Chapter 24 - The Girl Who Left the Lights On

This is an excerpt from my second novel, about four chapters from the end. It's Christmas Eve and Gareth's older sister Eleanor has misheard part of a phone conversation and gone speeding off into the night in their late sister Emily's car to rescue Gareth's ex-girlfriend, who in reality is in no danger whatsoever. Gareth goes after his sister and encounters some difficulties.  

Gareth in pursuit

December 24, 1988santa suit

 

'Eleanor! Wait up!'

     But I can't even see her. I'm charging down the front steps in my sweatpants and T-shirt, feet jammed into the hiking boots I found under the couch in the TV room. Behind me a door crashes shut. The air is thick with snow feathers, and there's a strange kind of dread, like a physical itch, at the back of my mind. I forgot something important. What? I twist a hunk of hair around one finger and tug hard.

     No time to think about this. Out of nowhere red and white tail lights are flooding the street, and there's the winding groan of a car backing out of our garage. Emily's car, the green Ford Maverick. Thought it was kind of creepy when my sister took it for a grocery run this afternoon, but now this means she's got a clear driveway and a getaway vehicle. I have to stop her.

     I scramble, nearly fall on my face, reach the Maverick and bang on the driver's side window. Eleanor flicks the lock shut and tells me through the glass to get lost.

     'Wait! I'll go with you to Rosalyn's. I'll do it.'

     If she's heard, she won't let on. She accelerates and I jump out of the way, watch the Maverick roar off into the distance, spitting coins of crushed snow as it goes.

     'Come back! Eleanor, you moron! You don't even have snow tires!'

     I'm left doing a hopeless war dance in the middle of the road. Fat flakes are settling on my arms and melting into blips of water. Jesus, it's freezing out here – why didn't I notice before? I'm shivering so hard it feels like convulsions, looking back at the house with its lit windows and warmth. And that's when I realise it. For a moment I can't even breathe.

     Tell me I didn't. Tell me I didn't do that.

     I let the door slam shut behind me. I didn't check if it was set to lock. And guess what? Tonight of all nights, it was.

     Wonderful, Garfy. Just brilliant. Now I'm stuck out here. I start to swear, muttering blackly to myself. Then I'm yelling up at the purple night sky. The garage door's gaping like an empty eye socket. Maybe the neighbours will hear all this. I'll tell them I'm out carolling. Punk carols.

     No, fuck it. I don't want the neighbours to hear anything. I race into the garage to find something I can pull on over my T-shirt and sweats.

     Up in the loft I start yanking boxes from stacks, tearing at cardboard flaps. A tent. Could I wear it? Probably not. Another box tumbles from a shelf, and I skip backward before it can land corner-first on my toes.

     Just how crazy is my sister? That's the other problem in front of me now. She's got this idea Rosalyn's about to kill herself, and that I practically ordered her to do it. But why? I rewind the phone conversation with Ros in my head. Not exactly our finest hour. She'd told me I was frustrating, a blank, that I ignore everyone around me. I acted like I hadn't been listening.

     'Very funny,' she'd said. 'Maybe I should just die. Huh? Get a bottle of pills and give up, right here. Would that get your attention?'

     And what did I say to that?

     'You want to fucking kill yourself? Well, go right ahead. Have fun. Have fun flying around with the pretty angels in heaven.'

     Ouch. If that's what Eleanor heard, I don't blame her for going mental. Rosalyn trying to get to me by bringing up pills, me sneering like I didn't care if she lived or died. Couple of assholes. We didn't have the right to be so cruel.

     'Listen,' I'd said to Ros, seconds later. 'I didn't mean that.'

     'Okay.'

     'Did you? All that about getting a bottle of pills...'

     'Oh, Gareth.' She sighed into my ear. 'That is the last thing I should have said to you. And, no. Course I wouldn't. Never.'

