A man with the right scruffed-up beard and breadth of chest swaggered into the S and M dungeon that was my place of business, and twenty minutes and one grand later had my chin — still soft with the downy fluff of teen-girl skin — held steady in one paw while the other one flew at my face so hard and fast that I ceased to exist as the same collection of matter I had been the previous instant.
When Sarah’s mother, Penny, got sick four years into our marriage, we decided to move back to Mississippi, considering it penance for the sins of our youth. We signed a lease on a house, a white one-story on the historical register with a wraparound porch and angels, stars, and the moon painted on the transom above the front door.
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In walked Dick Franz with his look of a warlock. Flowing gray hair, furry eyebrows like mice hunched above his sheer cliff of a nose, black jacket over black shirt, stovepipe legs in black jeans. Without even saying hello to anyone, he darted into the hall bathroom, and before Elsie could stop herself (wait, had she tried to stop herself?) she pictured him turning into a little dog — no, a large dog, or at least tall enough to lift its leg and aim into the bowl. Then he was back, man-shaped again, striding into the living room to mingle with the other guests.
Elsie looked out the window behind the sofa, where for the past half-hour she’d been sitting, largely (but not ungratefully) ignored. Her mother was afraid it would rain, ruining her plans for supper outdoors, and although it was not raining yet, the sky was clearly brooding about it. Elsie tried to stop herself from wishing it would rain, but it was useless. After all, the thought had come to her, hadn’t it? She hadn’t willed it; it just all of its own wicked self came. Of course she knew it was wrong. But how were you supposed to stop thinking something once it popped into your head? Do tell her.
She turned back from the window to find Dick Franz looming. He reached for her hand and he kissed it, which is what Dick Franz did. “I won’t say you look gorgeous, because I know you’ve already heard it to death.” The flattery rolled right off her. She had indeed been complimented on her looks that evening a tiresome number of times. When she didn’t respond, he wavered, knitting his brows. The mice bumped noses, and it was only by the most athletic effort, one that made her feel as if her chest would literally explode, that Elsie was able to stop herself from laughing. “Thank you are the words you’re searching for.” As Dick moved on, Elsie hid her face in her hands.
Two years ago, when she was on the cusp of adolescence, she’d had a crush on Dick, which only baffled her now — as it had baffled her to be told that, in his youth, Dick had been “quite the ladies’ man” (by her mother, who also confessed to having been one of the ladies). He was now married to Nick (Dick and Nick: why was there always something to put her in danger of losing it?), who’d been invited to the party too, of course, but was off somewhere, shooting one of his eco-documentaries. Dick was an architect, like Elsie’s mother — in fact, they had met as students together in architecture school. Elsie’s father’s job was even more boring: market research for electronics.
Her parents liked to call this their “country house,” though they were only a stone’s throw from their home in the city and there were few places anywhere in that town where, if you listened closely, you could not hear traffic. But for her parents this was one of the charms: an easy commute for them, as well as convenient for their city friends, who could be invited up just for the day — though sometimes guests were invited for a whole weekend. (Never longer. Her father’s favorite saying was the one about houseguests being like fish: after three days they start smelling.) This weekend, for example, all the beds would be full. Dick was staying. Also her mother’s friend Luane, who was in the midst of a blistering divorce, and, ointment for those blisters, Luane’s new, younger boyfriend, Joel.
Her parents gave a party around this time every year, a kind of farewell to summer. Elsie thought a summer house with no beach was, well, not a summer house. But her mother had a vast fear of the ocean for the very good reason that the Pacific had swallowed her big brother (Elsie’s uncle), an experienced surfer, when she was still a girl. Luckily she had not grown up afraid of all water, and, sunk into the lush lawn beyond the back porch, like a giant spearmint lozenge, was a pool large enough to swim laps. No one wanted to swim today, though. That week had been unusually cool, and there was no sun.
