Oblivion 1 A Valentine
After putting your name on paper, it seems I can hardly hold my pen steady. So this won’t be neat. I’m not good with words like you are, so it won’t be eloquent, either.
Valentine’s Day is this weekend. I’m in English class, and Mr. Swanson wants us to work on composing romantic sonnets. He’s gone over the format twice, but thinking about iambic pentameter and quatrains makes me feel like I’m trying to solve a math word problem. At least, I’m pretty sure my poetry reads like one.
If you were here, I know you’d already be done with yours.
I also know it would be beautiful.
I can see your desk from where I’m sitting. I won’t find you there even if I look, but part of me is always afraid that I will.
Sometimes I wonder if that’s what you wanted. For me to be afraid of you. For everyone to be afraid, so no one would try to get close.
They tell me that I died. They say that I was dead, and I want to tell them I still am. At least that’s how I feel. Because I know where you are and what’s become of you. Because I couldn’t stop it and I couldn’t bring you back. Because Reynolds was right when he told me I couldn’t reach you.
And yet here I am, writing you what must be a Valentine.
Because even though I know I shouldn’t still love you, even though I know that is the last thing I should have room to feel for you, more than anything, I want to tell you I do.
* * *
Isobel lifted her shaking pen from the vein-blue lines of her notebook, wondering how the confession had managed to escape her.
She’d never written like that before, where the words just poured out, unstoppable.
The final line burned into her retinas, echoing a truth that she’d hoped to keep hidden away, locked inside with everything else.
She smacked a hand on the paper, crumpling it.
What was wrong with her? Why couldn’t she let go?
Why, when he had let her go?
The lunch bell rang, the noise shredding her already frayed nerves.
“Okay, folks,” Mr. Swanson said, standing from behind his desk, his wooden rolling chair sliding back to bump against the chalk tray. “I’d like to go ahead and collect these today, even if you’re not finished. I’ll hand them back tomorrow, so you’ll have the first few minutes of class to do some revising, and then I’ll grade them over the weekend.”
Everyone got up, papers flapping, and the unanimous flutter in the room reminded Isobel of a flock of birds taking wing.
Tekeli-li . . .
Afraid someone might catch sight of Varen’s name, Isobel ripped her own rumpled paper free and stuffed it into the middle of the notebook.
Glancing up, she saw that Mr. Swanson had moved to the door. Like a ticket taker, he collected papers as her classmates filed into the hall.
“Another reason I should gather these now,” he said, “is the simple fact that many a great work of literature has been lost by remaining tucked haphazardly into the pockets and knapsacks of young, carefree scribes such as yourselves. Wanderlust wayfarers, cavalier bards, wistful wordsmiths—”
“And phat rappers,” Bobby Bailey said as he handed Mr. Swanson his sonnet.
“And portly rappers, why not?” Mr. Swanson conceded with a nod, adding Bobby’s paper to the accumulating stack.
Isobel rose. She tore off the top sheet of her notebook and, gathering her things, kept her head down as she approached the door and its guardian. Handing in the blank paper, she ducked past him into the hall.
“Ah, Miss Lanley,” he called after her, his voice carrying over the rising chatter and banging of lockers.
Flinching, Isobel stopped.
“I see thou hast submitted parchment free of words, and thus error. How very avant-garde,” Mr. Swanson said, talking in that way he sometimes did, like a Shakespeare character who had somehow clawed his way out from the press of musty book pages.
The power of words . . .
“Fear not, fair leader of cheers,” he went on, “I both recognize and appreciate the temperament of the artist who feels her work is, as yet, unfit for the scrutiny of another’s eye. So how about I grant thou till the morrow to turn in yon magnum opus I saw thou scribbling on mere moments ago?”
She clutched her books tighter.
“No offense, Mr. Swanson,” Isobel heard Katlyn Binkly interject, “but I think you read too much.”
Grateful for the momentary distraction, Isobel slid alongside Bobby and his basketball friends. Hiding herself between their lumbering forms and the wall, she used them for cover while they headed for the cafeteria.
“Alas,” she heard Mr. Swanson sigh as she moved down the hall, “’tis entirely possible. But would you have me forfeit my adoration of the written word for such folly as reality TV?”
Isobel steered herself away from Bobby’s group and past a senior couple kissing behind an open locker door meant to hide their PDA from Mr. Nott, the hall-slash-lunchroom monitor. The girl had her arms thrown around the boy’s neck. In one hand, she clutched a small bouquet, bundled together with baby’s breath and wrapped in clear plastic.
Isobel halted when she caught sight of crimson buds through the glossy film.
