St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves (5 page)

BOOK: St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves
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I wake up from one of those naps that leach the strength from your bones to a lightning storm. I must have fallen asleep in the crab sled. Otherworldly light goes roiling through an eerie blue froth of clouds.

Wallow is standing at the prow of the sled. Each flash of lightning limns his bared teeth, the hollows of his eyes. It’s as if somebody up there were taking an X-ray of grief, again and again.

“I just want to tell her that I’m sorry,” Wallow says softly. He doesn’t know that I’m awake. He’s talking to himself, or maybe to the ocean. There’s not a trace of fear in his voice. And it’s clear then that Wallow is a better brother than I could ever hope to be.

We have rowed almost all the way around the island. In a quarter of an hour, we’ll be back at Gannon’s Boat Graveyard. Thank merciful Christ. Our parents are coming back tomorrow, and I can go back to playing video games and feeling dry and blameless.

Then the lighthouse beacon sweeps out again. It bounces off an outcropping of rocks that we didn’t notice on our first expedition. White sequins of light pop along the water.

“Did you see that? That’s it!” Wallow says excitedly. “That’s gotta be it!”

“Oh. Excellent.”

We paddle the rest of the way out in silence. I row the crab sled like a condemned man. The current keeps pushing us back, but we make a quiet kind of progress. I keep praying that the crags will turn out to be low, heaped clouds, or else a seamless mass of stone. Instead, you can tell that they are pocked with dozens of holes. For a second, I’m relieved—nobody, not even string-beany Olivia, could swim into such narrow openings. Wallow’s eyes dart around wildly.

“There has to be an entrance,” he mutters. “Look!”

Sure enough, there is a muted glow coming from the far end of a salt-eaten overhang, like light from under a door.

“No way can I fit through there,” I gasp, knowing immediately that I can. And that the crab sled can’t, of course. Which means I’ll be going in to meet her alone.

What if the light, I am thinking, is Olivia?

“It’s just worms, bro,” Wallow says, as if reading my mind. But there’s this inscrutable sadness on his face. His muddy eyes swallow up the light and give nothing back.

I look over my shoulder. We’re less than half a mile out from shore, could skip a stone to the mangrove islets; and yet the land draws back like a fat swimmer’s chimera, impossibly far away.

“Ready?” He grabs at the scruff of my neck and pushes me towards the water. “Set?”

“No!” Staring at the unlit spaces in the crags, I am choked with horror. I fumble the goggles off my face. “Do your own detective work!” I dangle the goggles over the edge of the sled. “I quit.”

Wallow lunges forward and pins me against the side of the boat. He tries to spatula me overboard with his one good arm, but I limbo under his cast.

“Don’t do it, Timothy,” he cautions, but it is too late.

“This is what I think of your diabolical goggles!” I howl. I hoist the goggles over my head and, with all the force in my puny arms, hurl them to the floor of the crab sled.

This proves to be pretty anticlimactic. Naturally, the goggles remain intact. There’s not even a hairline fracture. Stupid scratchproof lenses.

The worst part is that Wallow just watches me impassively, his cast held aloft in the air, as if he were patiently waiting to ask the universe a question. He nudges the goggles towards me with his foot.

“You finished?”

“Wally!” I blubber, a last-ditch plea. “This is crazy. What if something happens to me in there and you can’t come in after me? Let’s go back.”

“What?” Wallow barks, disgusted. “And leave Olivia here for dead? Is that what you want?”

“Bingo!” That is exactly what I want. Maybe Granana is slightly off target when it comes to the Food Pyramid, but she has the right idea about death. I want my parents to stop sailing around taking pictures of Sudanese leper colonies. I want Wallow to row back to shore and sleep through the night. I want everybody in the goddamn family to leave Olivia here for dead.

But there’s my brother. Struggling with his own repugnance, like an entomologist who has just discovered a loathsome new species of beetle.

“What did you say?”

“I said I’ll go,” I mumble, not meeting his eyes. I position myself on the edge of the boat. “I’ll go.”