Most of the guests had driven or taken the train up from the city, but there were several who, like Elsie’s family, had second homes in the area, or who lived there year-round — Dr. Lem, for example, who’d moved into the house next door after retiring a decade ago and who even now was wheeling his wife (knocked off her feet permanently by a reckless bicyclist the summer before) to the drinks table. Dr. Lem himself had mild Parkinson’s. He braced the wrist of one tremulous hand with the other as he took the glass of ginger ale from the bartender and lowered it into the hands of Mrs. Lem. The little scene lashed Elsie’s heart. Old people were so depressing. And everyone here, if not quite as old as the Lems, was old. Elsie’s mother had urged her to invite one or two of her own friends. But why on earth would Jess or Paloma — the very idea of Princess Paloma . . . As she watched the bartender pour a glass of wine for Dr. Lem, Elsie remembered earlier overhearing him say to one of the waiters, “What the fuck kind of party is it with no music?”
And besides, she and Paloma weren’t getting along so well — not like last summer, when they’d first met, in a lyrical-dance class, and become inseparable. Between then and now Paloma (who had to live in Albany because her father worked for the governor) had done the strangest thing Elsie had ever seen a girl do. It was a reversal of the correct order of things: Paloma’s best friends were now all boys. Girls, she had texted Elsie, didn’t make good friends. Cz femalz by natr cnt b trstd.
Slap in the face! But the indignation that had flared in Elsie had been immediately doused by guilt. Though Paloma didn’t know it, Elsie had shared with Jess a few of Paloma’s confidences. That her mother had cancer was the biggest one. Elsie had no idea why she’d done this to Paloma. She had no desire whatsoever to hurt her (she loved Paloma!). She just hadn’t been able to stop herself. Of course she had known that Jess would never repeat what she’d been told. There, you see? Girls could be trusted. Elsie totally trusted Jess.
As usual at these catered parties, whether here or in the city, the waitstaff was young and attractive: The tall, darkly tan bartender, whose features were somehow both tough and angelic. The two female waiters, one blond, the other blonder, each with hair slipping adorably from loose topknots and skin as pink and ivory as a baby’s. All actors, you didn’t have to ask. This wasn’t a party, this was a film about a party, it amused Elsie to think. Tough Angel and Blond and Blonder were the stars. Everyone else was a minor character or an extra. Some kind of thriller. Tough Angel was a fraud; he was actually here to rob the place — or to kidnap Dick, the mad scientist, who possessed some secret knowledge that, if it fell into evil clutches, could be used to destroy the world. Blond was Tough Angel’s duped and innocent lover; Blonder, his nemesis. Any moment now the shooting would start. Everyone would scream and scramble for cover, and Agent Lem would leap out of her wheelchair with a gun in each hand and start blasting away too.
But first they had to eat. Her mother was motioning guests toward the dining room, where the table was spread with plates of cold meat and fish and several kinds of salad. People served themselves, then streamed through the kitchen and out to the back porch or onto the lawn. A sky like a trough of curdled milk about to be dumped on them made it seem later than it was. But the rain held off.
Elsie was hungry, but don’t expect to see her stuffing her face. No one could accuse her of being anorexic (if only!), but there was no way she was not going to obsess about her weight. That summer she had put on two and a half pounds. (With a lick of satisfaction she had noted that Paloma had put on at least five. Warning: hanging out with boys makes you fat.)
A bowl of olives sat within reach. When she had eaten one, Elsie saw that her mother, famous for doing everything right, had forgotten a small detail. She supposed that she, Elsie, was to blame. (“Your mother’s so worried, it’s starting to distract her at work,” her father said.) She rolled the pit idly between two fingers before tucking it down her neckline, into her bra. Oh, wouldn’t that be a sick little joke to play on the next boy who wanted to feel her there. She felt herself there, palpating the bump, the outline of which was visible through the thin cotton of her shirt. Was that what it was like? According to Paloma, her mother had sat up in bed one morning, and (mysteriously, given that it didn’t hurt) her fingers had gone straight to it: a hard little lump, like a — pit? No, that wasn’t it. Like a —
“Oh, Elsie.” Her mother’s voice was soft, but it affected Elsie like a bark. “Do you have any idea how that looks?”