Three red roses.
Taking notice of Isobel, the girl broke the kiss. Following his girlfriend’s gaze, the boy turned his head to see what had interrupted their embrace.
“What are you staring at?” he asked.
An infamous question, Isobel thought. One she’d been asked before.
“Taking notes?” the girl chimed in.
Isobel moved on without responding.
“Freaking head case,” she heard the boy mutter.
The whispers didn’t bother her anymore, though. Not like they used to.
Bypassing the entrance to the lunchroom, she made her way to the side door that led to the courtyard. She wanted to avoid the displays of cardboard-cutout arrow-pierced hearts, dart-shooting cupids, and dangling red-and-white streamers. That meant steering clear of the cafeteria and the gym, both of which had been festooned in decorations.
Isobel shoved open the door, and February greeted her with icy breath.
As she walked to one of the courtyard’s empty stone benches, gathering the escaping wisps of her hair and tucking them behind one ear, her fingertips brushed the cheek that bore a slanted, needle-thin scar.
Though the wound had healed, and though she took care to mask it every morning with concealer and powder, Isobel still felt the scar’s presence. It carried with it a constant, low-grade pain she could never be certain was real or imagined: a by-product of lingering nerve damage, or a sensation produced from the lasting memory of how she’d received the gash.
We are ever and always home now.
Pinfeathers’s final words bubbled up through the mire of haunting echoes in her mind. In spite of herself, she checked the oak tree limbs and scanned the school’s roof ledge, searching for any sign of ebony feathers, or the black stare that longed for . . . what? She doubted even he knew.
Isobel set her things down on the bench, unsure of what to do with herself. Wanting to avoid Gwen, she hadn’t stopped by their adjacent lockers to pick up her parka or the sack lunch she’d made that morning.
Since today was Trenton’s annual Valentine’s Day luncheon, she had told Gwen the previous afternoon that she wanted to spend the lunch break on her own. She’d done so as a favor to both of them. So Gwen could be with Mikey without feeling guilty about leaving her alone, and so that Isobel wouldn’t have to endure Gwen’s sympathetic glances and well-meaning attempts at condolence.
Even though Gwen still knew nothing about what had happened after Isobel disappeared through the open tomb door and into the dreamworld, there was one thing her friend could deduce through observation alone.
Isobel had failed to return with Varen.
As far as Gwen knew—as far as anyone knew—Isobel remembered nothing. And whether or not Gwen bought the amnesia act, Isobel didn’t think her friend had any real inkling as to what had actually occurred. She must have assumed that Varen had been determined to stay. Or worse, that Isobel had found him dead.
In a way, it felt like she had.
Whatever conclusion Gwen had drawn this time, though, she wasn’t asking questions or pushing for answers.
Maybe she had learned her lesson in that regard.
Maybe now that Gwen had her own losses to take into account—a fractured arm and a shattered sense of reality, perhaps even her own nightmares to contend with—she would simply give Isobel the slow fade. Like Isobel’s crew—Stevie, Nikki, and Alyssa—Gwen would find a way to bow out and extract herself from Isobel’s life. Or, like Brad, she might even convince her family to move to another state.
“Special delivery,” came a voice from behind her, its clipped and all-too-familiar Brooklyn accent instantly negating all of Isobel’s theories.
Turning, she found Gwen standing a few yards away, her left arm free of its cast but still supported by a navy-blue sling. In her other hand, she held up a small paper basket of food.
“Mummified cucumbers and petrified potatoes,” Gwen said. “I hear pickles and Tater Tots are good for what ails you. Of course, I hope you don’t mind that I took the liberty of implementing the friend tax by eating the crispy Tots off the top.”
“Where’s Mikey?” Isobel asked.
With a small, chagrined smirk, Gwen jerked her head over her good shoulder toward the cafeteria, where Mikey stood behind one of the wide windows, the side of his face and both palms smashed against the glass. Dressed in a black-and-white checkered hoodie and a pair of sunglasses that sat slanted across his mashed nose, he reminded Isobel of a giant swatted fly.
“Wow,” Isobel said.
“He makes up in skill what he lacks in couth, if you catch my drift,” said Gwen with a wink.
“Won’t Mr. Nott catch him doing that?”
Gwen shrugged, then set the paper basket down on the bench next to Isobel’s things. “I think he’s trying to cheer you up. You gotta cut him a break, though. He doesn’t know anything about, y’know . . . anything.”
Isobel knew Gwen meant Baltimore. And Varen. And her.