So that’s what it comes down to, then. I’d rather drown in Olivia’s ghost than have him look at me that way.

         

To enter the grotto, you have to slide in on your back, like a letter through a mail slot. Something scrapes my coccyx bone on the way in. There’s a polar chill in the water tonight. No outside light can wiggle its way inside.

But, sure enough, phosphorescent dots spangle the domed roof of the grotto. It’s like a radiant checkerboard of shit. You can’t impose any mental pictures on it—it’s too uniform. It defies the mind’s desire to constellate randomness. The Glowworm Grotto is nothing like the night sky. The stars here are all equally bright and evenly spaced, like a better-ordered cosmos.

“Olivia?”

The grotto smells like salt and blood and bat shit. Shadows web the walls. I try and fail to touch the bottom.

“Oliviaaa?”

Her name echoes around the cave. After a while, there is only rippled water again, and the gonged absence of sound. Ten more minutes, I think. I could splash around here for ten more minutes and be done with this. I could take off the goggles, even. I could leave without ever looking below the surface of the water, and Wallow would never know.

“Oli—”

I take a deep breath, and dive.

Below me, tiny fish are rising out of golden cylinders of coral. It looks like an undersea calliope, piping a song that you can see instead of hear. One of the fish swims right up and taps against my scratchproof lenses. It’s just a regular blue fish, solid and alive. It taps and taps, oblivious of the thick glass. My eyes cross, trying to keep it in focus.

The fish swims off to the beat of some subaqueous music. Everything down here is dancing—the worms’ green light and the undulant walls and the leopard-spotted polyps. Everything. And following this fish is like trying to work backwards from the dance to the song. I can’t hear it, though; I can’t remember a single note of it. It fills me with a hitching sort of sadness.

I trail the fish at an embarrassed distance, feeling warm-blooded and ridiculous in my rubbery flippers, marooned in this clumsy body. Like I’m an impostor, an imperfect monster.

I look for my sister, but it’s hopeless. The goggles are all fogged up. Every fish burns lantern-bright, and I can’t tell the living from the dead. It’s all just blurry light, light smeared like some celestial fingerprint all over the rocks and the reef and the sunken garbage. Olivia could be everywhere.

Z.Z.’s Sleep-Away Camp for Disordered Dreamers

Emma and I are curled together in the basket of the Thomas Edison Insomnia Balloon, our breath coming in soft quick bursts. I am stroking Emma’s cheek. I am spooning amber gobs of soporific dough into Emma’s open mouth, cadged from Zorba’s medicinal larder in anticipation of just such an occasion. (Sort of a cheat, I know, but it’s my first time doing this.) I am trying, desperately, to disguise the fact that this is the closest I’ve ever been to a girl’s face.

I was expecting some ineffable girl smell, dewy and secret, an
eau.
But Emma smells like dinner. Barbecue sauce, the buttery whiff of potato foil. Because it’s Emma, it’s still sort of hot.

“Just put your head here,” I say, in a tone that implies I’ve nuzzled dozens of sleep-disordered ladies. I try to ease Emma’s curly head into the crook of my arm and end up elbowing her in the nose.

“Are you ready?”

“Ready.”

What can you do but take a girl at her word? But I hope she really is ready. Being unconscious with somebody, that’s a big deal.

I take a deep breath, pull on the rip cord, and plunge the clearing into darkness.

The Insomnia Balloon is in a clearing at the shallow end of the woods. You may have been there; it was public island property until Zorba started the camp a few years back.

The Insomnia Balloon isn’t an airship of the literal, sky-flying variety. Zorba says it’s for mental flights. The “balloon” part is actually an enormous lightbulb, suspended over a wicker basket by copper wires. It’s okay to be awake here, even after Lights Out. Sometimes, Zorba tells us, as a precursor to sleep, you need to let your thoughts dry out beneath the electric light. Eventually dream helium begins to fill your lungs. When you’re ready to soar inward, you pull the rip cord and turn the giant lightbulb off.

