Eight years ago
I woke with a jerk, screaming.
‘Nurse!’ someone called out. ‘Nurse!’ A face leaned over me. Cindy Heller, Mom’s best friend. ‘Landon, honey – it’s okay. You’re safe. Shh, you’re safe.’
I felt her cool fingertips on my arm and tried to focus as her red-rimmed eyes filled with tears. She bit her lower lip so hard it was colourless and trembling. Her whole face was crumpled, like paper wadded up tight and then smoothed back out.
Her husband Charles appeared next to her, one arm slipping behind her back to pull her tight. She slumped against him as if she’d have tipped right over without his reinforcement.
His opposite hand was warm on top of mine, then, enveloping it. ‘You’re safe, son. Your dad is on his way.’ His voice sounded grainy, and his eyes were red, too. ‘He’ll be here soon.’
A nurse materialized on the other side of the bed with a huge syringe, but before I could pull away, she stuck it into a bag suspended from a metal stand, not into my arm. A clear cord extending from the bottom of the bag looped down. I knew it was attached to me when I felt whatever she’d just injected into it, like I’d been shot with a tranquillizer gun.
‘Mom!’ I said, but my mouth wouldn’t cooperate and my eyes kept trying to close. ‘Mom! Mom!’
Cindy couldn’t bite her lip hard enough to stifle the sob that escaped. Tears overflowed and trailed down her cheeks. I couldn’t feel her touching me any more, and she turned into her husband’s chest, hands flying up to cover her mouth – too late to muffle another sob.
The pressure of Charles’s hand diminished bit by bit as everything grew fuzzier. ‘Landon, sleep now. Your father will be here as soon as he can. I’m here. I’m not leaving you.’
His face became less and less distinct, finally fading altogether, and I couldn’t keep my eyes open.
Mom! I screamed her name in my head, Mom! Mom … Mom …
But I already knew she wouldn’t have heard me, even if my voice was as loud as a jet engine.
In a lecture hall of 189 students, it’s unusual for one of them to stand out the first day, but not unprecedented. When one separates from the herd that early, it’s typically because of something negative. Like asking stupid questions. Or talking during the lecture – and missing the evil eye from the professor. Excessive body odour. Audible snoring.
Or my personal anathema: being a trendy douche.
So I wasn’t too surprised when I became aware of such a guy during the first week of fall semester. Typical previous BMOC of his high school – used to toadies toadying. Still expecting it, still getting it. Frat guy. Casual but affluent clothes, expensive haircut, self-important smile, perfect teeth and the requisite cute girlfriend. Likely majors: econ, poli sci, finance.
He annoyed me on sight. Biased of me, sure – but it’s not like my opinion mattered. He paid attention in class and asked competent questions, so he was unlikely to need tutoring, though that didn’t preclude him from showing up to the study sessions I administered for Dr Heller three times a week. Often the brightest students made up most of the group.
The first semester I did supplemental instruction – last fall – I paid close attention during Heller’s lectures. I’d made an A in his class, but it had been a year since I took it, and economics isn’t a stagnant field. I didn’t want a student asking me a question in the middle of a tutoring session that I couldn’t answer. By the third semester – my fourth sitting through the class – I didn’t really need to be there, but class attendance was part of the tutoring gig, and it was easy money.
So there I sat – bored off my ass on the back row, working on assignments from my senior-level courses, sketching out design-project ideas, keeping an ear on where the lecture was going so I could stay on topic during my sessions, and resolutely ignoring my pointless dislike of the conceited sophomore sitting in the centre of the class with his accessory of a girlfriend.
But by the end of that first week, my attention was straying to her.
Since childhood, drawing has been a comforting diversion, and sometimes an escape. My mother was an artist, and I don’t know if she discerned that I had a natural aptitude for it or if it was a learned skill resulting from her early encouragement and plenty of practice. All I know was that by the time I was five or six, paper and pencil were my way of relating to the world. My personal form of meditation.
Once I began college, most of my drawings became mechanical or architectural in nature – probably unavoidable, given my mechanical-engineering studies. But even in my free time, I rarely sketched bodies or faces any more. I had little desire to do it.