“Except that no one’s looking. And you forgot to put something out for the pearls — I mean, pits.”
Her mother looked tired but pretty tonight, with a new short haircut and yesterday’s gray streaks now dyed Burnt Cinnamon. Summery and très gamine in her blue-and-white sailor’s smock dress and flat sandals. But not, right this moment, happy.
“I’ll take care of it,” she said. “Why don’t you go get something to eat?” Elsie stood. “But first give me that thing.” Elsie dug out the olive pit and dropped it into the waiting palm. Her mother closed her fist and waved it under Elsie’s nose. “You know, this is a perfect example of what we’ve been talking about.” Though her mother had never hit her, Elsie had no trouble imagining that fist coming at her again and again. Her mother made no secret of the frustration that had been building for months now. She wanted to beat Elsie’s brains out. Elsie’s father hid his feelings better, but: “I don’t think we can accuse your mom of exaggeration here.”
“Poor impulse control,” they called it. Poor judgment. Saying whatever she felt like without thinking how it would sound. To her math teacher, who, observing Elsie’s uncovered yawn, wanted to know if Elsie was bored with geometry: “No way. I love geometry. I’m just bored with this class.” And there had been other complaints from school. About Elsie being disruptive, either for talking in class or, more worryingly, inappropriate laughter. It was not just that she laughed louder and longer than everyone else at things that were funny, though that was troubling enough. It was that she laughed when no one else was laughing and there appeared to be nothing funny at all. If you asked her what she was laughing at, she’d tell you nothing, never mind, she couldn’t say. Or she’d tell you the pathetic truth: she didn’t know. The flip side of this was equally inexplicable bouts of tears, which, again, she either could not or would not explain.
An inventive imagination was a gift of the gods — or a curse if you couldn’t control it. Elsie would sometimes start talking, telling a story, say, and get so carried away, piling it on so thick, flying off on so many tangents, that she might as well have been speaking in tongues. If you pointed this out to her, her response would be to clam up.
But the worst thing so far had been the scream. At school one day Elsie had accidentally left her French workbook in her locker and been given permission to leave class to go get it. The lockers were on the ground floor, two flights down. It was allergy season, and as she reached the second-floor landing, she let out a head-scouring sneeze. The stairwell responded with the most awesome, eerie echo. So what would it sound like if she screamed?
Like a girl who’d seen Ghostface, apparently. Those who came running were not amused. The assistant principal was not the least bit understanding. Even Elsie’s friends accused her of being uncool.
She got tired of saying, “It just happened,” and being told that this would not do. “I wanted to hear what it sounded like” and “I couldn’t help it” would not do either. But she was telling the truth. Why couldn’t everyone just accept it? Sure, it seemed like a bad idea to her after the fact. Sure, she was sorry — especially now that some kids were treating her like a freak. And she had apologized. Several times. What more did they want? Do tell her.
When her mother found out, she said, “In a situation like that, before you act, you have to take a deep breath.”
Actually, she had taken a deep breath before screaming.
“What are you laughing at?”
Her mother took a highly ostentatious deep breath herself before starting over. “In a situation like this, you have to take a deep breath and ask yourself, ‘What will happen if I do this thing?’ And if the answer is ‘Something bad,’ then you have to show some control. You have to tell yourself not to do it. And if that seems too hard, focus on the consequences. Say, ‘Will I be sorry?’ Yes? Well, then, why ever do it? And just don’t.”
Later, during what was basically the same conversation but in a calmer mood, Elsie tried to explain to her parents that, at the time, it had felt almost as if someone was daring her (“What — you don’t mean like a voice?” her father interrupted anxiously. “It wasn’t like you heard a voice telling you to scream, did you, hon?”), or as if she was daring herself. But hadn’t she always had a touch of that particular devil in her? Once, in grade school, she told them, two boys had dared her to eat a pale-blue capsule one of them had found on the ground. There was no way to tell what it was, but Elsie had taken the dare. All three spent the rest of the school day on the edge of their seats. But when nothing happened, they were disappointed. Elsie had kept this episode a secret from her parents, and now, seeing the horror benumb their faces, she wished she had taken it to her grave.