     Such a relief not to be fighting. I gave in and told her it would be okay if she wanted to meet up and talk, and we set a date and said our goodbyes. The next thing I knew, Eleanor was barrelling into the kitchen accusing me of something close to murder.

night snowscape 5
 

I've got three more boxes open, and they're full of Christmas stuff. The tree's packed into two of them. In the other I find rustling ropes of tinsel, shining glass bulbs, a wooden snowman painted blue and orange. Exactly the kind of thing Eleanor was looking for in the attic. I'll have to remember to tell my sister. If I find her.

    My neck goes stiff with tension. When. When I find her.

    I rip the tape from the next one and all I can see is shaggy red fabric and white fluffy trim. Jackpot. Dad's old Santa suit. I burrow into the coat, jam the hat on my head. Then I have to hold back a yell. The box's been up here since last March, it's like putting on clothes fresh from the freezer. I wriggle into the floppy pants and pull the drawstring as tight as it can go, sit shivering and slapping at myself.

    Okay. Everything's going to be fine now. I have a plan. Eleanor went to Rosalyn's house to rescue her. And that's where I'm heading, so I can rescue Eleanor. How am I going to get there? Easy. I have wheels. Morris's crappy orange Pony, sleeping under snow just outside our garage. The keys are right there in the glove compartment – I left them like that on purpose, so he could come and take his stupid car home himself.

     I start to smile. Stealing that piece of junk turned out to be the smartest thing I've done in weeks. I plod downstairs and drag our biggest shovel to the driveway. So, one person speeds off into the night and the other one's left clearing the driveway so he can go after her. A car chase, Canadian style. Better get a move on.

     I bend and wedge the shovel blade into the waist-high wall of snow and broken ice spewed up by the plough, lift with my arms trembling. Then I do this again. And again. My back turns damp with sweat, the hat droops into my eyes, its round white pom-pom whacks me on the side of the face every time I move. But it's a relief to be doing something, a relief when I realise I'm not stoned anymore. Gradually the blizzard goes quiet and the sky clears to deep intergalactic black. I lean against the car and look up. All is calm, all is bright. I've carved enough space for the Pony, and it's time to go.

     
Then I'm driving through town, very slowly, trying to get used to the feel of this car. I roll down my street at a walking pace, then make a turn by the elementary school. Snow softens every angle and the houses are glowing with kindergarten colours, the front yards set with Styrofoam candy canes, snowmen and angels, Santa and Rudolf in plastic and wood. Morris's place is just ahead.

     I slam on the brakes, cursing.

     There's quick shape rushing at the car. A winter coat is attacking me. I can't see hands or a face, just a hood, long sleeves. It's waving a broom in reckless circles.

     'This is not your car!' Whack goes the broom on the Pony's hood. 'Not yours! Stop!'

     I crank down the window. 'Hi, Mrs Bechara.'

     Morris's grandmother turns to me, squinting from the mouth of her enormous coat.

     'Gareth? Is it Gareth?' She's starting to smile. 'Why do you have this car? Why...? Why are you Santa Claus?'

     'Hey, it's okay!' A familiar voice from the front door. 'He's returning the car.'

     Morris. Asshole. Look at him striding down the Becharas' walkway in his white, bulky-knit sweater, like he's just hiked over from an Irish Spring commercial. Already launching into some bullshit story in Arabic. I watch his hands flying, his grandmother's entranced reactions. Good thing for him she's there. Otherwise my foot would be on the accelerator and he'd be flat on his ass under his own tires.

     Morris's grandmother is beckoning to me. Big gestures, like she's not sure I'll understand. 'Come in, Gareth. Come in.'

     What am I going to do now? Morris has loped to the side of the Pony and his face is filling the window.

     'They think the car was stolen, right? That's why she went after you.'

     'Well, it was. I stole it.'

     'No.' He seems almost sorry for me, being so far behind the plot. 'Not what happened. You took it for a tune-up as a surprise present. That's what I just told her. Also explains why you're in the frigging Santa suit.'