Even though Isobel didn’t quite get Mikey’s allure, she was glad he and Gwen had started dating. Or pseudo-dating or . . . whatever was up with them. Mikey’s added presence to Isobel and Gwen’s locker run-ins and lunch breaks gave Isobel an excuse not to talk about things that fell into the “anything” category Gwen had mentioned. And a reason for Gwen to continue keeping her questions to herself. Aside from that, though, and perhaps most important of all, Isobel could tell Gwen was falling for the guy.
The tipping point, she knew, had been the morning Mikey had flown up to Baltimore to get Gwen—January nineteenth, the same morning an anonymous stranger had dropped Isobel off, soaking wet and half-dead, at the city’s university hospital.
The same morning she’d flat-lined.
Edgar Allan Poe’s birthday.
A week later Isobel had come home with her family. A week after that, she’d returned to school to learn through Gwen, during their initial and only private locker visit since Isobel’s literal reintegration into reality, that Mikey had used money from a pizza delivery job to buy his plane ticket. Since Gwen had suffered a fractured arm at the hands of Reynolds while trying to help Isobel in the cemetery, the task of making the eleven-hour return drive in her Cadillac had fallen to Mikey as well. According to Gwen, however, he’d made the trek in under eight. Having ridden with him the night of the Grim Facade, Isobel didn’t find that hard to believe. At all.
In addition to filling Isobel in on the details of her return, Gwen had also recounted how Reynolds had run from the police after Isobel had shut him out of the dreamworld. The responding officers, Gwen had said, had seemed determined to detain anyone involved in the scuffle, even if that someone happened to be the Poe Toaster himself.
No one had caught him, though. He’d vanished, like he did every year, and Gwen had used the distraction of his flight to take refuge behind the headstone he’d flung her against. After that, she’d made her own escape by slipping into the crowd of onlookers.
Because of the overshadowing story that the Baltimore Ravens had lost the finals, missing out on their Super Bowl ticket, the only mention of the Poe Toaster ordeal in the press had been how a few spectators had scaled the cemetery walls. Again.
And while Gwen’s parents (who thought Gwen had headed to New York to meet up with her cousins for a concert) had bought their daughter’s carefully constructed story—one that included a mosh-pit mishap—Isobel’s parents had perceived much more of the truth.
Though they knew nothing of Isobel’s trip to the graveyard, Gwen’s involvement, or how everything tied to Poe, Isobel’s mom and dad knew enough to guess that she had gone to the city looking for Varen.
Her mother and father had interrogated her a thousand times over as a result. In each instance, Isobel had regurgitated the lie that she remembered nothing past the point of sitting down to dinner at a restaurant with her father.
No, she didn’t know whose car their Baltimore waitress had seen her climb into. No, she didn’t remember where the driver had taken her or why. No, she didn’t know who had dropped her off at the hospital. No, she wasn’t faking, and no, she wasn’t lying. No. No. No.
Thankfully, Isobel’s psychologist, Dr. Robinson, had instructed her parents to stop the barrage of questions, to carry on with day-to-day life and wait for the memories to resurface on their own.
In truth, Isobel would never forget what had happened. Ever.
Bloodred rose petals, falling ash, broken shards. Destruction and ruin—everything reversed. A beautiful monster and a monstrous beauty. Voices in the corridor. Varen. The cliff . . .
Her ribbon floating up and away, a fluttering line of pale pink blotted with her own blood.
“Pretty bad if you’re trying to cheer up a cheerleader, huh?” Gwen asked.
Isobel blinked from her reverie. “I’m not a cheerleader anymore.”
“Ehh.” Gwen waved her off. “You’re just on sabbatical. You and I both know your feet won’t stay fixed to the ground for long.”
Isobel winced but tried to hide it by glancing at Mikey, who had since started to mime walking up and down an imaginary flight of stairs, his lower body hidden by the school’s brick siding. He switched to mimicking rowing a boat just as Mr. Nott appeared behind him, his lined face fixed in a glower.
“So . . . you two are going to the Valentine’s Day dance tomorrow, right?” Isobel asked.
Shifting her weight, Gwen gave her a hooded glare. “Like you weren’t standing right there when he asked me. Hey, how about I see your obnoxious bid for a subject change and raise you one swift kick in the spankies?”
Isobel tried for a smile, but it didn’t stick.
Frowning, Gwen tucked her good hand inside her patchwork purse and withdrew a folded newspaper, holding it out to her. “Listen, I know you said you wanted to be alone or whatever, but I saw this in today’s paper and thought you should know.”
Isobel took the paper. Reading the first line of the short block of text circled in red, she felt her heart stammer a beat.