Entering and exiting class, her boyfriend sometimes held her hand. But it was like he was holding a lead, not the hand of a girl he cared about. Before class, he talked football, politics, music and frat particulars like rush or upcoming parties with other guys like him and guys who wanted to be like him. Nearby girls bestowed sidelong glances he pretended to ignore.
Somehow, while he was preoccupied with everything and everyone around him except her, I suddenly couldn’t see anything else. She was beautiful, sure, but in a university with thirty thousand undergrads, that was hardly riveting. If not for my initial annoyance with her boyfriend, I might never have noticed her at all.
Once I realized how often my gaze drifted over her, I consciously fought the inclination – but it was no use. There was nothing in the room as interesting as this girl. What fascinated me first and foremost were her hands. Specifically, her fingers.
In class, she sat next to him, wearing a loose smile, sometimes quietly conversing with him or others nearby. She didn’t look unhappy, but her eyes were almost vacant at times, like her mind was elsewhere. During those moments, though, her hands – her fingers – were performing.
At first I thought she had a nervous habit, like Heller’s daughter, Carlie, who’d never stopped moving since the day she was born. Carlie was forever tapping a fingernail or a foot, jiggling a knee, talking. The only thing I’ve seen calm her was petting Francis, my cat.
This girl wasn’t tapping her fingers restlessly, though. Her movements were methodical. Synchronized. Sitting far enough to the left of her to study her profile, I watched her chin bob, so subtly it was almost undetectable – and at some point, I realized that when her expression was remote and her fingers were moving, she was hearing music. She was playing music.
It was the most magical thing I’d ever seen anyone do.
According to Heller’s seating chart – received with the rest of my tutoring-support materials for the semester – the douche’s name was Kennedy, assuming I was reading the scrawl of his print correctly. Sitting on the sofa in my apartment, scanning the chart, I murmured, ‘No fu**ing way,’ when I read her name, neatly printed in the square next to his: Jackie.
Jackie and Kennedy?
He couldn’t be going out with her because of her name. No one could be that shallow.
I thought back to this morning at the end of class. He’d handed her his homework and said, ‘Hey, babe – take this up to the front with yours? Thanks.’ Flashing an entitled grin, he’d turned to continue some debate about what should and shouldn’t be considered hazing while she placed his paper on top of her own, rolling her eyes as she spun to walk down the steps to the front of the classroom.
Yeah. He could absolutely be that shallow.
I touched a finger to her name. Every letter she’d printed was rounded, feminine. Even the ‘i’ had a slight bend and a right-swerving tail. The dot over the ‘i’ was a dot, though. No open circle. No little heart. And there was the eye roll after his Hey, babe. Maybe she wasn’t hopelessly caught in his web.
What the hell was I even thinking? This girl was a student in the class I tutored. She was off-limits, at least for the remainder of the semester. Which was a long goddamned time, considering we’d just entered the second week of class.
And aside from the fact that I couldn’t touch her if she was available … she wasn’t available.
I wondered how long they’d been going out. They were both sophomores, according to the roll sheet. Worst-case scenario, then: they’d been a thing for a year.
So I did what any normal stalker would do. I looked her up online and found a locked-down profile. Damn.
But his was wide open.
Kennedy Moore. In a relationship with Jackie Wallace. No anniversary listed, but there were photos tagged of her – not just over the past year, but before that. I worked backwards, growing progressively pissed off for no good reason.
The summer before college. High school graduation. Prom. Skiing over spring break. A surprise party on her eighteenth birthday. A distance shot of an orchestra with more performers than the population of my entire high school. A close-up of her wearing that orchestral attire plus a Santa hat – but no instrument in her hands, so I wasn’t sure what she played.
Thanksgiving with his family. The two of them horsing around with friends on a football field just outside a high school that reeked of moneyed suburb. Previous summer break. Junior prom. Yet another Christmas.
The earliest photo of her with him was taken at a fall carnival nearly three years ago.
They’d been together three years. Three years. I couldn’t even wrap my mind around it.
A yowl at my door signalled Francis’s return from whatever trouble he got into between dinner and sleep. Like any good domesticated companion, I put my laptop aside and went to let him in. When I opened the door, he sat on the mat, licking a paw.
‘C’mon, then,’ I said. ‘I’m not gonna refrigerate the whole neighbourhood.’