Her mother wanted to believe that school was to blame — everyone knew how stressful school could be. And in fact, though the summer had been far from perfect, there had at least been fewer worrying incidents, and nothing remotely as upsetting as the scream.
This morning, however, things had gone very wrong. Elsie and her mother were having breakfast (her father was sleeping in, as he often did on weekends) when her mother started talking about the party. It was still not too late for Elsie to invite a friend, she said. And she added carefully, “By the way, what’s up with Paloma?” She had sensed something was wrong weeks ago, but so far Elsie had kept her in the dark. Now enlightened, Elsie’s mother assumed a knowing expression and announced that Paloma’s behavior was because of the cancer. (Yes, Elsie had broken her promise to Paloma a second time, but did it matter anymore?) “Mothers aren’t supposed to get sick with serious diseases that might take them away from you.” Elsie’s mother said Paloma resented her mother for getting cancer; she felt betrayed, and now those feelings had become twisted into the subconscious fear that females couldn’t be trusted. Attachment to breastless boys was much safer. Did Elsie see what her mother was getting at?
Elsie thought she did, and though she wasn’t completely convinced, the explanation gave her some comfort. But then her mother said, “Now, about the party. Can you promise you’ll behave? I mean, can I count on you not to do anything perverse?”
It wasn’t the first time she had used that word. The first time, Elsie had been annoyed. This time she was enraged. “Think about it, Mom. Do you really want to call your own daughter a pervert?” Elsie knew what a pervert was. A pervert was a flasher. A pervert was the burglar who broke into Jess’s house last summer and took a shit in the kitchen sink. A pervert was someone who got off watching a gerbil being trampled by a masked midget in red patent-leather high-heeled boots.
“No, no, no,” her mother said. “I told you before, Elsie, you’re confusing two different words. Perverse doesn’t have to mean perverted. It can mean contrary. It can mean just plain difficult.”
“Except you didn’t say contrary or just plain difficult, did you?”
Ten minutes later they were still bickering.
“This is absurd,” her mother said. “Don’t you see? This, in itself, is perverse. Exactly what you’re doing right now. Well, I’ve got a very busy day ahead of me, and I’m not going to sit here and play stupid word games.” And for the rest of the day — which had been busy indeed with the arrival of the caterers and the final preparations for the party — they had avoided each other.
Elsie sailed through the dining room, eyes averted disdainfully from all the calories on display. Outside on the porch, her father was holding forth on his favorite topic: the future. Specifically, the future of high tech. He was all “gesture recognition” and “touchless touch screens” and how, sooner than you think, your iPhone wouldn’t be in your hand but implanted right in your brain.
Before, when she used to hear her father go on like this, so animated and smart-sounding, Elsie would feel a warm tingle of pride. Now the feeling was more like prickly heat. She had become aware — her mother had made her aware — that there was a problem with the way her father talked when he had an audience. “Sometimes I’m afraid he comes across like he thinks he’s the only one who knows anything about the subject,” her mother had said. Which Elsie could see now was only too true. And, newly sensitized, she had picked up on how, even when the topic wasn’t one her father knew a lot about, he still tended to present every piece of information as if it were firsthand, and to repeat others’ ideas and opinions as if he’d come up with them himself. “That’s his best book,” she’d heard him say about a writer she was almost sure he’d never read.