“How many sleep-disordered campers does it take to change a lightbulb?” Zorba likes to joke, and the punch line is, all of us. Every six months a three-hundred-pound replacement bulb arrives from Norway. The Insomnia Balloon buzzes around the clock, its filaments glowing in a giant glass vacuum bulb. It turns the surrounding forest into an undulant sea of pines. They seem to grow larger when we turn the balloon off, their blue shadows billowing out beneath the low stars. A froth of gully grass pokes through the holes in the wire basket. Emma’s blue eye is half open, a quarter of an inch from mine. She is staring at an ant crawling along one moon-limned strand of grass. She won’t look at me.

“Elijah, I can’t.”

“Do you not trust me? If it’s that you don’t trust me, just say so.”

“That’s not it! I just…” She bites her lip. “I shouldn’t have to explain it, you know, I just can’t….”

“Well, not with
that
attitude, you can’t.” My heartbeat thumps in my chest. Not exactly the pace I want to set if I’m going to deliver the eight hours of sleep I’ve been promising her. After all that big talk, I’m afraid my sleep latency period is going to be eye-blink brief. Slow down, and lengthen, I coach myself, trying to match my breath to hers. Slow down—

“Look, Emma, I’ve got you. I’ve got you, okay? Just relax—” And lengthen.

This night is the culmination of weeks of practice. Oglivy has been tutoring me in smooth rock-a-bye technique. I hum a lullaby into her ear, one that Ogli says is guaranteed to make the ladies go limp. She throws her head back in an exaggerated, feline yawn, which I take to be a good sign. I hum louder.

“Are you sleeping?”

“Oh!” she breathes. “Yes!” She makes some theatrical breathing noises that I guess must be Emma’s approximations of what a deeply sleeping girl would sound like, but actually make her sound like her trachea is obstructed by a golf ball. I try humming a little more softly.

And then, just when she’s started mumbling in that softly demented voice that precedes sleep, Oglivy comes crashing out of the woods, staggering into trees and generally destroying the ambience. Emma bolts upright. “Who’s there?” She wriggles away from me and tugs the balloon back on. The light startles her sleep-blurred face back into sociable lines. Damn. All my progress, erased.

“Oh, crap, sorry, guys.” Ogli whistles. “I didn’t, uh, mean to wake you….” He gives me a big, shit-eating grin.

“Ogli!” Emma looks relieved to see him. She claps a hand over her mouth, but not before she lets out a coy yawn in Ogli’s direction. I wish she’d save that stuff for me.

“Annie’s giving her Inspiration Assembly.” He coughs, averting his gaze with a showy gallantry while Emma rubs her eyelids back to their sentient position. “I thought we could all walk over together. Not that I care, but we’re gonna be late, Elijah.”

“We’ll be there in a second—” But Emma’s already clambering out of the wicker basket, tilting the hot yellow bulb. Shadows go spidering out across the clearing.

“Thanks, Oglivy.” She smiles. Her curly hair has a rosy glow in the balloon’s light. She looks all mussed up and livid and adorably mortal, these violet half-moons under her eyes. “You’re right, we’d better get there on time. I heard that last year one of the Incubi—”

“Incu
buses,
” we correct.

“Incu
bi
”—she frowns—“was late, and Zorba put her on laundry duty for a week.”

We all shudder. Laundry duty means you have to wash the acrid bed linens for Cabin 5, the Incontinents.

We walk towards the main cabin in silence. It’s no easy hike. Sweat and mosquitoes and a purple ambush of nettles. Our bare toes sink into the oxblood clumps of mud.

“Sorry, dude,” Ogli says under his breath. “I thought you were ballooning solo. I didn’t mean to wake you….”

“’S okay,” I sigh. “She was faking, anyways.”

When the trail opens onto the lake, I see that Oglivy’s timing was off, as usual. No way are we late. A few Somnambulists are still turning dreamy circles in the poppy pasture, tangling their sleep leashes in the furrows.

“Wait up, Ogli,” I wheeze. “We can’t
all
be late, retard.”

