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13

Tonight, Gwen will wear all black, but she certainly doesnt plan any tricks, only a treat. She has a present for Hank, which she hopes to give him at Chriss 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. Its 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 didnt hear or didnt care.

With Hank, its different. Its real. And thats why shes 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 shes gone easy on the mascara and eyeliner. Instead of spiking up her hair, shes let it dry naturally, and it has a soft, pretty shape. Shes desperate for Hank to think she looks good, but she still cant take a compliment and merely shrugs at her mothers approval.

Were already late, Gwen says, ducking Marchs embrace when she tries to give Gwen a hug. Impatient, Gwen gets her own jacket and her mothers 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.

Its the sort of chilly, spooky night when its possible to see ones 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: shes been carrying her resentment around for some time and, like it or not, its a heavy load.

Are you talking about Susie? March asks when she slides behind the wheel. She isnt ready to discuss Hollis with Gwen; its not time, and it may never be. I cant turn him down, I cant say no to him, I want him all the time, I always have and I always will. Is that what shes supposed to say to her daughter? Is that the comforting tale she should tell?

Thats who youre 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? Im meeting Hollis. She starts the car and pulls onto the dirt road at a speed thats too fast for the turn.

Like I didnt know, Gwen mutters under her breath.

Its no big deal, March insists. Weve known each other forever. We grew up together.

Gwen is feeling something weird in her throat. She cant stand for this to happen to her father, who is the nicest man she knows. All right, hes not the most conversational guy in the world unless youre 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 hes stopped to watch a wood spider spin its web. Shes 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 hed 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 didnt seem to care.

Were going out to dinner at Dimitris. Its not exactly a crime. And yet March must feel it is, since shes so busy defending herself.

Fine, Gwen says. Its 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 shes going out with Susie. Sure, at this time of night, my mothers going food shopping. Thats what shed 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 hadnt even known. Shed just assumed her mother was still sleeping when shed 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 shed seen her mother kissing him. Shed seen Marchs head tilted back and her mouth open. After that, Gwen had run all the way back to the porch, but it was too late; shed already witnessed too much.

Youre making a big deal out of nothing, March says as they drive toward town.

Look, you dont have to explain anything to me. Its 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. Its as if the children have taken over; theyre 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 Chriss house, and she gets out before her mother can say anything more. What a relief to be walking up the path to the party. Theres 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 Gwens skin.

Finally, both Chris and Lori shout when Gwen comes into the kitchen, where Chriss 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 witchs 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.

Chriss mom finishes the refreshments, then retires to the den, since shes promised to give them space for this party. As soon as shes gone, the guy Loris started dating, Alex Mahoney, takes out a fifth of vodka and doctors the punch. Everyones laughing about how plastered they plan to get, except for Gwen, whos 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. Hes wearing a threadbare black overcoat-one of Holliss castoffs, no doubt-jeans, and a clean white shirt. Gwen knows him-he ironed the shirt himself; he was careful and thorough and thats why hes 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 hes 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 whove gotten plastered from the spiked punch are getting somewhat obnoxious. Its definitely time to leave.

You know what we should do next? Loris new boyfriend, Alex, is saying. Go down to the Marshes.

Oooooh.

Someone is making spooky noises. A girl laughs, but its a short, trumpeting sound.

Seriously, Alex says. Well bring a few cherry bombs.

Smoke out the Coward? another boy guesses.

Oh, yeah. Like youd 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, hes 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. Its as if, while she wasnt looking, everythings 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 hes 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 shes not. Is that how you treat someone you care about? You go and leave them?

Hanks face is pale, and its not easy to read his expression on this dark street, but all at once, Gwen realizes shes not the only one whos crying.

What is it? Gwen says. Whats wrong?

The Coward, Hank says. The guy in the Marshes they wanted to smoke out? Thats 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.

Its not your fault that Alan is your father, Gwen says.

Hank smiles, but he doesnt look happy. Yeah? Then why do I feel like it is?

Maybe hes not as bad as everybody says.

Hank clearly doesnt 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.

Im tired, he says. Ill see you tomorrow.

So much for Gwens perfect night. Its been ruined; its been murdered. There is no way shes going home now.

Go ahead, if thats what you want, she tells Hank. Im 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 shes going.

Hey, wait a second, Hank shouts. Wait up. You cant go there.

But its too late; shes in motion. Gwen is running in the direction she believes leads to the Marshes. She can hear Hank calling her, but shes 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 theyre birds and not bats. She heads east, or what she thinks of as east; shes surprisingly fast when she puts her mind to getting where she wants to go.

Gwen hears Hank calling, but she doesnt stop, not until the trees begin to thin out. The grass is taller here, and theres 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, its 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 thats what Lori has told her.

Its 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, its 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 dont just wander around in the Marshes. This isnt a joke.

Gwen throws her arms around him. What will she do if she ever loses him? How would she ever survive?

Im sorry about your father, she whispers.

Theres 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. Thats a porch. An old gate. A railing.

I want to see it, she says. Lets go closer.

No, Hank says. Hell hear us if we go closer.

I dont 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 didnt realize this, but now she knows it to be true. Thankfully, he doesnt. 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, theres 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 boyfriends, who cant stand up for herself. Shell 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 doesnt 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 its 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 hes in there. Gwen can feel his presence. Hes scared, like those sparrows in the bushes who sense Gwens proximity. Hes got his eyes shut tight, and hes praying that whoevers 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, Gwens 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.


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