FANDOM: The Thirteenth Floor
SUMMARY: On actual pasts and possible futures.
It’s only two o’clock, and he’s been shot twice already. Not that Ashton has been trying particularly hard to defend himself, standing in full view on the edge of the garden, with only a hoe for protection. If anything, the blast of cold water to his face, soaking his hair and momentarily blinding him, is a welcome respite from the heat of the sun. He wipes water from his eyes with his upturned undershirt, warily observing his attacker giggling behind a bush. Ashton jabs the hoe in his direction, rustling leaves, and the boy scarpers, laughing, back towards the summerhouse he has made a fort for the day. No doubt he’ll be back.
It’s the first time he’s done yardwork in six years, but he’s thankful for the job. It takes his mind away from other, more intellectually taxing, concerns. The dull repetition of turning over earth allows him to forget. He’s had enough with books. They make his head hurt, make him furious with himself for being unable to comprehend their concepts. More than anything, Baer’s unwavering faith in him has been slowly driving him crazy. If he were alone in this, if no one else cared, he would have given up long ago. He would have packed it in on that Friday last fall, and no one would have noticed. Baer notices. Ashton often wishes that he wouldn’t, that Baer simply allow him to fail. But, instead, he’s up every night demanding more of himself so that the professor won’t be disappointed.
Even now, on an idle, lazy Saturday, Baer is watching him. It had been his idea to employ the young man for a day’s labour, since Ashton is always in need of money. Ashton can feel Baer’s eyes on his back, that perpetual interest keeping him going. He quite enjoys being the object of attention, even if there will no doubt be criticism at the end of it. For the first time in years, someone actually cares that he exists. It almost feels like he’s amongst family, here: Baer sitting in a garden chair, books piled by his feet, reading papers with a frown; his wife Maria painting pictures of lopsided fruit; and Lucas the cowboy (or was it a highwayman?) mounting occasional assaults on all of them. The money doesn’t matter. However much he needs it, he’d have done this work just for the pleasure of being out in the sun. Fortunately he doesn’t burn easily, although the sweat tickles his back and stings his eyes.
He turns to find Baer walking towards him, sheaf of paper in his hand. “Ash?”
Far from being a simple short form of his surname, “Ash” is some kind of academic joke he hasn’t yet managed to comprehend. Months ago, Baer had started returning his papers marked with two scribbled foreign symbols instead of his name. When Ashton had queried them, the professor had merely laughed and changed the subject. Although Baer seems to want to be his friend, much has gone unexplained and unsaid between them.
Ashton digs the hoe into the ground, where it sticks, and looks up. “Yeah?”
“You’re working hard,” Baer says, surveying the upturned earth. “Perhaps you should take a break.”
His accent, even after years of life in the United States, remains distinctively Germanic, imperfect. Ashton suspects that he prefers it that way. His diction, certainly, is more precise and measured than any of his students’ will ever be. On their evenings discussing research projects, they have sometimes attempted to converse in German but, for different reasons, it is more comfortable for both of them to speak English. Ashton’s grasp of the spoken language is shaky, and requires him to think through each sentence before saying it out loud. Baer, on the other hand, had merely said something about the awkwardness of his native tongue before dropping the subject. Perhaps his careful wording in English is about more than effective communication.
“I’m fine,” Ashton says, dusting caked mud from his hands.
“Hmmm?” Baer, glancing at his papers, seems to have forgotten their topic of conversation. “Listen, Ash. This last paper…” He throws his arms wide in an expression that says more than words.
Ashton scratches his chin. “It’s bad?”
“It’s more than bad. It’s barely English.” Baer sighs and removes his glasses in order to rub at his temples. “You can do better than this. Much better.”
“I’m just not really good at this stuff.” He sounds like a whining child making excuses, and he knows it, but he’s not in the mood to enter into any long, involved discussion about his mental state. It was always much easier to explain away mistakes to his father, who never needed much convincing of his incompetence.
Baer chuckles. “Oh, yes. Indeed. Tell me, Ash, have you been sleeping?”
Ashton picks up his hoe again, turning away. “I’m not tired.”
“But… you work at the garage, don’t you?” Baer says, persistent. “You work for me, of course. And I’ve seen you in the library at all hours… When do you sleep?”
“Look, I’ll redo the paper,” Ashton says hastily, snatching at the essay in Baer’s hand.
Baer, however, moves more quickly, and holds the paper behind his back, like a child playing keep-away. He smiles at the younger man’s anger. “No, not this time. I have some new pages of my book I want you to proofread. I suspect that, if you do both, you’ll fall asleep during one of my lectures. And that would look very bad.”
Sometimes, he wishes that Baer would just hit him. He knows how to deal with black eyes and split lips and bruised ribs. He’s had some experience of pain. But no one has ever asked about his sleep problems, his nightmares. It used to be that he’d wake up to his father’s shouted demands as to why he was screaming in the middle of the night, as if he had planned the whole thing. Joe would, of course, have a hangover, and take everything personally. After a few nights of boxed ears and Eric crying into his pillow, Ashton had made what seemed an entirely logical decision for a thirteen-year-old boy, and stopped going to sleep. When he’s exhausted, he doesn’t dream. These days, he’s more afraid of the nightmares themselves than anything else.
