Rooms, Page 2Lauren Oliver
She was right, though; Minna wasn’t happy and hadn’t been in as long as she could remember. The last guy she’d dated—she counted it as dating, since they’d gone to dinner a few times before screwing back at his place, her skirt hitched up, underwear pulled down to her knees, both of them pretending it was spontaneity rather than laziness—had turned to her once and said, “Do you ever laugh?” That was their last date. Minna had been less offended than she was irritated; she hadn’t known she was so transparent.
She couldn’t remember the last time she’d truly laughed. She couldn’t even come anymore. She could get close, and did, as often as possible—pushing against the deep darkness inside her, stretching toward that warmth, the break in the wall—but it never happened; she couldn’t get through.
Trenton went upstairs with the duffel bags. She could hear him thumping around up there—the floor groaned awfully, even worse than she remembered, like it was actually feeling physical pain.
The kitchen was disgusting. Used plates everywhere, even the stub of old cigarettes floating in a saucer—had one of the nurses smoked? was that even legal?—and Trenton was right. It smelled. Minna started piling dishes in the sink, sweeping old crumbs from the counter into her palm, straightening and reordering. She’d been here five minutes and already needed an Ativan.
Trenton reentered the kitchen. “Where’s Mom?” he asked, nudging a chair out from the table and sitting down. He was moving well, barely limping anymore. “What’s taking her so long?”
“Probably getting drunk somewhere,” Minna said. “No, Amy.” This as Amy reached for a wooden spoon lying on the Spider. Trenton caught Amy and pinned her between his legs and she squealed and writhed away.
Sometimes Minna found for the briefest spark of a second that she was jealous of Amy—for being young and dumb, the way all kids were dumb, and not knowing better than to be so happy. Then she hated herself. What kind of fucking person was jealous of a six-year-old? Her own child, for Christ’s sake?
“Are you going to be nice?” Trenton asked.
“Are you?” Minna fired back. She felt a headache coming on and squeezed her temples. Maybe a Valium, instead of an Ativan. She didn’t want to fight with Trenton, and had been told by her mother that he’d been extremely moody since the accident and should not be upset in any way. Like dragging him up to Coral River to clean out the house of the father he’d barely ever seen wasn’t going to upset him. “Did you remember to take your pills?”
“Uh-huh.” Trenton was now hunched over his phone.
“What for, Mom?” Amy said, tugging on Minna’s shirt.
“Remember when Uncle Trenton was in the hospital?” Minna said, scooping Amy up. She was so heavy now. Soon Minna wouldn’t be able to carry her at all. “And we went to visit him?” Amy nodded. “Well, now he has to take medicine so he stays healthy and strong.”
“Like your medicine?” Amy said, and Trenton smirked.
Minna kissed Amy on the cheek. Her skin smelled like Dove soap and a little bit like the grape gum she’d been chewing in the car, proud that she could keep it in her mouth without swallowing it, as she had several times in the past.
“Exactly,” Minna said, staring at Trenton, daring him to say something. But he just kept smiling his half smile, like someone chewing on a secret. She wished she didn’t feel like smacking him half the time. It hadn’t always been that way. They’d been close when they were younger, even though Minna was twelve when he was born. She’d watched over him, protected him, watched him transform—like one of those miniature sponges you put in a glass to grow into a complex shape—from a small pink blob with a permanent expression of wide-eyed alarm, to a toddler trotting after her, grabbing always at her jeans, her shirt, whatever he could reach, to a skinny kid with a feathered mop of hair and a slow, shy grin.
She could still remember the time she’d dared him to sled down the driveway and he’d split his lip on the side of the garage, and blood had poured down his chin, so red and bright she couldn’t believe, at first, that it was real. She remembered that in that moment before he began to cry, as he mouthed silently to her, his fingers covered in blood, how everything else went still and static and there was only the rush of her heartbeat in her ears and a soundless scream going through her, sharper than fear.
It was the same way she’d felt three months ago, when her mother had called out of the blue on a normal Tuesday evening.