She was heartened to see the people sitting nearest her father looking attentive, seemingly happy to pick at their plates while listening to him run on. Then she noticed Arthur Klaus, one of the partners in her mother’s firm, who’d come with his pretty-and-elegant-though-grossly-pregnant wife, Min. At the moment Min was seated on the porch sofa and chatting softly with Luane. Arthur was standing nearby, watching Elsie’s father with an ironic, forbearing little smile, as if listening to some child’s elaborate tall tale. Elsie scanned the group, measuring people’s expressions, and thought she caught something similar on Luane’s boyfriend’s face. Except that Joel wasn’t watching her father. He was looking down, as if taking care that his thoughts not be too readable. He looked a bit puzzled to Elsie — and, she thought, her insides shriveling, a bit embarrassed. She remembered what she’d been told Joel did for a living: he was a computer engineer. He probably knew everything about the subject, and yet, rather than join in, as you’d expect in any normal conversation, he kept quiet. Looking puzzled. Looking embarrassed. Looking away.
She had seen enough. She felt scalded. She had to do something, and in an instant she knew what it would be. Who cared if it was cold? So what if it was about to pour? In her mind she was already enjoying it: a bracing dip, a spell of furious kicking and stroking. Who cared if no one else was going in the pool?
Empty dishes had been cleared from the dining table, and in their place was a cheese platter, a fruit bowl, an apple cobbler, and a chocolate-raspberry layer cake. Elsie folded a large slice of cake in a napkin to take with her upstairs, wolfing down half before she even made it to her room.
The window was open. Elsie lay in bed, watching the billowy white curtain as it kept getting sucked out and blown back in again, like the veil of a dithering bride. She had left the party — had been bounced from it, actually, like a drunk or a crasher (in my own fckn hse) before it was over. Now she texted back and forth with Jess while listening to the sounds of the party winding down and waiting for her mother’s inevitable knock. Her mother did not knock, though. She walked right in, a breach of family etiquette, which said a lot about her state of mind.
Earlier Elsie had cried herself near delirious, and the sight of her swollen face blunted her mother’s anger. Still, the talk must be had. Her mother must vent her anger.
(Mercifully, since not all the guests were leaving, she also had to keep it short.)
“I just wanted to go swimming,” Elsie said. And to swim she’d needed to put on her swimsuit, which was what she’d gone up to her room to do. First, she had finished the cake. The disgusting-looking cloth napkin, with its brown and red smears, now lay atop her dresser, catching her mother’s eye and making her wince.
Her bikini on, Elsie had grabbed a towel from the hall closet and run barefoot downstairs and out the back door without a glance at anyone (though aware of drawing several glances herself).
Up close, the pool, reflecting a sky like a sheet of tarnished silver, was not so inviting. All she had to do was look at it, and she was covered with goose flesh. She dropped the towel and was about to dip a toe in when, from what felt like every direction, wind blustered into the yard. The water rippled as if an invisible rock had been tossed in. From the lilac bushes rose a loud hiss, and suddenly the bushes were twisting and flailing, like women being strangled. As if in fright, the apple tree dropped its fruit, and the lawn flattened: a threatened animal laying its ears back. A trident of lightning flashed, and between two bursts of thunder Elsie heard her father shouting at her to get away from the pool. She turned and ran.
The first drops came down so big and hard and far apart that it was like a stoning. She had just reached the house when the deluge began. The wind sprayed the rain with wild abandon, driving everyone on the porch indoors.
It was at this point — “obviously” — that Elsie should have gone straight to her room and changed back into her clothes. “We’re not prudes, any of us,” said her mother. “But how do you think it looked? In the living room, with everyone else dressed, and you prancing around practically naked.” (Elsie had left the towel by the pool where she’d dropped it.) “It was . . . it was just” — Elsie braced herself for perverse — “inappropriate. Didn’t you even notice that you were making people uncomfortable?”
(Once, after passing two elderly men sitting together on a bus, Elsie had heard one of them say to the other, “It’s when they’re stacked like that and still just kids that they really ought to be declared a public nuisance.”)
The truth was, the only thing Elsie had noticed in the living room was Tough Angel staring at her. What had happened next was hard to explain. She hadn’t known how to put it, even to Jess. There was her mother’s version: “Then you go strutting up to the bartender and start flirting like mad, putting him in the most awkward position, since he was working and shouldn’t even have been talking to you.”