We’re all late. The camp director’s wife, Annie, is wrapping up her annual talk.

“…And now, I’m proud to say, my dream contagion has gone into remission, and I’ve been dreaming my own dreams for nearly three years.”

Scattered applause. Somebody bites into an apple. Oglivy and I exchange a bored glance. We have been coming to Z.Z.’s for so long that we’re practically de facto junior counselors. We know Annie’s spiel verbatim:

“Sleep is the heat that melts time, children. It’s a trick that you will practice here. But! We don’t expect to cure you of your sleep disorders in these few short weeks.”

Oglivy mouths along with Annie, fluttering his eyelids. He has Emma and me laughing with a hot-faced, helpless surrender that has nothing to do with the joke itself. After the white noise of school-year loneliness, I am so happy to be sitting with Ogli and Emma on this pulpy cedar floor again, making the same old jokes.

“That’s not why your parents send you here,” Annie continues, glaring in our direction. “We just want to provide you with a safe place to lie awake together. And maybe even,” she beams at the crowd, “to dream.”

“And,” I elbow Ogli, “to scream.” A veteran Narco sitting near us snickers. They never warn the new fish about all the midnight noises.

At Z.Z.’s, our nights echo with weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. Popularity is determined according to an unspoken algorithm that averages the length and volume of your sleep-yodeled terror. Even at a place like Zorba’s, there’s still a clearly delineated social hierarchy:

         

Cabin 2: Sleep Apneics

Cabin 3: Somnambulists

Cabin 6: Somniloquists

Cabin 8: Headbangers

Cabin 11: Night Eaters

Cabin 7: Gnashers

Cabin 13: Night Terrors

Cabin 9: Insomniacs

Cabin 1: Narcoleptics

Cabin 10: Incubuses

Cabin 5: Incontinents

         

And then there’s us. Cabin 4: Miscellaneous. The ones whose parents checked the box marked “Other.” Our illnesses do not match any diagnostic criteria. That means that we’re considered anomalies by Gnasher dudes who have ground their pearly whites down to nubbins, by Incubus girls who think that demon jockeys are riding them in their sleep.

Oglivy is my Other brother, the only other person I have ever met who shares my same disorder. We’ve been bunk mates for the past three years. Annie calls us her twin boys with this syrupy, slightly unnerving tenderness. She doesn’t mean that we look alike. Oglivy is basketball-tall, with these small, pistachio-colored eyes and a pleasantly dopey face. I’m small and dark and inexpertly put together, all knees and elbows and face bones. My mom says I’m destined to be the sort of man who uses big words but pronounces them incorrectly. It’s not even like we have that much in common in our waking lives, although we get a lot of mileage out of our few points of intersection—our moonball fanaticism, our mutual abhorrence of grandmothers and cats, our worshipful respect for the hobo. But we are sleep twins, phobically linked by our identical dreams. He is the first and only person I have ever met who is also a prophet of the past.

We would have been friends regardless, even if we weren’t the only two prophets in the whole camp. With all due respect to our Other brothers and sisters, Cabin 4 is creepy as hell.

There’s Espalda and Espina, the reverend’s adopted daughters. They are hunchback twins who giggle at everything and rub their humps together in their sleep.

There’s Felipe, a parasomniac with a co-incidence of spirit possession. He caught his ghost after stealing a guanabana from a roadside tree, unaware that its roots had wound around a mass grave of Moncada revolutionaries. He’s been possessed by Francisco Pais ever since. This causes him to sleep-detonate imaginary grenades and sleep-yell
“Viva la Revolución!”
while sleep-pumping his fist in the air. He is a deceptively apolitical boy by day.

This year, we’ve got a New Kid, this Eastern European lycanthrope. He is redolent of tubers and Old World damp. New Kid’s face is a pituitary horror, a patchwork of runny sores and sebaceous dips. Ginger fur sprouts from weird places, his chin, his ears. You intuit some horror story—homeschooled, his mother’s in a coven, he eats rancid cabbage out of a trough, that sort of thing. His sleep cycles with the moon.