“Trenton’s in the hospital,” Caroline had said. “St. Luke’s. They don’t know if he’ll make it. It would be nice if you came by.”
That was it. It would be nice if you came by. Like someone inviting you to Sunday fucking brunch. And Minna had stood, frozen, in the middle of the crosswalk, opening and closing her mouth like Trenton had all those years ago, until the sudden blast of horns brought her back to reality, realizing the lights had changed.
He was her little brother. She loved him. But in the past few years she couldn’t help but be annoyed and sometimes disgusted by him. He pinched his pimples when he thought no one was looking. He chewed his fingernails to raw bloody stubs, insisted on being a vegetarian to be difficult, and grew his hair long so that he could practically chew on his bangs—partially, she suspected, so he wouldn’t have to make eye contact with her when they saw each other.
On the other hand, she couldn’t blame him. She’d been a shitty sister. Sometimes she wished she could sit him down and explain, tell him that it wasn’t his fault, confess her deepest, truest secret: there was something rotten growing inside of her. She had hoped, in an inarticulate way, that having Amy would change things—would change her.
Amy was an Innocent.
Minna, too, had read The Raven Heliotrope, and although she was far too old for fairy tales, she had clung to one of its major tenets for a long time: the Innocents could save. They could redeem.
“It’s weird being here,” Trenton said. His head was still bent, his voice raw. “It doesn’t feel the same.” Then: “Why wouldn’t he let us see him?”
“You know Dad,” Minna said.
“Not really,” Trenton said.
Minna nudged a chair out from the table—the Spider—with her toe and sat down. The chair creaked underneath her and she felt suddenly weird, like this had never been her house, like everything had been set up to test her. Like a stage set for an actress, to see if she could figure out her role. She wouldn’t put it past her father. Maybe he’d planned all of this.
Minna put an arm around Amy, to keep her from wandering and touching things. Trenton still hadn’t looked up, and he was swiping at his phone, but she realized this must be hard for him. He had been young when their father and mother had divorced, and since then had seen their father only sporadically, when Richard would appear suddenly in Long Island like Father Christmas, toting gifts and a wide, jolly grin and a big laugh that made you temporarily forget that it would all be over by tomorrow.
“He was sick,” she said. “He didn’t want us to remember him that way.” That, at least, was true. It wasn’t for their sake, but for his. Richard Walker had been in control until the end.
“It’s fucked,” Trenton said. Amy put her hands over her ears.
“Christ, Trenton,” Minna said.
“Trenton said a bad word,” Amy said in a singsong. Then, keeping her hands pressed tightly to her ears, she spun away from Minna, twirling around the kitchen, humming to herself, her cotton blue skirt fanning around her knees.
“Home sweet home,” Minna said.
A large part of her wanted to leave already: to get back into the small white BMW she’d leased exactly two weeks before being fired from her latest job; to sink down into the upholstery that smelled like Amy’s shampoo and old juice bottles; to drive as far and as fast as she could from Coral River, and the Minna who had been stuck there.
But there was another part of her that suspected—that remembered—that she had once been happy here. For years she had carried the image of a different Minna with her, a faint,
heartbeat-shadow of a girl who had existed before the rot took hold.
So she was here. To face the demons.
To put them to rest for good.
Caroline Walker, like Minna, walks into the kitchen as though expecting a party and seems bewildered to instead encounter an empty room filled with old belongings, stacked newspapers, and crusted dishes in the sink—as though everyone else must have mistaken the date.
“She got fat!” Sandra crows. “Didn’t I tell you she would?”
I do not remember that Sandra ever said this. Although, to be fair, I spend the majority of my time trying to ignore Sandra, so it’s possible that I missed it.
Caroline removes her sunglasses and, without going any farther into the house, calls: “Minna? Trenton? Amy? Where is everyone?”
I can tell you where they are. Trenton is in the upstairs bathroom, next to the Blue Room, which was always his; he has a magazine unfolded on his lap, and his pants around his ankles. Amy is sitting on the floor of the Yellow Room, where Minna has installed her. Minna is lying on the bed, staring up at the ceiling, talking on the phone.