It must have been the underwire in her bikini bra, the kind known to set off metal detectors. His stare was a magnet, pulling her to him, and while his hands were busy among the bottles and glasses, those eyes never left her, held her there. And then, like a hypnotist, he made her dance from one bare foot to the other and sway and giggle and swing her long hair. She would not have been surprised if by simply arching an eyebrow he’d been able to levitate her.
There had been some kind of small talk — what grade was she in, did she like school, was she sorry summer was almost over — to which she could hardly remember responding. What she remembered instead was the feeling of her heart capsizing inside her like a little boat. What she remembered was thinking how incredibly, heroically handsome he was, and knowing full well what her mother later presented as if it was news: “He’s not a kid, Elsie. He’s, like, thirty years old.” If an exaggeration, only a slight one. Didn’t Elsie realize how inappropriate it was, flirting with a man that age? No. How could she? She had been bewitched. Bewarlocked.
But that Elsie had been humiliated you didn’t have to tell her. At a certain moment something behind her had snagged his attention, and a sly look had flitted across his face. Glancing over her shoulder, she saw the two waitresses watching from the dining room, elbowing and clutching at each other. Though they knew she could see them, they made no effort to hide their glee. Bitch and Bitchier. She had turned back just in time to catch Kip, as the bartender had introduced himself, winking at them.
She was cutting quickly across the living room when she saw her father sitting by himself in a corner, checking his phone. She went straight to him and, ignoring his startled expression, climbed onto his lap. She’d wanted a hug, but he kept his arms at his sides, and she could feel him tense all over, the way he might have done had she been the drunk wife of one of his friends.
“Elsie,” he began uncertainly. She wanted to speak but was afraid that if she unclenched her throat the tears would gush, never ending. She squeezed her father’s neck, but he only grew stiffer. This time she did notice other people: the looks they exchanged with one another, and how they, too, seemed at a loss. “Elsie, please,” said her father, still without touching her. She squeezed her eyes shut.
She felt a hand on her back. But it was only her mother. “If you’re quite through making a spectacle of yourself,” she said, speaking into Elsie’s ear, “maybe you could go upstairs. And if you’d do me the favor of staying there so that I can enjoy the rest of my party in peace, I would so appreciate that.”
It was odd: the storm had passed, but the air it left behind was heavy and very warm. Even with the window open, Elsie’s room was stifling. She could not sleep. Her cotton nightgown stuck to her skin, and no matter how many times she slugged the pillow, it refused to support her head as she wished. Everyone else in the house was asleep. (The insomniac can always tell.)
She tried not to think about Kip (real name? short for —?) but those eyes were indelible, the burning eyes of a wild thing caught in the light of the moon. Thirty: not old enough to be her father, but close. She tried to imagine what she herself might look like at that age. As pretty as she was now? Prettier? (Doubtful.) But suppose she never got there. Suppose she died young. By her own hand. The poetic-sounding phrase had always appealed to her. Of course, that was the real reason they didn’t live near the beach. Because her mother, famous for being able to see into the future, had foreseen this: her beloved daughter, her cherished only child, walking into the sea.
Awash in self-pity, trembling with the poetry of it all, Elsie swallowed hard.
Two o’clock. Never before had she stayed up this late. But she was not even tired, and to lie itching in that hot bed one minute longer was to lose her mind. Without knowing exactly where she was going — could it be she was sleepwalking? — she got up and left the room.
Passing Dick’s door, she pictured him asleep and the mice, liberated between the stroke of midnight and dawn, chasing each other around the room. A dangerous fit of hysterics seized her, but she managed to avert disaster by clamping her hands over her mouth and crossing her legs as tightly as possible. (Still, she leaked.)
Downstairs she hesitated only a moment before heading out the front door.
It was thrillingly dark: her parents considered it a waste of energy to keep on the outside lights (or air conditioning) through the night, and there was no moon. The grass, cool and slick from the rain, poked deliciously between her toes. There was a weight to the darkness that, in spite of the warmth, made her think of snow. Mounds of black snow in the yard, a thick layer over the field separating their house and the Lems’ (where, like a low, dim star, an energy-wasting porch light gleamed).