     'Oh.' How does he come up with this stuff so fast?

     'So why are you wearing that thing?'

     I glower at my hands on the steering wheel.

     'Because I'm cold.'504934644

     I follow him into the house. I need to be warm.

     Inside everyone's gathered in the dining room over bowls of ice-cream. My Santa outfit gets a big laugh. And the sad, spiralling noise that rolls up from my stomach when I look at the table gets another one. Morris's mother goes off to the kitchen to see if there are any leftovers and his little sister Gabby grins and informs me that I look, like, totally stupid in this suit – which I'm pretty sure is her way of flirting. I tell her she's very perceptive, even as her dad interrupts to say that I'm their friend and their guest, and the suit is very nice.

     I'm nearly trembling with the urge to sink into a chair stay here all night. But I don't deserve to be smiled at and fed. I lost my sister.

     I excuse myself to use the phone in the hallway, close my eyes and dial Rosalyn's number. Keep it neutral. Don't say anything more than you have to. I visualise myself sitting at a desk and reading from a teleprompter.

     'Your sister?' Rosalyn sounds as if she's backing away from the phone.

     'I'm talking about the one in college, Ros. Eleanor. Remember she drove you home...' I don't want to go on. Such an embarrassing memory: Eleanor witnessing my star performance as the biggest wimp on Planet Earth, hanging off my girlfriend at the top of the stairs and begging her to stay with me, just one more night. They both must think I'm a total loser.

     'Oh, right. Her.'

     'She thinks you're gonna kill yourself.'

     A tight little pause. 'Jesus, Gareth, what did you do?'

     But as soon as I tell her, she snaps into action. When exactly did Eleanor leave, she asks me, how much did she have to drink, what's the colour and make of the car? She'll get in touch with her dad right away, see if he can put out an alert. My voice goes shaky as I thank her.

     'I'll turn on all the lights,' Rosalyn says. 'Christmas ones too. No way she'll be able to miss this house. So, when she shows up, what do I do?'

     'Keep her there. She shouldn't be driving. I'll come by soon as I can. I'm at Mor– at your boyfriend's place now.'

     'Oh, for God's sake.'

     She hangs up on me.

     'Look, I'm not her boyfriend.' Shit. He's been here behind me the whole time. 'If you want the truth – '

     'Shut up.' I scowl at the window in the front door, where Morris's sister has stencilled an angel in canned snow. He fucked my girlfriend. I hold on to the word, the sound of it like a glancing blow. You can't explain your way out of that one, even if you're Morris Bechara. You can't ever go back.

     'That stuff's true? Eleanor ran away from home?'

     'Why I need the car.'

     'Yeah, alright,' he says. 'But I'm driving.'

     There's a gust of laughter from the dining room. I'm not going to fight him. The truth is, I really don't want to be doing this on my own. But it doesn't mean he's forgiven.

     So I don't say a word to Morris. Not when we're plodding to the car in the dark and latching on seatbelts. Not when he's presenting me with red woolly mittens he's stolen from the family radiator. Not even after we turn onto the old highway, leave the lights of our little town behind.

    'Come on, man, what's wrong?' Morris says, after a few more miles of this. 'I mean besides...you know.'

     On the radio some geriatric crooner's telling the story of Frosty the Snowman and his unnatural rampage through an innocent village. Thumpety thump thump. We're driving alongside an orchard of cramped, witchy trees, pointing and beckoning with their muffled white arms.

    'Nothing.'

    'Garf...'

     I watch my breath cloud the window. 'Just really thought she'd already be there. At Rosalyn's.'

     
It's the truth. The whole time I was shovelling out the car I'd had this vision in my head: Eleanor safe and grouchy in Ros's living room, maybe sipping hot chocolate on the couch. Like this journey to the O'Carolls' house was only a formality, like Eleanor was a lost object I could sign for and load into the car.