“I just don’t see why he couldn’t do us a favor and die somewhere decent,” she is saying. “I told Trenton in the car—as far as I’m concerned, we can just burn the damn place . . . ”
Amy is braiding the tassels on the worn yellow rug, humming to herself.
“Well, of course there’s nowhere to eat around here,” Minna is saying. “It’s a miracle I even have cell-phone reception.”
In the kitchen, Caroline removes her coat—an enormous fur coat, despite the fact that it is unseasonably warm. She did get fat; it’s true. Her beauty is still there, but with age it has softened, blurred, and become faintly ridiculous, like the kind of amateur watercolor you might see in an office building.
“And she’s drunk.” Sandra gets still, and very alert. “Drunk as a whore on Sunday. Do you smell it?”
“No.” I smell perfume, and mildew, and Trenton’s bathroom, which I am trying hard not to smell.
“Vodka,” Sandra says, the way a music lover might say Bach. “I’d swear to it. Absolut. No, no. Stoli, with just a splash of tonic . . . ”
When Sandra was alive, she would drink anything she could get her hands on. Wine or beer when there were guests—she would top off her glass with bottles stashed behind curtains, or in the shower, so no one would know she was drinking more than double their amount—and vodka when she was alone. But she wasn’t picky. Whiskey, gin, and even—after a brief period of sobriety, when she had cleaned her entire house of liquor—rubbing alcohol.
It’s only now that she has developed a palate.
“And lime,” she says. “Definitely lime.”
If only it could have been anyone else but Sandra . . . that nice, quiet girl from down the road, whom Maggie used to be so fond of. Or Sammy, the butcher—he always had interesting things to say, and he was polite, even to the black customers. Even Anne Collins, who was constantly going on about her husband’s finances and bragging about the new coats she would buy, would have been preferable.
Trenton flushes. Water runs; pipes shudder; the system pulses. Rhythm and flow; ingestion, excretion. Input, output. These are laws of the universe.
He pounds down the central staircase—(the feeling of a doctor knocking on a kneecap, testing for reflexes; painless and unsettling)—and slouches against the kitchen door frame.
“Trenton!” Caroline says, extending her arms to him, although he makes no move to go toward her and she stays where she is. “How was your drive?”
“What happened to you?” he responds.
“What do you mean?” Caroline’s voice is the same as it always was—high, shot through with nervous laughter, as though someone has just told a joke whose punch line she hasn’t completely understood.
“I mean you left just after us.” Trenton goes to the Spider and slumps into a chair, tilting his head back to lean against the dark stone walls of the fireplace. He seems exhausted by the energy required to cross the room.
“Traffic,” Caroline replies shortly. “Terrible traffic.”
“Bullshit,” Sandra says.
“Sandra, please.” I’ve never been able to abide her mouth; she’s worse than Ed was.
“It’s bullshit. She was in a bar having a tall one. Ten to one. I’ll bet you.”
“It was smooth sailing for us,” Trenton says neutrally. He watches his mother through half-narrowed eyes. She moves around the kitchen, picking things up and replacing them: an empty vase, whose glass is crusted with a thin film of brown; a balled-up napkin; a bottle of vitamins, cap removed. Even though she’s heavy now, she still manages to give the impression of a moth: fluttering and fragile.
“How strange,” she says. “There must have been an accident. It was a parking lot on I-80.”
“You made it,” Minna says. She, too, has come downstairs. Her bra and the contours of her spine are visible through her T-shirt.
Caroline looks from Minna to Trenton. Her voice turns shriller. “Well, of course I made it. For God’s sake. Anyone would think I had . . . ” She turns to Minna. “And you were probably speeding the whole way.”
“Did you see it?” Trenton asks.
“Did I see what?” Caroline snaps.
“The accident,” he says. The more agitated his mom gets, the further he sinks into stillness. Only his eyes are moving. “Did you see it?”
“No, I didn’t . . . ” She breaks off, setting down a coaster with a bang. “What are you saying?”