Ashton takes a breath, looks Baer in the eye, and adopts a tone of resignation. There’s no way he can win this argument without being more aggressive than he would ever intend to be towards Baer. He can’t lose another friend. “What do you want me to do?”
Baer reaches out and takes the hoe from him, plunging it into the earth where it stays, firmly upright. With his other hand he gives Ashton the paper. “Don’t do this again. I want better from you. You should want better from yourself.”
“I’m trying.” He can’t let all his efforts be dismissed so easily. That was work he could have ignored, on nights he could have spent in bed. Even so, he looks through the pages, at his own scrawl in black ink annotated by Baer’s precise, if antiquated, handwriting in red. As usual, Baer’s corrections seem to be patient, logical, and all-too-extensive.
“Perhaps,” Baer says. “I think that you’re trying to fail. Would that be easier for you, Ashton?”
“What are you talking about?” Ashton mutters, reading some of the comments on his paper. Baer was right. Some of his English is abominable. He hopes it’s at least marginally better than his German.
Baer glances up at the fierce sun above, and undoes another button of his blue shirt. “You’re one of the most,” he searches for the word, “impressive young men I’ve ever met. And yet… what is this? It’s nonsense, and for no reason. Are you homesick? Do you want to leave?”
For some reason it’s not the words that affect him, although he knows they should. He hates to disappoint Baer, after everything the professor has done for him, but he doesn’t know how to change. He seems to have some unique knack for disappointing people. When he says nothing, however, Baer touches his shoulder, and he instinctively pulls away, throwing out his hands to defend himself. “No!” Ashton says. “No, I don’t want to leave.”
Baer rubs his head, more out of thought than pain. “Come with me,” he says, reaching out to take Ashton by the arm before he thinks better of it, and points instead towards the summerhouse.
Ashton falls into step alongside him, walking across the lawn as Baer waves to his wife, who is still frowning at an imperfect banana in her painting. “Tell me, Ash,” Baer says, with a little forced cheer in his voice, “have you ever tried boxing?”
“Boxing?” Maybe he will get his wish, after all. Baer’s method of dealing out punishment might be a little more cultured than his father’s, but Ashton suspects it’s inspired by the same harsh feelings, and garners similar results.
“Yes.” Baer reaches out for the door handle of the summerhouse. “Maria disapproves, of course, but I’ve found it to be… rather therapeutic.”
As he opens the door, a small boy leaps out at him, making enthusiastic gun noises and soaking the front of Baer’s shirt. “You’re dead!”
“Yes, I am.” Baer scoops Lucas up in his arms and carries him inside. “Isn’t he a good shot, Jerry? Maybe he’ll be a policeman one day.”
“A sheriff!” Lucas corrects.
“Oh, a sheriff now?”
The summerhouse is small, and wooden, and filled with what looks like all of the Baers’ old and useless belongings. Baer sets down his son, and sets about rummaging through the pile, stacked to the roof, that threatens to collapse on top of him. Lucas, bored, turns his attention to Ashton. “Do you have a real gun? Dad won’t let me play with his.”
Ashton crouches down next to him. “No, I don’t. Real guns are dangerous.”
“I guess…” Lucas sighs. “Are you staying for dinner, Jerry?”
”Oh, no, I can’t.”
“Yes, he is,” Baer interrupts his excuses, emerging from the mountain of junk and throwing a pair of gloves at Ashton’s chest. “It’s the only way I can make sure he eats something.”
Ashton examines the gloves, a dirty white, and worryingly hard, as Lucas beams at him. “I want to show you my soldiers. I’ve got American ones, and German ones and a fort and…”
“Who wins?” Ashton asks, absently, unravelling the ties of the gloves.
“Fortunately for the cause of international diplomacy, Lucas has little grasp of military tactics,” Baer pats Lucas’ head affectionately and smiles at Ashton. “His troops tend to switch sides and go for a swim in the fish pond. Go and say hello to your mother, Luke. She might have an apple for you.”
The boy shares an exasperated look with Ashton, before trudging out of the door.
“He reminds me of my brother,” Ashton says, experimentally bashing the gloves together. “He always wanted to right the wrongs of the world.”
“And where is he now? Still in Los Angeles?” Baer takes the gloves, and helps him put them on. It feels odd to him, having no fingers, no way to grasp and touch, only a way to fight.
Ashton nods. “Still in school, I hope.” He looks at the gloves, at his unwieldy new hands. “He hasn’t written.”
“You must miss your family.”
“Why? They don’t miss me.” He knows, at least, that Joe is glad he’s gone. Perhaps Eric will think about him, occasionally, when he sees an empty bed in the house, but Ashton suspects that Billy Fitz has already appropriated it. Billy would be a better big brother, a better son, and a better employee anyway. “Do you ever want to go back to Germany?”
Baer sighs, unbuttoning his shirt. “It’s a mess, Ash. It’s not my country anymore. At times I suspect that it never was.”