     'Hey. Don't worry, man. Your sister'll be there waiting for us. Everything's gonna be okay.'

     The orchard fades into a long white field with a rickety outbuilding barely visible in the dark, one line of blue Christmas lights sagging along its eaves. Rosalyn lives on the edge of what was once another community with a town hall and a name, and over time it pretty much drifted off in the breeze. Now it's just land and old houses owned by people who don't live around here. The car shifts to follow a barely passable lane and I keep my eyes on the side of the road, searching the bushes for a hint of green metal.

     'Listen, Garf.' He flicks off the radio. 'I'm really sorry. About...Rosalyn. Everything. What happened.'

     'Oh, so it just happened. Over, like, how many months?'

     'She been talking to you?'

     'Sure. She said you were a lousy lay and you got a dick like a little green acorn.'

     'Yeah, get that all the time.' He's nodding wearily. 'Uncle Maroun usually gives it a mention in my birthday cards.'

     This makes me laugh, but I smother it to a little choking noise. Miss this guy so much. Why'd he have to go and ruin everything?

     After miles of black and white sleeping emptiness, Ros's place hits our retinas like a fiery mirage: everything lit up with Vegas reds and yellows, a plastic angel electric under smears of blown snow. Morris steps on the brakes and we stare at each other in shock.

    But her driveway's still buried. No green Maverick. No Eleanor.

    'Aw, Garf. It's not – '

    'Don't tell me it's not my fault.'

    The front door of the O'Caroll house swings open as soon as we kill the engine and light makes a path for us through the snow. She's standing framed in the middle of it. Fuzzy flannel pyjamas and her mom's blue housecoat, wet hair. We stumble toward her.

    'Good God. Both of you?' She steps aside to let us through. 'And, jeez, Gareth, what the hell is with that suit?'

night snowscape 4

A sharp-needled wreath bounces on the door as we brush by. It smells like a gift shop in here – Rosalyn's mother's got some kind of potpourri addiction. She's also hooked on shades of white and very light brown. 'Cream and oatmeal,' Ros told me once, rolling her eyes. In the living room the O'Caroll Christmas tree twinkles its lights at us, swathed in popcorn and tinsel. It becomes clear that a meeting's been called to order.

     Morris and I are slumped on the sofa, which is cream, like the walls. Rosalyn's perched in an armchair – oatmeal. I notice for the first time that she's wearing slippers with bunny-rabbit faces on them.

     'Okay, no need to panic, right?'

     I wonder what my face must show to make this her opening statement.

     'I called your house, Gareth – nobody home – and then I talked to Dad again. He said your sister's only been gone a couple of hours, road visibility's improved, and look, she's an adult, right? So he's not about to send anyone after her.' Rosalyn shrugs in apology. 'Are you sure she was even coming here? Is there anyone in town she's close to?'

     I'm embarrassed to tell her that I don't really know.

     'Me neither. So I used this.' She tosses me a thin, hardback book with a wooden ruler marking the page. I open to a picture of Eleanor, smiling and confident for her high school graduation.

     'Yearbook from 1987,' Ros says. 'I called her grad class. Now, it seems like nobody's seen your sister. Yet. But they're keeping their eyes open. We are going to find her.'

     'Um...wow. Thanks, Ros.'

     We still need a plan and Rosalyn's got one: she'll stay in and wait for Eleanor, keep calling my house in case anybody shows up there. Morris and I will drive around looking for my sister, staying close and taking it slow.

     'Hey, you know what I think...' Morris looks as if he's about to raise his hand from the back of the class. The corners of Rosalyn's mouth tighten. I get a copy of the Valley phone book off her and shuffle to the kitchen so I can call Great-aunt Liz, find out what happened to Dad. Like I should have done hours ago.

     The phone rings at least six times before she picks up – Dad's auntie can't hear too well. I ask about him and she seems surprised.

     'Your father's not home yet, dear?'