He lifts a shoulder. “I don’t know. Thought there might have been a fire. A head lying in the road or something.”
“Trenton. How can you—?” Caroline shakes her head. “I really don’t know what’s wrong with you. How could you even say that?”
“It’s a normal question,” Minna says. She peels herself away from the wall and is across the room in a flash. She sits in a chair across from Trenton and draws her knees to her chest. For a second, she looks just like the old Minna.
“Normal,” Caroline repeats. “It’s morbid, that’s what it is. It’s horrible. I didn’t come here to be attacked.” She’s opening and shutting each cabinet now. Each time she slams a door, it sends a tiny shiver through me.
“The liquor’s in the dining room now,” Minna says.
Sandra says, “I told you she was drunk.”
Caroline shoots Minna a dirty look and stalks out of the kitchen. The lights are off in the hall. For a moment Caroline stands, disoriented, and I feel almost bad for her: this new hulk of a woman, changed and old, in a space she no longer recognizes.
Trenton and Minna sit for a moment in silence.
Minna says, “You shouldn’t tease her. You’re the one who told me to be nice.”
“I wasn’t teasing,” Trenton replies.
“It is morbid, you know. I don’t know why you’re so fixated on accidents all of a sudden. What’s that game on your iPhone?”
Trenton sighs deeply. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“You do so. Crash, or whatever. Where you’re always sending characters over cliffs or into fireballs. There’s no goal to it, is there? Except to kill them, I mean.”
In the dining room, Caroline has located the liquor cabinet. She removes a tumbler and pours a half glass of vodka, straight. She downs it in one go, then pours another and does the same.
“Points,” Trenton says. His eyelids flutter.
Minna stares at him. “What?”
“Points,” Trenton repeats. “You get points for killing them. That’s the goal.”
In the dining room, Caroline wipes out the glass with a tissue and then replaces it. She takes a wineglass next and selects a bottle of red wine. She is much calmer now.
“Well, I think it’s idiotic,” Minna says. I’m reminded of the way she used to stand in the dining room, telling Trenton where to place the candlesticks when they wer
e playing Roll-Your-Ball. There, she would say, in a tone of exasperation, pointing. No, there. That’s slanted. Don’t be stupid, Trenton. It will make the ball go crooked.
Trenton mutters something. What he says is: Like the Heliotrope’s any better. When I was alive, I doubt I would have understood him. But now we are dispersed among the sound. We are the waves; we carry the crests of his voice to her mouth, and her voice back to him, and so on. We are the endless swells.
“I can’t understand you when you mumble,” Minna says.
“The Raven Heliotrope’s full of murder,” Trenton says, a little louder. “A whole forest of nymphs gets wiped out. And half of the Order gets beheaded. Sven gets trampled by a Tricorn.”
“The Raven Heliotrope is a book about morals, Trenton.” Minna swings her legs to the floor and stands up. Caroline comes back into the room, holding two wineglasses and the bottle. She is cheerful again, vague and smiling. She roots around for the wine opener, becoming briefly agitated when she doesn’t find it. Then it is located and her body relaxes again. She uncorks the bottle and ostentatiously pours herself a very small glass.
“A pinot,” Sandra says. “From Oregon, I think.”
“You’re making that up,” I say, finally losing patience.
“I’m not,” Sandra says.
“You can see the label.”
“I’m not looking.”
“That’s impossible,” I say. Another hellish thing: we can’t choose not to look, or smell, or feel. We just are, always.
“Would you like a glass, Minna?” Caroline says.
“I’m fine,” Minna says.
“Have a glass,” Caroline says. “You look like you need it.”
“I’ll have a glass,” Trenton says.
Caroline turns her large, watery blue eyes toward him. “Don’t be silly, Trenton. Go and get my bags from the car, will you? They’re in the trunk.”
“Why do I have to do it?” he says, but he’s already standing and moving toward the door. His motions are erratic, like a scarecrow that has just come to life and has to compensate for a spine full of stuffing. He plunges headlong several steps, then overcompensates by slumping backward; then lopes, then shuffles.