He sounds so uncharacteristically despondent that Ashton looks up from examining the gloves, concerned at the tone of voice. Baer should seem older, weary, depressed at the state of his world, but instead Ashton sees a young man behind the dusty glasses and greying hair – a man who is as lost as he is.
“I suppose we all wish to return to the land of our youth, when everything was bright and warm and wonderful,” Baer says, smiling a little at the very idea. “A fantastic fiction, I’m afraid.”
He throws his shirt over the pile of sports equipment, and picks up his own gloves, examining them for tears, and momentarily lost in thought. Ashton casts his eyes over Baer’s body, considering whether the bookish professor might have serious athletic merit. His chest and shoulders are bulky enough to suggest that he can go a few rounds, but overall his physique seems to lend itself more to lecturing than wrestling. Ashton should look away after that initial survey, but his eyes linger, tracing out the lines of muscle, the taut belly, and a tantalising stroke of hair curling its way down to Baer’s groin.
Ashton turns away, his heart racing. Fuck, no. Not again. Not this time. There’s a warm pulse between his legs, and he knows all too well what that signals. He can’t let it happen.
“Ash?” Baer is pulling the ties on the gloves tight with his teeth. “Come, let’s go outside.”
Obviously he’s noticed nothing. Why should he? It’s a hot day, and it should be normal for a young man to be red and flushed and breathing heavily. At least the temperature would be a more plausible explanation than the reality.
Ashton hurries outside, where there is a hint of a cool breeze on his face, and the sun is beginning to dim in its intensity. At least if he’s concentrating on keeping Baer from hitting him, his mind can’t process any more fleeting erotic fantasies. Why now, of all times? Why the one person he wants to keep as a friend? He could deal with the thoughts he had before, fixated on nameless boys in the high school locker room, and even on Billy. It was all childish stuff, associated with a life he always intended to leave behind. He was supposed to grow out of it, like he had grown out of ever hoping to please his father.
Baer touches him on the shoulder. “You’re all right?”
“Yes, sure,” Ashton mutters, only dimly aware that he’s shaking his head as he says the words.
“Just a little sparring,” Baer says. “Nothing to the face. I wouldn’t mind, but my wife gets angry when I have to explain bruises at dinner parties.” He smiles as he sets his glasses aside, on the grass by the summerhouse. His eyes, a cornflower blue, seem keener in the absence of lenses.
Fighting was never supposed to be fun. There’s a tension in his chest when Baer throws the first punch, a familiar tightening of muscles and pumping of adrenaline, normally associated with the entrance of his father. But there’s no malice to Baer’s attempts at aggression. This is sport, not a struggle designed to result in real pain. Besides, Ashton is taller and younger and quicker. Baer doesn’t have the sheer brute force that has allowed Ashton’s father to beat him for years. No doubt the professor would be horrified at such an idea.
Having combated the fear of being hit, Ashton turns his concern towards how Baer expects him to fight in these cumbersome gloves. It would be much easier to simply risk torn knuckles and fight with bare hands. He supposes that the gloves at least help to block the other man’s offence, although in the absence of a proper boxing ring, dodging and keeping out of Baer’s range does just as well.
There’s sweat in his eyes after a few minutes, and there’s no way to wipe them. Ashton blinks, and Baer hits him on the shoulder. “Pay attention,” Baer calls, still smiling. It occurs to Ashton that Baer may never have had a real fight in his life. This is all just a game to him. Ordinarily, no real brawl would last so long, or be so amicable.
He twists out of the way of Baer’s fists, or thinks he does. Presumably he misjudges the dodge, as Baer’s hand clips his arm, knocking him off-balance. The surprise of it, rather than any real hurt, make him lash out as he stumbles. He’s not sure what he hits but, as he regains his footing and turns around, he finds Baer crouched down, tearing his gloves off, with blood flowing from his nose.
“Fuck,” Ashton says, too loudly. “I’m sorry. Are you…?”
Baer waves his concern away, as he tentatively pinches his nose. “It’s not broken.” He glances upwards, and Ashton wonders if there’s a shade of fear in the look – a dread of real violence. But Baer pulls a handkerchief from his pocket and mops away the blood as matter-of-factly as if he had never been hurt at all. “Don’t look so shocked, Ash,” he says, getting to his feet once more. “It’s Maria you’ll have to answer to, not me.”
Ashton is still stunned when Baer pockets the handkerchief, and grabs his hands, untying the gloves. His smile is surprising, and a little infectious. “You have quite a left hand here,” Baer says. “Although I suspect you need a little more practice.”
He doesn’t say anything. There’s nothing he can say except apologise, and apologies seem redundant in a sport where the very aim was to hit his opponent. Even so, he would prefer that Baer was genuinely angry with him. The last thing he needs from this man is friendship and understanding, and a light touch of fingers on his. He needs to immunise himself against feeling.
Perhaps Baer takes his silence as an indication of shame. “Ash, it’s fine. I think we had done enough for today, anyway.” Baer takes the gloves from him, and throws them all back into the summerhouse, picking up his glasses and rubbing them clean with the pad of his thumb. “Come. Maria will expect us to be a little cleaner for dinner.”
