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“It’s a perfect career path for you,” Shelby says. “Considering your interests.”
“Seriously, pharmacists can make a hundred grand a year.”
“Oh, yeah, what are you going to do with all that money? Buy drugs?”
“Weren’t you in the Straight and Narrow Club at school?”
The antidrug contingent that put up posters in the hallways and made a vow not to use drugs. She was so narrow-minded back then. If she met herself then the way she is now, she would have crossed over to the other side of the street to avoid such a creep.
“Fuck you,” Shelby says. She can’t stand the other her, the girl who thought she would always be one of the fortunate ones: good grades, good looks, good future.
“I didn’t mean it in a bad way. I just like you better now. That’s all.”
Shelby glances at him through the slit between her scarf and her hat.
“Where do you think your soul goes when you lose it?” she asks him. He’s been to college after all, maybe he’s smart enough to know the answer.
“Around the corner and down the street.”
They both laugh. They are at that very moment turning the corner and going down the street. There’s nothing there.
“I told you it was gone,” Shelby says.
“Let’s go find it,” Ben suggests.
“Yeah, right.”
They stop long enough for Ben to take a joint from his pocket. Shelby holds her hands around it so the match won’t blow out.
“Let’s just walk by her house,” Ben says.
“That’s it? Just pass by it? Not stop or anything?”
Ben offers her a hit. “I won’t tell if you don’t.”
They head toward the Boyds’ house. It’s easy really. Shelby has been here a thousand times before. She remembers a time when Ben said something to her in high school and she pretended not to hear and walked right by. She’s curious about what he said and questions him. He probably thought she was an uptight snob, and she probably was. Ben swears he doesn’t remember, but there’s a smirk on his face. He remembers all right. He’d said, Do you know where the music room is? His mother had insisted he take saxophone lessons. He’d actually wanted to say, I’ll pay you a hundred bucks if I can kiss you.
“You didn’t like me in high school,” Shelby says.
“Well, I didn’t like anyone, so don’t think you were special.”
They laugh again and lean closer for warmth.
“You were popular and you followed the rules. I always hated those girls,” Ben tells her.
“Right. You liked the ugly, unpopular ones.”
“I liked the smart ones. I just didn’t know you were one of them. You kind of hid it.”
Shelby thinks that over. She’s shivering as they approach Helene’s. There’s no one at the Boyds’, no lines in the driveway, no miracle seekers, just a darkened house with peeling paint. The bushes all look black. Sparrows rustle in the leaves, but everything else is silent.
“Come on,” Ben says. He grabs Shelby by the sleeve and they wheel across the yard.
“Hey,” Shelby says. “Wait a minute.” They’re headed toward Helene’s window. “I thought we were just passing by.”
“This is her room,” Ben says. “I’ve been here before. I was kind of a Peeping Tom in high school.”
“Are you kidding?” Shelby is shocked. “That is so vile. No wonder I never spoke to you.”
“I only saw her naked once.”
Shelby glares at him. “Only once? Like that’s nothing? Once is a violation. You really were a creep.”
There’s a rattle somewhere, a garbage can perhaps, but unsettling. Ben and Shelby crouch down beside the house so no one will see them. But there’s no one around. A cat crossing the street. The sparrows in the bushes. Ben is shaking under his puffy jacket. He’s had a guilty conscience all this time, and he didn’t even know how bad he felt until he makes his confession. He’d been a pervert and now he has a pervert’s remorse.
“I was only a kid,” he says.
He sounds like he’s going to crack and get all emotional, something Shelby can’t stand. “Pull yourself together,” she tells him. “So you spied on her. You were probably too young to know it was wrong.”
“I was crazy about her.”
“Helene?” Again, Shelby is stunned.
“Nuts, huh?”
They start laughing, muffled, choked giggles.
“Insane,” Shelby agrees.
“Did I ever have a chance?”
“Never. Not in a million years. She was in love with that guy Chris. Truthfully, Ben? It would have never been you.”
It’s kind of a relief for Ben to hear this, as if a cord binding him to his past has been cut. He feels oddly grateful. He doesn’t have to be loyal to Helene.
“Do you want to look?” he asks.
They’re leaning into each other, but they can’t feel one another. Coats. Gloves. Protection from the elements.
“You,” Shelby says.
So Ben steps onto a ledge Shelby hadn’t known was there. It’s part of a window well cover that allows him to step up, then haul himself upward so he can look into Helene’s window. Clearly he’s done this before. Shelby stays where she is, knees pulled to her chest, head spinning, her hands covering her eyes. She thinks about the anonymous postcards that she keeps in her childhood jewelry box. Every day she waits even though sometimes there are months in between their arrivals. When she sees one in the mailbox she feels a thrumming inside her. She’s always excited to read them, no matter the message. Be something, with a hive of bees made of gold ink and a girl who’s been stung running into a dark wood. Feel something. A heart held in the palm of a hand. Inside the heart are words written in red ink: Faith, sorrow, shame, hope. Someone is watching over her. Someone knows what she needs.
Ben is silent as he peers into the window.
“What’s it like in there?” Shelby asks.
“Her room looks the same.”
Ben gets off the ledge and sinks back down next to Shelby, close, so their shoulders touch. Shelby uncovers her eyes. “How is she?”
Ben’s beard is patchy, and he smells like smoke and dirty laundry.
“She looks like somebody in a fairy tale. She’s peaceful.”