The Last of August

Page 15

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“I never really bothered to get a license, you see, and the police don’t love working with amateurs.” He grinned to himself. “The clients did, though. Rather avidly. Remind me to tell you the one about your father and the redheaded lady lion tamer.”

“Please,” I said, “please, please don’t.”

Where was Holmes? There, and not there. Silent as a crow on a power line. Her father was speaking in German to that night’s dinner guest, a sculptor from Frankfurt who didn’t speak English. There was a whole roster of them, these dinner guests, one or two every night, and as soon as the meal was over, Leander and Alistair would slip away with them to the study and shut the door. It was interminable, waiting for them to stand up and leave so that we could too.

Then that day’s spell was broken, and Holmes and I would go back to my room, and suddenly we would be able to talk again.

The first night, she stood, straightened her skirt, and cast a long look at me before she swept out of the room and down the hall. I followed her as though I were in a dream, losing her around a corner in the house’s long and winding corridors. But I knew where she’d be. There, in the guest room, at the end of my bed, she was easing the heels off her feet. She dangled one from a finger as she looked up at me, biting her lip, and it should have been ridiculous, but instead it made something in my chest burn.

“Hi,” I said, dry-mouthed.

“Hi,” she said, and picked up an encyclopedia that had been invisible on the dark floor. “What do you know of the Bhagavad Gita?”

Nothing.

I knew nothing about a seven-hundred-verse Sanskrit epic or why I was supposed to care at midnight on a Tuesday in her parents’ house when, the night before, she’d slipped into my bed like an apparition and pulled me down on top of her. She stayed up telling me its history until I fell asleep in a harmless ball.

The next night, she told me about 1001 Arabian Nights.

No Holmes in the morning; more darkness when I opened the curtains. More Faulkner in the window seat while Holmes’s cat Mouse glared up at me from my feet. I wondered if she was watching me out of its eyes. I wondered if I was in a feedback loop, an experiment, a never-ending bad dream. When I wandered down the halls, I could hear her playing her violin, and yet she wasn’t in her cluttered basement, she wasn’t in the parlor. She was nowhere. The arpeggios she played came up as if from the house’s foundation.

I wandered the house like some Victorian ghost. When I passed the hall hung with paintings, the one that led to Alistair’s study, I could clearly hear him say, He won’t call here again, could hear Leander reply, You won’t have to leave this place. I won’t let it happen. Money, always, was the subtext here, money at stake and the family home, and though I only heard bits and pieces, I couldn’t put it all together. I was surrounded by wealth. By power. Why all the whispered arguments? Is this how you kept your prizes once you’d won them?

I found myself looking up train schedules. When could I go back to London? Christmas was only a week away, and Shelby was getting an easel from our mother. I wanted to watch her open it. I could go to London, I thought. I could call Lena and see if she was with Tom, my Sherringford roommate and her boyfriend. It would be a relief to see them. We’d play poker. Get roaring drunk. He might be my only friend, anymore, I found myself thinking, the boy who spied on me for money all this fall, and then I knew I needed to break something right that second.

That was how I ended up down by the Holmeses’ man-made lake. It was four o’clock in the afternoon, so it was pitch-dark, and I didn’t trust myself to find the ocean. Did it even exist, or was it just a sound, something unreal in the distance, threatening with its weight? It didn’t matter. I didn’t need it. All I needed were the giant rocks half-buried by this pond, my fingernails to pull them up from the mud, my arms to hurl them away from me into the black water.

When Leander found me, I’d taken a hatchet from the toolshed and started looking for something else to do.

“Jamie,” he said. He was smart to say it from a distance.

“Leander,” I said. “Not now.” There was enough deadfall under the trees to do the job. I started kicking it into a pile, looking for the biggest, thickest branches, the ones that would put up a fight.

“What are you doing?”

I stole a glance at him. He’d stuffed his hands in his pockets, and his roguish smile was nowhere to be seen. “I’m expressing my anger in a healthy way,” I said to him, the air quotes visible. “So leave me the hell alone.”

He didn’t. He took a step closer. “I can get you a sawbuck from the shed.”

“No.”

“Or a coat.”

“Fuck off.”

Another step. “I could get you a bigger ax?”

At that, I stopped. “Yeah, okay.”

We worked in silence, cutting the brush off the thicker branches, weeding out the pieces with knots. There wasn’t a stand anywhere near the house, so I braced my first piece on the ground, piling up rocks to keep it upright. Then I lifted the ax above my head and brought it down, hard.

I couldn’t see my hands in front of my face, couldn’t hear anything but the blood in my head. Leander set the next piece up, and I split that, too, and the next, and the next, feeling the hot pull in my shoulders build until it broke down into incredible, brain-numbing exhaustion. I stopped to catch my breath. I had bleeding blisters on both hands. I felt, for the first time in days, like myself, and I let that feeling wash over me for a minute before it too disappeared.

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