The prospect of spending even more time with Baer today, with the threat of those insidious thoughts returning to his mind, seems like more than he can take. “Um, no, I can’t,” Ashton says, his word stilted as he forces himself to speak. “I have to work.”
Baer doesn’t believe him for a second. “Ash, this was nothing. Why are you scared?”
“I’m not.” He sounds like an obstinate child again, denying bloody knees or tears on his face. “What do you mean?”
“Mm,” Baer says, looking away, towards the house. “Perhaps my English is failing me. Nevertheless, you should go and wash up. You know where to go.”
Ashton finds himself in a washroom in the midst of the Baers’ labyrinthine house. In the distance, he can hear Lucas having an animated discussion with a toy horse, but the nearby rooms are dark and empty of people. He needs a few moments to be alone, in order to find a suitably calm demeanour for dinner. Ashton pulls off his sweat-soaked undershirt, and wipes his forehead with it, standing over the sink. Why can’t he behave like a human being for one stupid weekend? Baer and his wife and children are the closest thing he’s had to a family in more than ten years, and he has to ruin it by acting like an animal. Maybe his father was right all along. He is a demon of a boy.
He looks normal enough in the mirror, normal for a mechanic anyway. Maybe one day he’ll have better clothes, and a neater haircut, and he’ll hobnob with the greatest intellectuals in the world. For now he can’t even be friends with one brilliant man without having inappropriate thoughts, and punching him in the face. Maybe it would be best to sneak away, to avoid Baer and the university for a few days, while he gets his mind and reflexes under control.
The words are a whisper behind him, uttered in shock. Ashton blinks away water from his eyes, seeing Baer in the mirror. The reaction isn’t such a surprise. Ashton grabs a towel to dry his face. He’s not in the mood to volunteer information. Baer, however, won’t be dismissed by silence.
“Who did this to you?” he asks, moving into the room, his eyes on Ashton’s back.
“Do you have an old shirt I can wear?” Perhaps he’s too used to the scars striking people dumb. He has no answers, even well-prepared lies, to even the simplest questions. Ashton turns around, hoping that the absence of the sight of the wounds will lead to a more neutral topic of conversation.
Baer only stares at him, as if wrestling with an inner dilemma, before nodding. “Yes, yes, of course.” It takes another moment before he breaks eye contact and leads the way.
Ashton quickly follows, combing his damp hair with his fingers, aware that it would be inadvisable to run into Baer’s wife without a shirt covering him. Baer, however, seems lost in thought, taking the stairs two at a time, and not looking back to check that Ashton is tagging along behind him. Maybe he’s disgusted at the younger man. Maybe he knows. He understands what evil lies beneath the surface.
In his bedroom, Baer finds a clean white shirt swiftly enough, and hands it out at arm’s length, touching his other hand to his face. His nose must be bothering him. Ashton takes the shirt. It seems like it might fit.
“I’ll give you those pages after dinner,” Baer says, harking back to an earlier conversation that Ashton had almost forgotten. “I need your opinion by next weekend.”
Ashton nods, slipping into the shirt. It’s a mystery to him why Baer needs his thoughts when his own papers are apparently such a travesty to the English language, but he’ll do it. Any insight into Baer’s mind is well worth the effort.
“Do they hurt?” Baer asks abruptly.
It would be easier to say nothing, to avoid the subject completely and pretend that the scars were a fiction. Ashton shakes his head. “No.”
“But you’re very…” Ashton can’t tell whether the English word has slipped Baer’s mind, or if he never had it to begin with. Baer looks around, finds a chair by his hand, and pulls it out. “Sit down, Ash.”
“Why?” Baer doesn’t scare him. He could break Baer in half if the professor tried anything, if he harmed one hair on his head. But he is scared of what Baer might think of him. He’s terrified of how his own body might betray him.
“Only for a moment.”
He sits down. There’s nothing else to do; nothing that wouldn’t seem strange or rude or an overreaction. He’s buttoning up the shirt as he sits, until Baer removes his hands, and pulls the shirt down from his shoulders. “What are you doing?” Ashton asks, startled, as Baer’s thumbs apply pressure to the back of his neck.
“Relax,” Baer says, although his tone is serious. “I don’t want you to be stiff in the morning.”
It might feel good, if Ashton could get past the fear and the awkwardness and the worry at what thoughts might be going through Baer’s mind. But, seated like this, he can’t see what Baer is thinking. After a while, it seems useless to resist.
“Is this why you don’t sleep?” Fortunately for Ashton, Baer doesn’t wait for a response. “I understand that some things are difficult to say. I won’t ask you. But I need you… I need you to be honest with me, Ash. I need you to tell me when you have problems. I don’t want to lose you as an assistant, or as a friend.”
Ashton takes a long, sighing breath. The relief is overwhelming. Baer doesn’t hate him, isn’t afraid of him. He has a friend. He has a friend.