     I say 'no', because it's easier than admitting that I have no idea who's in my house right now. Rosalyn and Morris are whisper-fighting in the living room. Great, they've turned into my parents. I focus on the sound of Aunt Liz's voice in my ear.

    'Don't you worry,' she's saying. 'Andrew didn't get into that car until the snow stopped. I made sure of that. Roads weren't too bad by then.'

     I tell her thanks and merry Christmas, and that she really is a great aunt, and it makes her laugh. The windows are fogging up in here. Something pungent is reaching a mad boil on the stove – 'Christmas Memories', according to an empty package wilting on this oatmeal-coloured counter.

     I glance through the doorway at the living room. He's pacing and she hasn't moved from the armchair, facing him down like a Bond villain in bunny slippers.

     'Oh, really,' she says. Given up on whispering now. 'Know what I think?'

     'I don't exactly care, do you get that?'

     He's upped the volume too. I dial my own number and get nothing but empty rings.

     'You only went for me...'

     'Shut up.'

     Oh, jeez. She'll kill him.

     'You went for me,' she says, 'because it was the closest you could get to having sex with Gareth.'

     And this is the exact second I choose to stick my head in there so I can tell her about the boiling spices.

     For a moment there is no sound except the fading rumble of the pot on the stove. Morris glares into a corner. I can tell he's trying to think of something equally mean to say to Rosalyn and coming up blank. And there's a trace of the expression he used to get back when he first showed up here in Grade Three too, fighting back frustrated tears as the older boys circled with their sneers and insults.505002334

     I push at the brim of the Santa hat, jerk my thumb toward the kitchen. 'Ros, you got a major potpourri situation...'

     She's smiling and embarrassed. 'Yeah, guess I put that stuff on cause it reminds me of Mom. What a loser, huh?' She pushes past while Morris stomps outside slamming the front door. Better go join him before he decides to leave me stranded alone with her.

     'Gareth, listen.' She's beside me now. 'I am so sorry about today. Bottle of pills and all that stupid crap.'

     'I'm sorry too.' Talking to the bunny slippers. 'And...you know, maybe you shouldn't say that kind of stuff to Morris. Okay? He takes it pretty seriously.'

     'Well, he should grow up.' Our hands brush. She links her fingers through mine. 'And anyway, what's the big deal? You guys joke about doing each other all the time.'

     'That's joking.' Swinging our hands together lightly. God, she is beautiful.

     'I thought you were mad at him,' she says.

     'I am. I'm mad at both of you. Really mad.' I'm running my thumb in circles on her palm. Our faces are getting closer.

     Outside Morris leans on the horn and I give a shambling shrug and wheel away before I humiliate myself trying to kiss her. I slog to the Pony through thick snow. Deep and crisp and even.

     The engine's already running when I get into the car. 'Listen,' Morris tells me. 'I'm not gay and I'm not into you, okay?'

     'I know that, puddin'.'

     We crawl onto the road. I watch as Rosalyn's house dims. I'm swivelling in my seat to see both sides of the highway, glancing back and twisting my neck. Can't afford to miss anything.

     'Rosalyn feels bad cause she cheated,' Morris says. 'And she's taking it all out on me. That's why – '

     'Relax, man. It's just words.'

     'Great. What if my parents get a whiff of that garbage? I'm the only son.'

     'Me too. Big whoop.'

     'Oh, right. Guess your family doesn't care about that stuff, right? Guess you could fuck a convict on the kitchen table and everything would be peachy.'

     'Who told you about Mongo?'

     He doesn't even smile. 'Well, you'd all feel different if it was one of you. I mean, I know there's your uncle. I'm talking about somebody you see every day. Like your sister.'

     I nudge the radio dial to a band of static between stations. How do I get into these boneheaded conversations? We're supposed to be rescuing Eleanor and here he is calling her a lesbian. Now I feel like I have to defend my sister. I scan my memory for the name of some boyfriend. Can't even think of who took her to the prom. Or if she went at all.

