Tonight, Gwen will wear all black, but she certainly doesn’t plan any tricks, only a treat. She has a present for Hank, which she hopes to give him at Chris’s Halloween party. Hank is such a serious person, finding the right gift for him is no easy task. No CDs or tapes, no jewelry or flashy clothes. None of that would do. Instead, Gwen has brought along a sterling silver compass she discovered in the attic. It’s an old-fashioned piece, and Gwen hopes it still shows true north.
She wants to be with Hank tonight. She has been with so many boys she never gave a damn about; selfish, spoiled guys who liked to joke about the girls they fucked, rating each on a score of one to ten. Subzero, they laughingly called those whom, like her friend Minnie, they deemed too unattractive to bother with. And to think, Gwen actually put up with that. She stood there and listened to them tear her best friend apart and she pretended that she didn’t hear or didn’t care.
With Hank, it’s different. It’s real. And that’s why she’s nervous: This time, it matters.
“You look terrific,” March says when Gwen comes downstairs, ready for the party.
Gwen is wearing her short black dress, but she’s gone easy on the mascara and eyeliner. Instead of spiking up her hair, she’s let it dry naturally, and it has a soft, pretty shape. She’s desperate for Hank to think she looks good, but she still can’t take a compliment and merely shrugs at her mother’s approval.
“We’re already late,” Gwen says, ducking March’s embrace when she tries to give Gwen a hug. Impatient, Gwen gets her own jacket and her mother’s coat from the closet.
“You may not care if you keep your date waiting,” Gwen informs her mother as they finally head for the car. “But I do.”
It’s the sort of chilly, spooky night when it’s possible to see one’s own breath in the air; perfect for Halloween.
“My date?” March says, rattled by the notion that Gwen may know more than March gives her credit for.
Gwen glares at her mother, then gets into the Toyota, which March has just bought outright from Ken Helm for six hundred dollars, borrowing the money from Hollis. Gwen slams her door to make her point. She really has had enough: she’s been carrying her resentment around for some time and, like it or not, it’s a heavy load.
“Are you talking about Susie?” March asks when she slides behind the wheel. She isn’t ready to discuss Hollis with Gwen; it’s not time, and it may never be. I can’t turn him down, I can’t say no to him, I want him all the time, I always have and I always will. Is that what she’s supposed to say to her daughter? Is that the comforting tale she should tell?
“That’s who you’re meeting tonight?” Gwen asks, her voice even more hoarse than usual. “Susie?”
March takes too long to answer. Gwen snorts and looks out into the night.
“Just like I thought,” Gwen fumes. “The truth really is an alien language to you.”
“Okay,” March says. “You want the truth? I’m meeting Hollis.” She starts the car and pulls onto the dirt road at a speed that’s too fast for the turn.
“Like I didn’t know,” Gwen mutters under her breath.
“It’s no big deal,” March insists. “We’ve known each other forever. We grew up together.”
Gwen is feeling something weird in her throat. She can’t stand for this to happen to her father, who is the nicest man she knows. All right, he’s not the most conversational guy in the world unless you’re talking about beetles. There have been family dinners when no one has said a word during the entire meal. But Gwen has been in the car with her father when he’s stopped to watch a wood spider spin its web. She’s seen him talk to a stray bear cub, when they were at Yosemite for her tenth birthday, and to this day, she would swear the bear listened.
Gwen knows that her father has been sending March cards. She found one this morning. A store-bought card that said Thinking of you. “I miss you every day,” he had written and Gwen actually cried to see that he’d been made to embarrass himself. A man like her father, so settled in silence, had to come out and shout what he felt, and her mother still didn’t seem to care.
“We’re going out to dinner at Dimitri’s. It’s not exactly a crime.” And yet March must feel it is, since she’s so busy defending herself.
“Fine,” Gwen says. “It’s none of my business.”
She knows her mother lies about where she goes. Whatever, Gwen thinks to herself when her mother says she has an errand to run or that she’s going out with Susie. Sure, at this time of night, my mother’s going food shopping. That’s what she’d tell Minnie if the two of them still spoke on the phone. Like I believe it. Like I believe anything she says.
Hank knows about them too. God, how could he not? Once, he was waiting for her at the end of the driveway when she came to visit Tarot. He insisted they walk to school early, right then, and he had a funny look on his face, as if he felt sorry for her. Gwen glanced at the house then and realized the Toyota was parked there. March had spent the night, and Gwen hadn’t even known. She’d just assumed her mother was still sleeping when she’d left the house at five-fifteen.
Another time, she saw them when she took Sister for a walk. They were in the driveway, parked in his truck. Gwen had looked away as quickly as she could, but she’d seen her mother kissing him. She’d seen March’s head tilted back and her mouth open. After that, Gwen had run all the way back to the porch, but it was too late; she’d already witnessed too much.
“You’re making a big deal out of nothing,” March says as they drive toward town.