Emma used to be a textbook Somnambulist. She says after her mother died they would find her walking up and down the empty gutters at the Bowl-a-Bed Hotel, her eyes wide open. But her ailment must have mutated into some Other form, because she recently got the wire restraints taken off her bed. It was right around the time when I started noticing that Emma was, in addition to being short and a serviceable moonball shortstop, a girl. She has this amazing tracery of veins around her eyes, like a leaf pressed between the pages of a book. She’s the only unknown ailment in the camp. I don’t know how exactly I got it into my head that I could save her, or that we could save each other. But now I have this secret fantasy where we sleep together and dream about…whatever ordinary kids dream about. And then we wake up together in the morning, in the same bed that we started out in, rested and cured.

And then there’s Ogli. I’ll never forget the night Ogli and I figured out we had the same disorder. It was the first week of camp, a time when everyone was still skittish and uncertain and we resisted sleep for as long as possible, not wanting to give ourselves away too soon. I hid my ration of soporific dough in a sock under my pillow. Oglivy was sleeping in the bunk facing mine, and I watched him do the same thing. We lay sideways in the dark, eyeing each other like desperadoes in a predawn stalemate. Eventually, we both must have succumbed, because at precisely 4:47, we woke up screaming, staring straight at each other. Oglivy’s hair was sticking straight up, his white eyes goggling out in the dark, the mirror image of my terror. Our screams gave way into giggles.

“What did you dream?” he wheezed.

“I dreamed,” I gasped, still laughing, “that there was this silver rocket, burning and burning.”

He stopped laughing abruptly. “Me too.”

I appreciate Ogli’s pragmatism about our dreams. He refuses to try to interpret them with me. Like the time last summer when we predicted the St. Louis Zoo Cataclysm of ’49: “Who cares what it
means,
bro!” he sighs. “I’m too busy trying to outrun the lions so they don’t eat my shins.”

“Why don’t we get the joyful portents,” I want to know, “doves and olives, the Emancipation Proclamation, former paralytics winning Olympic gold? Why?”

Ogli just shrugs. “Look on the bright side, Elijah. At least we don’t dream the future.”

Oglivy and I have remarkably similar medical histories. For years, we were misdiagnosed as conventional Night Terrors. It’s hard to explain your symptoms to adults:

“Mom, I dreamed that fire was falling from outer space. And the fire was headed straight for these long-necked monsters. And oh, Mom, then the whole world was cratered and dark, and there were only these stooped, hairy creatures stealing eggs, and no more monsters. We have to save them!”

“Mom, I dreamed that lava came bubbling out of the ground like blood from a cut. And the townspeople below were just picking tomatoes and singing oblivious Italian folk songs, Mom. We have to warn them!”

“Mom, I dreamed that an 804-foot hydrogen dirigible full of Germans was about to burst into flames. We have to—”

It’s just a dream, son, my mother would snap, turning on the scolding overhead light. Just a bad dream. We don’t have to do anything. Go back to sleep.

Then I got to school and started to piece things together. I remember flipping through
Our Storied Past!,
eyes agog. The table of contents was like an index to my dreams. Mount Vesuvius, the Bubonic Plague, Tropical Storm Vita—I was a prophet. Annie calls them my postmonitions. Sometimes I think Ogli and I must be like imperfect antennae, the distress signals traveling like light from dead stars.

I guess it wouldn’t be so bad, if the dreams didn’t have the fated, crimson-tinged horror of prophecy. Or if I could forget them before waking. It’s that dread, half-second lapse in the morning that gets me, when time’s still just a jumble of tenses at the foot of the bed. I start awake with the certainty that I can actually do something to prevent disaster.
Strengthen the scaffolding, batten down the hatches, don’t drink the water, quarantine the sallow man, stay docked in the harbor, wear nonflammable apparel on the subway, avoid the Imperial City today, steer clear of glaciers!
Between the dying echo of a dream explosion and my conscious brain reassuring me, like an alarm bell ringing in a pile of rubble.
Too late: too late.

BOOK: St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves
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