After a moment, Baer lets go, and pulls the shirt back up. His hands, however, hesitate to leave Ashton’s shoulders. “I want you to know that I will never hurt you,” he says softly. “I want you to know that I will never let anyone hurt you. What was done to you was wrong… heinous. I will never do that to you.”
“Matt?” There are footsteps creaking up the last few stairs, and then Baer’s wife, Maria, appears in the doorway. She has no visible reaction to the sight of Ashton’s open shirt, or Baer’s hands on him. “I need you to speak with Lucas.”
Ashton wonders if she is using English for his benefit. He must look embarrassed, pulling the shirt tight over his chest with his hand, because she smiles at him kindly. “It’s nice to have you with us, Jerry.”
“It’s nice to be here,” Ashton says, but she has already gone, the sound of her tread lost in the carpeting along the hall.
Baer laughs. “I suppose my son is being… irascible again. Much like I was at his age.” He releases Ashton’s shoulders, and walks towards the door. “Take as much time as you need. We’ll wait for you.”
When he has gone, Ashton goes to stand by the mirror again, buttoning up the shirt, and neatly tucking it into his trousers. He’s by no means clean, and by no means a gentleman, but he no longer feels like a yard worker or a mechanic. He smoothes down unruly curls, and focuses on the mirror, staring himself in the eyes.
“Jerry?” A stage whisper, behind him. Ashton turns, finding a small boy standing there, water pistol hanging by his side, shifting his weight nervously from foot to foot. “My Dad’s mad at me,” Lucas says, manfully sniffling.
“No, he’s not.” Ashton smiles, and crouches down next to Lucas. “Did you catch any Indians?”
Lucas beams. “Yeah, a big one! With feathers!”
“A big one? As big as me? You must’ve been very brave.” Ashton pauses. “You know what? I hit your Dad in the nose today.”
The little boy’s jaw hangs open. “Really?”
Ashton nods solemnly. “Really.”
“Aren’t you scared?” Lucas asks. His hand reaches out to take Ashton’s. “Don’t be scared.” He leans closer, and his voice changes to a conspiratorial whisper. “He’s not that bad once you get to know him.”
“Okay,” Ashton says with a grin. He stands up, and lifts Lucas onto his shoulders. “We’ll go together.”
“Where in God’s name are we?”
Whitney stamps his feet on the ground, trampling down dry twigs and leaves. “Well, we’re, uh, here.” He lifts a hand to swat away a buzzing fly at his ear, as Tom pulls a string of tissues from his pocket in order to mop at his nose. Nerds and geeks, Whitney reflects, were obviously never meant to survive in the great outdoors. Tom has been blinded by allergies since they set out, and his fashion sense has made no concessions to the trip. Despite the July sun, Tom Docherty is still dressed for a funeral.
Whitney supposes it was good of him to come along anyway. He could easily have protested at the thought of a fortnight hiking through New England. He could have balked at the idea of sleeping in tents, far from his beloved computer. Maybe Tom was just too used to following his sister’s lead. When Charlotte had turned up in their room one evening, wielding maps and guidebooks and vouchers for the local camping store, Tom had only muttered something about bug spray and promptly fallen asleep. He hadn’t minded leaving all the decisions to Charlotte and Whitney, which, in practise, had meant leaving all the decisions to Charlotte. Whitney had, predictably, been caught up in her enthusiasm as she was so often caught up in his.
He levers the pack from his aching back, and dumps it on the ground between them. There are trees all around, and they might as well be in the middle of nowhere. Whitney had never seen the point of orienteering in Los Angeles, and a compass remains a mystery to him. “I’m sure Charlotte knows where we are.”
“Nah, she doesn’t care.” Tom pats his pockets, and makes a face. “I think my chocolate melted.”
“Don’t tell the bugs.”
“Man, I do not want to know.”
Whitney flips hair from his face, and fishes out his water bottle from his pack. They’ve been walking for almost two hours across country, setting out from a lunch of tuna sandwiches and fried eggs at a truck stop. He never thought his body could hurt so much, and yet still be able to stand up. The last few days have given him blisters on his feet, insect bites, scratches from tree branches, and a back that feels constantly as if he’s in for a lifetime of chiropractic therapy. He’ll never volunteer to carry a tent on his back again, even if he is the tallest of the three.
This is no official rest stop, by Charlotte’s schedule, but then Charlotte had disappeared into the forest, armed with fearless determination, leaving the boys to attempt to follow. In minutes they had lost all sense of direction, and elected to stay put until she rescued them. Whitney sits down on his pack, and wonders about taking off his sneakers to let his feet air. The stink might knock out all of Tom’s bugs, thus solving two problems in one. He really should have bought proper hiking boots, but at the time he hadn’t thought that simple walking required specialised shoes. He’ll know better next time.
“You had any ideas for the Fuente project, then?” Whitney asks, untying his shoelaces.
Tom shrugs. “Oh, you know. The usual. Not much I can do out here. You?”
“I’m waiting for a letter back from my high school teacher, Mrs. Bradley. I wanted to get permission from Fullercorp to use some of their code.”