“Look, you don’t have to explain anything to me. It’s your life.”
Gwen slinks down farther in her seat and looks out her window. The trick-or-treaters are out in full force, wandering up and down the High Road and Main Street dressed as ghosts and ballerinas and Ninjas. It’s as if the children have taken over; they’re everywhere, crossing streets and lawns, running through the darkness with flashlights and bags filled with candy.
“Thanks for the ride,” Gwen says when they pull up to Chris’s house, and she gets out before her mother can say anything more. What a relief to be walking up the path to the party. There’s already a crowd inside, and a pile of coats in the front hall. The music is turned up so high that the bass vibrates through the walls and into Gwen’s skin.
“Finally,” both Chris and Lori shout when Gwen comes into the kitchen, where Chris’s mom is mixing up a punch recipe which includes orange soda and grapefruit juice. The girls are all in black-everyone is supposed to be dressed accordingly for this event-and Chris sports a black witch’s wig over her blond hair.
“You look fabulous,” Lori tells Gwen.
“You think so?” Gwen says uncertainly. She has to learn to take a compliment. She has to stop being so uptight.
Chris’s mom finishes the refreshments, then retires to the den, since she’s promised to give them “space” for this party. As soon as she’s gone, the guy Lori’s started dating, Alex Mahoney, takes out a fifth of vodka and doctors the punch. Everyone’s laughing about how plastered they plan to get, except for Gwen, who’s too busy watching Hank come in through the back door. His face is flushed from the raw weather and there are leaves in his pale hair. He’s wearing a threadbare black overcoat-one of Hollis’s castoffs, no doubt-jeans, and a clean white shirt. Gwen knows him-he ironed the shirt himself; he was careful and thorough and that’s why he’s late. Standing here, in this crowded kitchen, she could not love him more.
“Here you go, old boy,” Alex greets Hank. handing over a glass of the punch. “This should do the trick.”
Hank grins, but he puts the glass on the table, and heads straight for Gwen. He bends down so he can whisper.
“You look beautiful.”
“Thanks,” Gwen says. She actually does it. She accepts a compliment. If she can do that, anything can happen. Tonight feels like the night of her dreams. She wraps her arms around Hank and knows that he’s the one. She cannot remember being happier than when she is dancing with him, or when she perches on the arm of a couch to watch him play darts. By midnight, Gwen is ready to leave, so they can go up to Olive Tree Lake and be alone. Anyway, the group who’ve gotten plastered from the spiked punch are getting somewhat obnoxious. It’s definitely time to leave.
“You know what we should do next?” Lori’s new boyfriend, Alex, is saying. “Go down to the Marshes.”
Someone is making spooky noises. A girl laughs, but it’s a short, trumpeting sound.
“Seriously,” Alex says. “We’ll bring a few cherry bombs.”
“Smoke out the Coward?” another boy guesses.
“Oh, yeah. Like you’d have the guts,” Chris teases.
Several people laugh now.
“Let sleeping cowards lie,” one of them suggests.
Gwen is listening to all this, disgusted, but when she turns to Hank to discuss how sophomoric these guys are, he’s gone. She looks in the kitchen and in the hall. Nothing.
“Have you seen Hank?” she asks Lori, and anyone else she recognizes, but the answer is always no. Gwen has a panicked feeling. It’s as if, while she wasn’t looking, everything’s gone wrong. She grabs her coat and heads outside. What would it mean if he left her at the party and took off? How could it be that he’s already halfway down the block, black coat flapping out behind him?
Gwen runs after Hank, and when she catches up to him she hits him in the back, right between the shoulder blades.
“How could you do that to me?” she cries when he spins to face her. Gwen should be embarrassed, there are tears in her eyes, but she’s not. “Is that how you treat someone you care about? You go and leave them?”
Hank’s face is pale, and it’s not easy to read his expression on this dark street, but all at once, Gwen realizes she’s not the only one who’s crying.
“What is it?” Gwen says. “What’s wrong?”
“The Coward,” Hank says. “The guy in the Marshes they wanted to smoke out? That’s my father.”
They walk through town in silence. There are a few stray trick-or-treaters ringing doorbells, but most have gone home to bed. A quarter-moon has risen, but the night is unusually dark. Hank keeps his hands in the pockets of his overcoat, and he walks fast, so that Gwen has to trot to keep up with him. Forsaking their original plans, they do not go to Olive Tree Lake-where many of the couples from the party have already trekked, looking for privacy and romance. Instead, they start for the hill.
“It’s not your fault that Alan is your father,” Gwen says.
Hank smiles, but he doesn’t look happy. “Yeah? Then why do I feel like it is?”
“Maybe he’s not as bad as everybody says.”
Hank clearly doesn’t want to discuss this. He speeds up his pace and they walk on in silence, an unusual and lonely condition for the two of them to find themselves in. When the house on Fox Hill is in sight, Hank backs off.