Nobit, Bruce Albert, 69, passed away Monday, February ninth, at his residence.
* * *
She looked up, dumbstruck, a sharp pit-of-the-stomach pang shattering her numbness.
“He said March,” she breathed, her voice catching as she recalled the ominous warning Bruce had given her the last time she’d been inside Nobit’s Nook, the bookshop he’d owned—the same place where she and Varen had once met to work on their Poe project.
Assuming she’d know where Varen had gone—that she was still in contact with him—Bruce had wanted Isobel to tell Varen how long he had to collect his vintage black Cougar, which he’d left parked outside the bookshop. That’s what the doctors said, Bruce had added, betraying the fact that the March deadline had little to do with the car.
Along with so much else she’d wanted to say to Varen, she’d never gotten the chance.
Isobel scanned the obituary, searching for an answer to Bruce’s death. It mentioned his military service as a Green Beret and the two local businesses he’d owned. Below that, Isobel skimmed over the names of a deceased wife and son and a surviving nephew who lived in New York. There were no other details.
Isobel shook her head, still not comprehending. “It says the funeral is tomorrow morning.”
Gwen shrugged her good shoulder. “Yeah. I, uh, didn’t know if you . . . I dunno . . . wanted to go or something.”
Go? To the funeral?
“You mean skip school,” Isobel said.
“I can take us.”
“I can’t.” Isobel held the paper out to Gwen.
How could she risk it? One more step beyond her parents’ boundaries, one more instance of sneaking off, and her mom and dad would have her shipped off to reform school for sure. Or more likely, locked away in some mental facility.
Besides that, Bruce had never been shy about letting Isobel know he blamed her for everything that had happened to Varen, including his disappearance. Especially his disappearance. She doubted he would have even wanted her there.
Still, the old man had been Varen’s best friend. Quite possibly his only true friend.
“So,” Gwen said with a sigh, “I know you’re out here to get away and process and all that. I just figured this was important. I know I’m not supposed to call your house or cell, so if there’s a possibility you might change your mind, you should let me know before last bell. Or if you want, I can just leave.”
Isobel looked down at the paper again, which Gwen had yet to take back. Tomorrow would be Friday the thirteenth. Ironic, she thought.
Then she had a new thought—one that drove the ache for Bruce’s passing straight out of her, replacing it with a sickening stab of hope-laced fear.
Would Varen be there?
Isobel tightened her hold on the paper.
In the past, Varen had been able to astral project, to appear or even be invisible in places other than wherever his body slept. The first time he’d done so had been the day of their presentation for the Poe project. Halloween. Though everyone had been able to see and hear him then, he’d vanished after leaving class.
Did Varen still hold the power to project into this world? If he did, and if he somehow knew about Bruce’s death, if he came to the funeral and saw her there—saw that after everything, she still—
“Yes,” Isobel said, before she could stop herself.
Gwen’s face fell.
“I mean, no,” Isobel corrected, “I don’t want you to leave, but yes, I change my mind. I want to go . . . to the funeral. Please.”
Gwen’s expression softened. “Meet me by the door next to the gym right after second period. The one behind the stairs. No one’s over there that early.”
Turning, Gwen began to walk away.
Through the cafeteria windows, Isobel saw Mikey using a rag to wipe away the smudge marks he’d made on the glass while Mr. Nott stood to one side, hands on hips.
“Wait,” Isobel called after her. “What about your arm? I thought you couldn’t drive.”
Gwen stopped and spun to face her again. With her good hand, she pinched the fabric of her sling at the elbow and, straightening her fractured arm, wiggled her fingers.
“Drove myself here every morning this week,” she said, winking. “Arm’s good. I’m just milking it.”
With that, Gwen nestled her elbow back into its cradle, whirled, and hurried to the cafeteria, skirt swishing.
Dropping the rag, Mikey scuttled to meet Gwen as she entered through the glass doors. They shared a kiss, and Isobel felt her insides ice over again.
She turned her back on the scene, folded her arms, and shivered against the cold.
Now that she was alone, Isobel’s momentary hope of seeing Varen began to dim and fade.
Since her return from Baltimore, she had neither dreamed of him during the nights, nor seen him—or anything from the other side—during her waking hours. Not even through the mirrors that had once acted as windows between worlds.
Perhaps, she consoled herself, it would be best to think of attending Bruce’s funeral as a way to move on. To bury not just a man, but the memories that surrounded him.
Her way of saying good-bye to Varen, instead of writing him notes he’d never read.
Her turn to let go.
She thought she could do that if she didn’t see him.
And maybe . . . maybe even if she did.