“No way, Whit!” Tom almost chokes. “They’ll never let you work on it. Old man Fuller’ll probably throw you in jail for even asking.” He looks around furtively, as if Hannon Fuller might jump out at him from the bushes. “Rumour has it they do work for the CIA.”
Whitney pokes a finger at the sole of his foot, and winces. His blisters now seem to have blisters. “Yeah, right. You think I can get trench foot without being in a trench?”
“What are you two doing?” Charlotte demands, appearing as if from nowhere. She’s the only one who cared enough to prepare and to plan. She’s also, Whitney reflects, the only one with any common sense.
Tom shrugs. “We were lost.”
“You can’t be lost,” Charlotte objects, pulling the pack out from underneath Whitney, toppling him over. “This is the great wilderness, Tom. We’re supposed to be exploring.”
Whitney gets to his feet, dusting dirt from his jeans. “Find anything?”
“Yes, in fact. Look over here.” She grabs his hand in her eagerness, and pulls him through a marginal gap between two trees. The twigs scratch at his arms, and rocks on the ground nag his bare feet, but once through the trees he finds himself in the open, standing above a wide, calm lake that extends into the distance.
“Wow.” Whitney walks over to the edge of the outcropping, and looks down at a twenty-foot drop into clear blue water. “I would’ve walked right past this.”
Charlotte nods. “This is why I’m the one with the map,” she says, as Tom appears, dragging Whitney’s pack behind him.
“Oooh, water,” Tom mutters, distinctly unimpressed.
“Hey, Whitney,” Charlotte says, touching his shoulder. “Feel like a swim?”
The lake does look tempting and cool, like a mirage in the forest. Whitney is about to nod, when he realises what Charlotte is really asking. She’s unlacing her boots while he takes another look over the edge in the hope that the lake has risen a few feet. “Um… Charlotte?”
He finds himself staring at a well-toned abdomen and white sports bra as she pulls her tank top over her head and hands it to him with a wink. “See you at the bottom,” she says, and dives off the ledge.
Whitney watches in alarm as her body breaks the surface with a slight splash of white foam. Tom, however, seems totally unconcerned. “She just can’t be bothered walking,” he says. “There’s a path over there, though.”
“Um, Tom?” Whitney says, taking a step back from the edge. “You can carry my pack, right?”
“Sure, but…” Tom rolls his eyes. “Oh for Christ’s sake. I’m surrounded by crazy people.”
Whitney hands him Charlotte’s tank top and grins. “Thanks, man.”
His diving has never been so elegant as Charlotte’s, and he fears that attempting it will result in a broken head. So, he drops feet first and hopes that the water is deep enough not to kill him. At least, if he survives the fall, he probably won’t drown. His swimming, after years of surfing the Californian coast, is strong enough to deal with more than the still waters of a lake.
The plunge is sudden, and refreshingly cold, as he opens his eyes underwater and finds Charlotte smiling at him. His soaked jeans weigh him down a little, but he surfaces quickly, finding the urge to laugh more urgent than the need to breathe. “That was great!” he yells, as Charlotte comes up next to him. They are only a short distance away from the shore, but his feet don’t touch the rocky bottom. “You think Tom’ll make it down here?”
“Sure. He’ll grumble a lot, but, you know…” Charlotte finds his hand underwater. “Can I tell you a secret?”
Whitney smiles. “Course.”
“I wanted to get you alone, for once.”
“Why?” he asks, although he hopes he knows.
He’s been kissed before, once, by a mysterious boy on a summer afternoon. This kiss seems a little more real, perhaps because this is Charlotte, and he’s wanted her lips on his ever since they met. Perhaps it’s the water rushing into his ears as he gives up on trying to tread water, and puts his arms around her instead. He’s not even as nervous as he thought he would be. He has no worries about doing it “properly”. Maybe no one is ever a good kisser underwater; maybe the fear of drowning is a bigger and more realistic concern.
When they have to come up for air, Whitney glances at the shoreline and finds no sign of Tom yet. “Come on,” he says, and swims a few strokes to shallower water, where he can stand up and the water only reaches his waist. He kisses her then, smoothing out her dark hair with his fingers, tasting more than water. It feels good to have her hanging onto him for balance, her body a reassuring warmth against his. For the first time in his life he feels confident about romance.
“Charlotte,” he says, and it’s not the beginning of a question. He just has to say her name, to see if she’s still the same person, if she’s still his friend and not some otherworldly being.
She touches his cheek, rough with stubble, and grins. “Hey Whitney.”
He sits on the shore, afterwards, wringing the water from his t-shirt as his hair drips water down his back. The contents of his pockets lie in a neat pile at his side: keys and coins, and some now unidentifiable soggy paper. His wallet, with its photographs and dollar bills, is thankfully in the pack he left with Tom. He wonders if his clothes will dry out before his shoulders burn. So much for his father’s lousy English genes.
Tom shows up, eventually, licking melted chocolate from a wrapper and sweating like a pig. “I was attacked by a wasp,” he explains, dumping the pack, and throwing Whitney’s shoes at him. “Godforsaken country.”
“You’d prefer to be locked in a computer lab all summer?” Charlotte asks, taking her tank top from him.
