ‘scot-free.’”

“You know what I mean.”

“Yeah. But I guess we don’t really know what she’s doing over there. I mean, she is in the phone book, address and all.”

The waitress came and delivered two plates of thickly cut, cinnamon-laced French toast. She came back a moment later to refill their coffee cups and the skim milk jug.

“Are you checking on her pretty regularly?” asked Mark, soaking his toast in syrup before tucking in.

Compass stuffed a forkful of brunch in her face to prolong having to answer the question. She chewed carefully and at length, but finally her mouth was clear and Mark was still waiting.

“Not really,” she admitted. “Our last meeting wasn’t very friendly. We went from mild dislike to active hate. She told me she never wanted to see me again. I’m calling her bluff.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

Compass was shocked. Sorry? He’d said it like you’d say it to someone in mourning, to someone who’d just lost a loved one. But then again, for most people, estrangement from a parent was cause for grief, not just the natural, inevitable progression of the relationship.

The realization of what Compass was missing in life hit her full force. Not talking to her mother, her mother who could be in danger, her mother who could be dying, hadn’t felt all that strange to her. There had been tears, at the beginning, but none since. Her mother had barely crossed her mind, existed only as a vague, vaguely irritating humming noise at the back of her brain, kind of like the knowledge that the toilet paper was running low and she’d eventually have to make a trip to a grocery store and buy some.

“Oh my god.” Compass put down her fork and put her head in her hands. “I’m a bad person. A genuinely bad person. I never realized that before.”

Mark ladled more syrup onto his plate. “You’re not a bad person.”

“My mother is in danger, she’s got cancer, and I won’t call her because I’m sulking and I want her to call me first. What do you call a person like that?”


Compass felt Mark’s fingers running gently through her hair.

“I’d call that person angry,” he continued. “Let’s go see her now. Right after brunch. OK? Look, Compass, she hasn’t given you many reasons to care about her, but you still do. She’s done everything she can to make you hate her, but you won’t. That actually makes you a decent person.”

“Will you come with me?”

“Of course. We can say hello to Henry and Sophie.”

“Oh, yes! Henry and Sophie.” That thought cheered Compass up enough that she was able to lift her head and smile. “If my mom and I get a divorce, I want custody of Henry and Sophie.”

“To Henry and Sophie!” Mark raised his coffee cup and they toasted the ghosts.

During the time they sat in the intimate dark depths of Charlie’s, the rain had turned to a real storm. Fortunately, Mark had brought his car and had rather miraculously found parking not too far away. They ran as fast as they could, but they were still pretty soaked when they threw themselves into the car, a block and a half away. The skies lit up every few seconds with lightening, and they even got a rumble or two of thunder.

“I miss thunderstorms,” said Compass. “Thunderstorms are great in the midwest. You can sit and listen to them roll across you – they start miles away and just keep coming until they’re right overhead, and they just keep going, miles on beyond you. Seattle may know rain, but it doesn’t know thunderstorms.”

They sat for a moment in the car, waiting to see if the heavy rains would abate a little.

“Why are you helping me with all this?” Compass asked. “I mean, I’m grateful, but surely you have a life that’s more compelling than sidekicking on mine.”

Mark snorted a little. “You’d be surprised.” There was a long pause. Mark’s mouth moved like there was more in it to be said, so Compass stayed quiet. “I really thought you’d have guessed by now.”

“Guessed what?” Compass’s heart beat a little faster – equal parts hope and hesitation.

“I’m doing this for you. Because I care about you. Compass, you’re like the most insane person I’ve ever met. And I don’t mean that in a bad way, I mean it in a good way. OK, maybe ‘insane’ wasn’t the best word choice. I mean that you think about things in the oddest, most interesting ways. You come at things from this angle that’s like, 107° off the normal perspective. Argh. I’m really not saying this well.” He leaned back in his seat and stared out the driver’s side window.

“A hundred and seven?”

Mark snorted again. “It’s just the number that popped out.”

“It seems awfully specific.” Compass smiled at the window on her side, watched the rain pelting the few people desperate enough for a latte to brave it.

“I can believe anything of you because the weirdest stuff just swirls around you. If aliens took up residence in someone’s refrigerator, it’d be yours, you know? But you’d handle it. You’d, like, build them little homes out of shoeboxes and make sure to have the right kind of baking soda, you know what I mean?”

“Not even remotely,” she lied.

“Nobody, nobody puts diamonds into plastic bug boxes. Nobody does that. Nobody has an emerald that is cursed. That shit just doesn’t happen. But if it did, to all the people in all the world, it’d happen to you. You’d have a house that’s crawling with ghosts, a house that’s a giant music box only certain people can hear. You’d have a mom who’s like Cruella deVille’s college roommate and a dad straight out of a Pink Panther movie. You’d have that. And you’d handle it. I know who my grandparents are! I’ve always known! Do you know how jealous I am that you only just got to find yours? I know that’s incredibly selfish because this has been really hard on you, but I also know that you can handle it. And I want to be around that. I want to be in the chaos and the craziness, and I want to be holding the hand of the one person in the world who thinks this is how life is supposed to be and therefore doesn’t freak out about it. Do you know how rare you are?”

Compass opened the car door and got out into the pouring rain. She shut the door behind her and leaned back against the car, let the rain fall directly onto her face, cooling her. She heard another car door open, then shut, and then Mark was standing in front of her, worry he’d gone too far etched all over his tired face. She tilted her head back down until she could meet his sweet, scared, hazel eyes.

She felt strong. She’d never felt this strong before. She could take on anything, face anyone, meet any challenge grinning. She reached her arms out, pulled Mark close. She was startled to taste syrup before she fully realized that they were kissing. They leaned against the car and kissed until the taste of syrup was gone and something newer, even sweeter, had taken its place.

They kissed in the Seattle rain until a deafening clap of thunder drove them, laughing, back into the car.

Whatever’s going on at Mom’s house, thought Compass as they drove, it’ll be OK. We can handle it. ‘We’! We’re a ‘we’! And we’ll handle it. It’ll be OK.

Compass was, as usual, dead wrong.


NuclearToast said...

With a name like "Compass", you'd think her dead reckoning would be a little better. Can't wait to see how "dead wrong" she is!

Ash said...

I am so glad I got to come home to a new CJ chapter! I can't wait to read what happens next! :)