He shrugged into a standing position, stretched indolently and darted into the apartment as I made to shut the door in his face. Just before it snapped closed, I heard, ‘Lucas!’ and pulled it open.
Carlie was halfway up the wooden staircase that led to my apartment over the Hellers’ garage. It was late. She’d developed an uncomfortable crush on me last spring, which I’d thought was over months ago, after I pretended not to notice her prolonged stares and excessive giggles. I’d known her since she was born, so she and her brothers were like cousins or siblings to me, especially considering I didn’t have either. She was also five years my junior – a kid, really. The last thing I wanted to do was hurt her.
I moved fully into the doorway. ‘Hey, Carlie. Shouldn’t you be in bed?’
She wrinkled her nose and scowled, insulted. ‘I’m sixteen, not six. Sheesh.’ When she got to the top step and moved into the semicircle of light over the small landing, I noticed she had a plate in her hand. ‘I made cookies. Thought you might want some.’
‘Cool. Thanks.’ I took the plate but didn’t move into the apartment.
She shuffled one foot and stuck her hands in the back pockets of her shorts. ‘Lucas?’
‘Yeah?’ I said, thinking, Oh, shit.
‘Are you ever gonna … have a girlfriend? Or do you have one, but you just don’t bring her around here? Or is there, you know, something else you haven’t revealed yet …’
I swallowed a laugh. ‘If you’re about to ask if I need to come out of the closet – the answer is no. I’d have done that a long time ago.’ That question was, weirdly, a lot easier to answer than the other.
‘I figured you would have. I mean, you kind of don’t mind being controversial.’
I quirked an eyebrow. ‘Because of the lip ring?’
She nodded. ‘And the tattoos.’ Her eyes widened as she realized what she’d just said. ‘I mean – obviously, you have your reasons for those. Most of them …’ She shut her eyes. ‘God, I’m so stupid. I’m sorry –’
‘It’s okay, Carlie. No worries.’ My teeth scraped over the sliver of metal threaded through my lower lip, while I fought to keep my eyes from skimming over the tattoos wrapping my wrists. ‘Thanks for the cookies.’
She huffed out a sigh. ‘Yeah. No problem. Good night, Lucas.’
Girlfriend question averted, I sighed, too. ‘Good night.’
Carlie was the only Heller who never had a problem remembering to call me Lucas. When I left home for college three years ago, I wanted to change everything, starting with my name. My mother had given me her maiden name – Lucas – as my middle name. I supposed lots of people went by their middle names, and bonus – no legal proceeding was required to use it.
My dad refused to call me Lucas, but what he chose to call me hardly mattered. I didn’t live with him any more, and when I went home, we barely spoke. Carlie’s parents and both of her brothers remembered sporadically – but they tried. I’d gone by Landon for over eighteen years, after all, so I usually let it slide without correcting them. Old habits, blah, blah.
From that point on, though, I was Lucas to anyone new. I wanted to make Landon disappear for good. Nonexist.
I should have known it wouldn’t be that easy.
Since kindergarten, I’d attended a small private school just outside DC. We wore uniforms: girls in white blouses with pearl buttons, pleated plaid skirts and cardigans, boys in starched white oxfords, pressed slacks and blazers. Our favourite teachers turned a blind eye to unauthorized scarves and coloured shoelaces and ignored ditched cardigans and jackets. The stricter instructors took up contraband items and rolled their eyes when we argued that hemp bracelets and glitter-coated headbands were expressions of individual freedom.
Victor Evans got suspended last spring when he refused to take off a Bottega Veneta dog collar, claiming that wearing it was his right under the First Amendment and wasn’t technically against the rules. Administration cracked down after that.
We all looked the same on the surface, but during the two weeks I was out of school I had altered completely beneath the skin – where changes count. I’d been tested and I had failed. I had made a promise that I didn’t keep. It didn’t matter if I was still outwardly identical. I was no longer one of them.
I was allowed to make up the work I’d missed, as though I’d been out with a severe case of flu, but the special considerations didn’t stop there. Teachers who’d challenged me before patted my shoulder and told me to take my time on new classwork. They granted unearned passing grades on crappily written essays, extra time on incomplete lab assignments, automatic do-over offers on bombed exams.