“Hell yes. I need my caffeine. Not all this… nature.” Tom shudders, and sits down, rummaging in the pack. “Where’s that map? I want to know how much more of this I have to suffer through.”
Whitney laughs. “Good thing we’re not walking to Texas.”
“What’re you suddenly so enthusiastic about?” Tom demands, wielding the guidebook. “Hit your head on the way down? Must be it, or you wouldn’t be so happy about kissing my sister.”
The laughter catches in Whitney’s throat, and he twists around to look at Tom. “Hey, man. I didn’t mean…”
“Oh, for Christ’s sake. It’s not as if he cares,” Charlotte says.
“Of course I care! It means I’m lost in the woods with two total nut jobs.”
“You’re just jealous.”
Tom glares at her. “I am not jealous. I told you he’s not my type.”
Charlotte mimics his expression, and climbs onto Whitney’s lap, affectionately stroking his hair. “But Tom,” she says in an exaggerated tone of wonder. “He’s so darn cute.”
“Ewww!” Tom looks at them both in disgust. “I’m going to take a piss. If I don’t come back, the bears got me.”
He stomps off, rolling his eyes in disbelief. Whitney wonders if he should join him. He certainly doesn’t want to end up in the middle of a dispute between his two best friends. Charlotte, however, smiles at his discomfort. “Sorry. We’ve been trying to freak each other out since the womb.”
“You… you kissed me to freak him out?”
“No,” she says. “That was real. Looks like I freaked you out, though.” Charlotte studies him with a thoughtful smile on her face. “Sorry, but I thought this was a better place than the computer lab, and it’s been really hard getting you on your own.”
Whitney grins. “Yeah, I guess I’ve been a bit… preoccupied lately. This project for Dr. Fuente is taking up a lot of time.”
“You’re always preoccupied, Whit.” She kisses him and scrambles to her feet, looking around for Tom. “Where is that boy? We’ve got a long way to go before dark.”
It’s impossible to do any studying by firelight, even though he has pages of handwritten notes crumpled in one of the side pockets of his pack. At least erecting the tent engaged his mind for a few minutes. He might not be any kind of great outdoorsman, but he’s always been able to follow an instruction manual. Tom, fortunately, had found a tree stump to sit on while brewing coffee and blowing his nose, and kept out of his way. Whitney lies back on his sleeping bag, hands behind his head, and counts stars.
Charlotte likes him. Charlotte kissed him. Charlotte may very well want to kiss him again in the near future. Holy shit. What is he doing? He’s spent the last nine months telling himself that however beautiful and smart and wonderful she is, she’s not for him, and he has to concentrate on the work. She’s Charlotte, for Christ’s sake. She’s his friend, she’s Tom’s sister, she’s… Fuck. He really is no good with romance. It’s all so complicated.
“Are you sure we’re not going to start a forest fire?” Tom asks, waving smoke away from his face. His coffee is a thick brown sludge, but at least it might be hot.
“I’m sure, but I don’t know about the bears,” Charlotte says, squinting at the guidebook. “Hey Whitney, how’re your feet?”
“Um, they’re okay.”
Tom rolls his eyes. “Why don’t you just give loverboy a massage?”
Charlotte punches him on the arm, spilling coffee into the fire. “Hey!”
“Look, guys, please.” Whitney sits up, putting up his hands in an effort to calm them down. “It’s all cool.”
“Yeah, yeah. Whatever. But I definitely don’t want to hear you two doing the dirty tonight,” Tom says, pouring what remains of his coffee into a mug. “That’s more than I can handle.”
After that, all goes quiet for half an hour, the silence broken only by Tom’s sniffling, and the pages of Charlotte’s guidebook being turned. Whitney massages his own feet, and applies a judicious amount of disinfectant and number of band-aids. It seems that the only advantage of size thirteen feet is to the makers of first aid equipment.
A hand touches his shoulder. Charlotte. “Can I talk to you for a moment?” she asks in a whisper, cocking her head towards the trees at the edge of the clearing.
“Sure.” Whitney pulls on his sneakers, and limps with her out of Tom’s range of hearing. Tom, for his part, merely glances at them and returns to blasting the air with bug spray.
She looks almost ethereal in the darkness, backlit by the flames. Her eyes are intense against pale skin and black hair. “Whit…”
He kisses her before he can think of doing anything else, leans down and pulls her close to his body, his hands on her back. The last time, in England, he had regretted not having the guts or the presence of mind to get to a second kiss. Even if he’s a novice at relationships, he’s too damn experienced with regrets. “What do we do?” he asks, a tentative whisper at her ear.
Charlotte breaks the kiss, and hugs him. “What’re you doing a week on Friday?”
“How about a date? Dinner. A movie. Don’t bring Tom.”
It sounds like the best thing he’s ever heard.
Whitney wakes up with a stiff neck, and a rock in his back. He rolls over and checks his wristwatch. Just after seven. It’s light, but there’s no sign of activity in their little camp. The fire burned out long ago. Tom, miraculously, has apparently survived the night without being mauled by bears, and is snoring loudly in his sleeping bag, his glasses folded on the ground beside him. Charlotte’s bag, however, is rolled up and ready for travel.