“I’m tired,” he says. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
So much for Gwen’s perfect night. It’s been ruined; it’s been murdered. There is no way she’s going home now.
“Go ahead, if that’s what you want,” she tells Hank. “I’m not afraid to check out the Marshes.”
Gwen turns and takes off, not thinking of how rash her decision is; not certain, in fact, of where it is she’s going.
“Hey, wait a second,” Hank shouts. “Wait up. You can’t go there.”
But it’s too late; she’s in motion. Gwen is running in the direction she believes leads to the Marshes. She can hear Hank calling her, but she’s too upset and angry to stop. The sound of her breathing is filling up her head and she can hear things flying from tree to tree; she hopes that they’re birds and not bats. She heads east, or what she thinks of as east; she’s surprisingly fast when she puts her mind to getting where she wants to go.
Gwen hears Hank calling, but she doesn’t stop, not until the trees begin to thin out. The grass is taller here, and there’s the smell of salt. In the moonlight, everything is silver. An owl glides over an inlet, without warning, without a sound. The silver grass moves in the wind; where Gwen walks, it’s waist-high and she has to be careful to avoid the places where the mud seems deepest. People can sink so deeply into this bog they disappear forever, or at least that’s what Lori has told her.
It’s extremely quiet here. Sound dissolves. Why, Gwen can hear her own heartbeat. Behind her and in front of her is a sea of grass. The few trees which grow here are huge oaks, and some stringy pines. You can smell the pine if you breathe deeply. If you listen carefully, you can hear past the silence to the echo of something moving. All around are fiddler crabs, traversing the mud in the moonlight. Luckily, it’s low tide, or Gwen would be sloshing through knee-deep water. Instead, she has to make her way over the crabs, tentatively, trying to avoid crushing them.
Hank comes up behind her, and grabs her with such force that Gwen almost loses her balance.
“Are you crazy?” His breathing is ragged from running. His jaw is pulsating. “You don’t just wander around in the Marshes. This isn’t a joke.”
Gwen throws her arms around him. What will she do if she ever loses him? How would she ever survive?
“I’m sorry about your father,” she whispers.
“There’s the place they want to bomb,” Hank says now. “His house.”
Gwen steps away to look in the direction Hank nods toward. Two big, old apple trees are all she sees; that, and the moonlit grass.
“Behind the trees,” Hank says.
When Gwen squints she can make out the tumbledown house. That’s a porch. An old gate. A railing.
“I want to see it,” she says. “Let’s go closer.”
“No,” Hank says. “He’ll hear us if we go closer.”
“I don’t care if he does.”
Gwen looks at Hank. If he tells her not to, if he tries to boss her around, something between them will be over. She didn’t realize this, but now she knows it to be true. Thankfully, he doesn’t. He stays there and waits while Gwen navigates through the marsh grass and the scratchy sea lavender.
The water has begun to rise, enough so that Gwen can feel how cold it is through the soles of her boots. Funny thing, there’s a garden gate in front of the house, but no fence. All you have to do is scoot around the gate, and make your way past the apple trees, then past some old blackberry bushes and over a cluster of raspberry canes. Maybe the fruit here was planted by Aaron Jenkins, the Founder, or maybe blackbirds dropped seeds down from the sky which managed to sprout in spite of the sandy soil. Either way, the bushes are now an overgrown warren, occupied by sparrows and rabbits and evil-tempered raccoons.
Gwen has to do this, go past the bushes and continue on. She refuses to be the kind of girl who gets scared off easily, whose opinion echoes her boyfriend’s, who can’t stand up for herself. She’ll be damned if she ends up like her mother, ready to do anything, even lie, for a man. All the same, Gwen is shivering as she walks up to the house. She doesn’t have to look back to know that Hank is watching her. She concentrates, trying to stop her heart from beating so fast.
As she gets closer she notices scattered glass, the remnants of windows broken by boys from town. The porch steps sag, but Gwen goes up them anyway. She looks through the window nearest the door, but it’s difficult to see inside. She can make out a table and chairs, some blankets on the floor, and a little potbellied coal stove. It looks like a place where nobody lives, but he’s in there. Gwen can feel his presence. He’s scared, like those sparrows in the bushes who sense Gwen’s proximity. He’s got his eyes shut tight, and he’s praying that whoever’s out there will go away, which is exactly what Gwen does. But before she leaves, she reaches into her pocket. She wants him to have something, and the old compass she meant to give Hank is all she has. She places it on the threshold, then pushes the door open, only a little, but enough to smell the mildew and dust from inside.
Heading back to Hank is tougher going. The tide is coming in fast now; before long, Gwen’s boots will be soaked. The leather will be ruined and she may have to throw them away, and yet she takes the time to look behind her. Unless she is mistaken, the compass is no longer on the front porch, and so she feels free to run the rest of the way; she can run until she reaches Hank at last.