     The static thins into the smothered shape of voices, like something bashing against the wall of another dimension trying to speak to us.

     How could I know so little about this person I've shared a house with for most of my life? Great brother. Rosalyn asked who Eleanor's friends were and I just sat with my mouth hanging open. Well, there was Emily, of course. And that sexy tall girl who came to visit. Her roommate in university or something. Janine.

     Janine. The embarrassment. I can't believe I actually asked her to pose for a drawing. Kicked open the door to the TV room and made my stumbling request, both of them glaring up at me from the couch. Very smooth, Mr Big Artiste.

     The signal on the radio comes clear. It's an ad for Zellers. I switch off the dial and Morris shrugs.

     It's always bothered me – that day, that moment. When the memory comes, I want to drop it like it's got sharp edges. Their expressions. Angry because I barged in on them, sure. But wasn't there something else?

     Yes. Fear. Confusion. Janine's hand on my sister's back. And I remember there was this flutter of guilt and alarm going through me as well, the same feeling you get if you walk in on someone changing. But why? Eleanor and Janine weren't changing.

     Of course not, dumbass. They were kissing.

     I shoot a guilty glance at Morris, almost say something right out loud. I have no idea if it's true. But all of a sudden Eleanor seems present in the car with us, in colour and three dimensions. Someone who falls in love, keeps complicated secrets, doesn't trust anyone enough to share them.

     Someone who's just lost the one person she really did trust. What's Eleanor going to do without Emily?

     Find her. Find her and tell her she's not alone, even if she hates my guts. That's what I have to do now.

     We round a corner. This is all starting to look familiar, I think Ros and I went hiking around here a few times. We're near the foot of the mountain and somewhere there's a look-off point where the woods thin and you can see half the Valley – if you don't mind clawing your way up through thick trees and bushes that are mostly thorns.

     I'm watching the side of the road, everything blunted and blank with snow. Zoning out, half asleep. And then – there it is.

     'Morris, stop! Go back!'

     'Now, hold on. Just stay calm.'

     So he saw it too. He hits the brakes and then starts to move the gears into reverse. It's too slow. I can't just sit here. I can't. Press a button and my seatbelt snakes up and disappears. I snatch at the handle in the door, throw myself out of the car.

     'No! Gareth, what are you doing, man?'

     I land with my arms buried. Pull myself to my feet and the snow's halfway up my thighs. Then I'm jumping and stumbling, kicking at this heavy stuff. Just ahead I can see the tire tracks where they've veered off the road.

     And the Maverick. Headlights off. Smashed into the trunk of a tree.

     'Garf! Get back here. Don't look at that.'

     Morris is running in slow motion after me, both of us lumbering through buried brambles and snow. My feet are dead blocks. There's the car, less than thirty feet away. I reach a hand into my hair, twist and pull hard.

     Then something yanks me backward and the neck of the Santa suit nearly cuts off my air.

     'Stop it! Gareth, you don't have to do this. I'll deal with it. Okay? Now just go back to the car and – '

     'Leave me alone, she's my fucking sister!'

     I duck and ram my shoulder against his chest, and he loses his balance and sits down heavily in the snow. A few more jumps and I reach the Maverick.

     It looks like it's been there for hours. Nothing is moving. I wrench open the door. Metal squeaks and yawns. I'm here. I'm here, Eleanor.

     The car is empty.

     Morris is back on his feet and peering into the front seat beside me. I turn to him as if he can explain it all. Is this the wrong car? No. There's Emily's box of mix tapes in the back. There's Eleanor's purse on the dashboard.

     I thought I'd find her dead. Blood on her forehead, eyes open and staring. And thank God I didn't, but where is she?

     'Gareth, it's okay.'

     But my friend sounds scared to death and I don't blame him. How could it possibly be okay? What happened to my sister?