Whit wriggles out of his sleeping bag, looking around for any sign of her, and wondering if there’s much chance of breakfast. He rubs his chin thoughtfully – after two weeks of hiking, he’ll probably end up with a full beard and look as if he’s about thirty-five. He could really do with a shower, as well. Maybe he and Tom can persuade Charlotte to forego communing with nature for one night, and take refuge in a youth hostel.
A flash of colour draws his attention into the trees on the far side of the clearing. Whitney rubs the sleep from his eyes, slips his sneakers onto his feet, and pads over to investigate in his boxer shorts. He knows he has a change of clothes somewhere, but he suspects that they may be covered in baked beans or deodorant. “Charlotte?”
She’s crouching down by a thin stream, wearing a clean red t-shirt, and brushing her teeth. She hails him with her free hand.
“You had any breakfast?” Whitney asks.
“No,” she says, spitting out toothpaste. “I’m not big on beans for breakfast.”
He nods. “Yeah, that’s what I figured. Sleep well?”
“Pretty much.” Charlotte sighs and straightens up. “Whitney… was this a mistake?”
So this is where she apologises for ever laying a hand on him, where she admits she was lonely or drunk or pre-menstrual or whatever hell reason she can think of as an excuse never to go on that date she had suggested. “A mistake?”
She casts her arms wide. “This whole trip. We should just have stayed on campus and worked on the Fuente thing, and maybe I’d have got the nerve to ask you out sooner or later. Tom would be happier.”
“Tom?” Whitney can’t help smiling. “He’s never been happier in his life, believe me. He’s got so much to bitch and whine about out here, he’s in heaven. And as for the Fuente thing, I think I got some ideas.”
Charlotte frowns. “Really? Even without a computer? Do you think Fuller’s going to give you his code?”
“Nah. But I thought I’d rattle a few cages.” Whitney grins. “Let’s go for a walk. Tom never gets up before noon anyway.”
She’s the first girl he’s ever held by the hand, but it feels good, wandering in a wide circle around the clearing. He rubs his thumb over the back of her hand. “Charlotte, why were you worried about asking me on a date? I thought I was supposed to be the shy one.”
“Are you kidding me?” Charlotte looks at him in surprise. “You’re my brother’s best friend. You’re the smartest guy I’ve ever met. You’re tall and blond and gorgeous and…”
“Okay, okay,” Whitney says hurriedly. “Don’t say any more or I’ll think you’re trying to win a bet with Tom. Look, Charlotte, can I tell you something?”
She shrugs. “Sure.”
“Um, I…” This is difficult to say, and he has little idea why he really needs to tell her, but he knows he does. “You’re the second person I’ve kissed. The first was, uh, a boy… A man.”
Charlotte looks at him expectantly. “So… you’re gay?”
Whitney hesitates. “Um, no. I don’t think so. I mean… I really, really want to go out with you, Charlotte. I just thought I should, you know, tell you.” He’s probably not making any sense, but at least she hasn’t slapped him or burst into tears.
Her expression, instead, is thoughtful. “Did you have sex?”
“Oh, no.” Whitney frowns. “I mean, I haven’t. Ever.”
“I have,” she says. “With men. Four or five of them.”
Well, this frankness is a new thing. “Um, four or five?”
“Look, Whitney, I had an irresponsible senior year of high school. You kissed a guy. Think we’re even?”
Whitney considers this, and adopts a diplomatic tone. “Sure. No problem.”
Charlotte grins, and puts her arm around his waist as they walk. “Time for a new beginning, huh? So what’s your thought on the project?”
The wind is picking up in the trees as they return to the camp, finding Tom still asleep. “I’ve been reading a lot on virtual reality and artificial intelligence – stuff to do with sensory perception.”
“That sounds more like neurology.”
“Yeah, it is.” Whitney picks up yesterday’s jeans, which by now look as if they could stand up on their own, and puts them on. “I’m thinking of trying to mimic the brain’s analysis of visual input, to see things that aren’t really there. There’s some primitive research on it, but I think they’re not reaching far enough. In theory you should be able to fool the brain into perceiving a whole world. I mean, we could all be brains in jars anyway, so why not just change the jar?” He sees Charlotte smiling at him, and grins shyly. “But it’s just an idea.”
“It’s a good idea,” she says. “And if you need any help, Tom and I are happy to be your minions. Just ask.”
Whitney sits down on his sleeping bag, looking over at where Tom is still snoring. “Right.”
“I mean it. You’re going to create a whole world one day, Jason Whitney, and I’d really like to be there when it happens.” Charlotte drops down to sit next to him. “You ever think, Whit, that we only get this time once? There’s only one opportunity. That’s why I kissed you, and I think that’s why you kissed me back. We’ll never be here, in this summer, again”
It’s all so simple when she says the words. It’s a relief to have someone believe in him, particularly when her arm is around his back and her mouth covers his. He looks at her with a sense of boyish wonder, and smiles. “Never?”
Wee Damn Table