She stood in the middle of the black lawn and looked back, and when she saw that the house had vanished, she felt wobbly, as if she were teetering at the edge of a deep well.
How could it be that she smelled magnolias when the blossoms had died months ago? But the night had turned everything strange: the yard was alien country, and she herself was a different girl from the miserable one of an hour ago, the angry one of yesterday morning. It gave her a giddy sense of power to be prowling around outside while everyone else slept.
She tried a few moves she had learned in dance class. She hitched up her shoulders and shimmied until her nightgown slipped down past her slender hips. When she stepped out of it, she was naked. The night approved, taking her in its arms, touching her everywhere with black-suede-gloved hands.
She walked through the grass, taking high, coltish steps, her whole body fluttering with excitement. She made a large semicircle that brought her around to the back of the house. Here, the black snow was deeper. And she was not alone.
It must be some animal, she thought. It had been on her left and had just now moved across her path so that it was on her right. She couldn’t see or hear it, but she knew it was there. She began walking faster.
She lay on her side in the wet grass, stunned, panting. In the dark she had not realized how close she was to the apple tree. She had stepped on an apple, twisting her ankle and falling with her full weight on the joint.
When she got her breath back, she tried to stand, but an appalling blast of pain made her knees buckle. She sat on the ground, her stomach churning. She could not tell if the ankle was dislocated or fractured, or both. All she knew was that she could not walk.
What choice did she have, then, but to crawl? She gritted her teeth as she moved onto all fours. But after going only a little way she stopped. The torture of her foot being dragged along the ground was too much. (The ankle was surely broken.) The struggle, brief though it was, left her covered in sweat and near vomiting. The house might as well have been a hundred miles away.
Elsie was fourteen. So far in her life she had never known serious illness or hurt. She’d experienced pain, of course — headaches, cramps — but never anything so bad that it could not be relieved by aspirin. Still it was not the physical suffering that made her start to sob. It was knowing that she was going to have to scream for help. She would scream, waking the entire house. Lights would blaze on, everyone would come running — and then how on earth would Elsie go on living? Do tell her.
She sobbed a little harder as she imagined her mother repeating something she had said earlier, before leaving Elsie’s room: “Are you really that desperate for attention?” How cruel, how unfair life was, Elsie thought bitterly. She had done nothing to deserve this. Nothing. And the conviction of her own innocence pierced her.
Tired from holding the same awkward position, she stretched out and rolled gently onto her back. Insects brushed and batted against her. A moth landed like a kiss precisely on her lips. After a few minutes the ground, though rough and hard, did not feel so cold anymore.
And what if, instead of screaming, she was to force herself to lie here like this until morning? Her mother usually woke up early. It was likely that she’d be the first one out of bed. It wasn’t impossible that she would discover Elsie before any of the others had a chance to see her. Yes, she thought. It was worth a try. She closed her eyes experimentally (though sleep would be out of the question). After all, morning was not that far off. But was she really that brave? It would be the hardest thing she’d ever had to do in her life. Her entire leg, toes to hip, burned like a log roasting on a fire. Could she really suffer so much pain in silence?
She had forgotten all about the animal. Now a rustling from the trees behind the swimming pool told her it was still there. She pushed herself upright, staring wildly into the dark. She thought of the mountain lions and coyotes and bears that people had claimed to have seen in the area — sightings that were not always believed. But Elsie believed them all (at least, she did now), and she was afraid. There she lay, naked, helpless, injured. Easy prey. Then a twig snapped as if a man’s foot had trod on it, at which she felt a scream of hurricane force start to gather inside her.
Unseen, the fox stood with one forepaw lifted, muzzle in the air, sniffing the smell of human fear. Had this been an imaginary fox, a creature of folklore, not just clever but kind, he might at least have gone and fetched the poor girl her nightgown.
Never before in his nocturnal visits to this place had the fox encountered a human being. He rotated his ears as she took a deep breath.