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“Really?” That’s exactly what her mother said.
“She was beautiful back then, but you had more personality. You had a great laugh. I could hear it down the hall in school and know it was you. Actually I was in love with you both.”
“Yeah, well, that person is gone. I’ve become my own evil sister. You said so yourself.”
“I didn’t say evil. And I like you better this way. Really. But I’m freezing my ass off.”
They’re sitting in a frozen patch of ivy that has broken into shards beneath their weight.
“My ass is numb,” Shelby says. But she doesn’t get up. She sends a silent message to Helene. Say something. Call my name and I’ll rescue you.
“When I get my first job, I’m getting a Volvo. Ever see their safety records? Man, nothing can hurt you in one of those. A truck can hit you and you walk out of there in one piece, every limb intact. You’d be safe with me.”
“Are you coming on to me?” The realization that he is dawns on Shelby all at once. She swears a lightbulb goes off in her head, but her skull is so cold she thinks it might shatter.
“I’m sitting in the fucking ivy with you,” Ben says. “It goes way beyond that.”
Shelby moves closer. She’s not interested in Ben, but she’s comfortable with him. Maybe that’s enough for now. When she whispers her breath is damp and hot. “Should I look?”
“You can if you want to. I’ll tell you one thing—that’s not her in there. So I don’t recommend it.”
Shelby thinks over all he’s said. “How long did you stalk her?”
“It wasn’t stalking her. I told you, I was crazy about her.”
“Did you stalk me?”
“What do you think I’m doing right now? Maybe you’re not as smart as I think you are. It’s like twelve degrees and I’m out here on the Boyds’ lawn with you.”
Shelby starts out laughing and then it becomes something else. Ben covers her mouth with his gloved hand so that Helene’s parents won’t hear anything. “Shelby,” he says.
Shelby hears the way he says her name and she knows that somehow he’s fallen in love with her. She’s so stunned she stops crying.
Ben says, “Okay?”
Shelby nods and he lets go.
“I really am freezing,” Shelby tells him.
Ben stands and helps her up. Shelby could have looked in the window. She could have stepped up and held her gloved hand to the glass; she could have climbed into the room, gotten down on her knees, touched Helene’s warm hand, and begged for forgiveness, the way people do on a regular basis, greedy for a miracle. Helene might have blessed her, she might have changed everything that is about to happen and released her from the punishment of being herself. Instead, Shelby follows Ben across the lawn. They go back the way they came, conscious of the sound of their boots in the snow. Crunch. It’s like a tree being chopped down, like a heart beating. The sky is black. There’s the scent of hyacinths cutting through the cold. That was Helene’s favorite flower, not roses.
“I need something hot to drink,” Shelby says.
“Being bald probably lowers your total body temperature,” Ben remarks. He’s taken every science course available at college, and yet he knows nothing about human emotions. Love is a mystery. It’s like an alien abduction. You think you’re on earth, and there you are among the stars.
Shelby doubles her scarf around her head. “Being an idiot probably lowers yours,” she shoots back.
She smiles, or at least Ben thinks she does. He would do anything she asked. Even something stupid like robbing a convenience store. He’d leave everything behind and follow her to some far-off destination. He’d look for a miracle if he could.
“Probably,” he agrees. “I bet it does.”
But he hadn’t been enough of an idiot to actually open his eyes when he was at Helene’s window. He thought about those times he’d stalked her. Even then it was Shelby he wanted. He was just too afraid of what she’d do if he got caught spying on her. Helene was simpler. One night while he watched, Helene was on her bed, chatting on the phone. She was undressed, lying on her back, one bare leg thrown over the other. All she had on was a bracelet. She was almost too beautiful to be real. His eyes are closed now, and he imagines her as she was. He hears the echo of her voice as she talked on the phone to Shelby, cooking up some plans for the weekend. Her skin was snow-white; her hair was the color of roses. That’s the way she’ll always be to him. Some things are best remembered the way you want to remember them, like this road, these stars, this girl right beside him as they walk into the center of the cold night, looking straight ahead.
Chapter 2
On the day Shelby and Ben Mink move to New York City, Ben drops a bookcase on his foot and breaks three bones. They wind up sitting in the ER at Bellevue Hospital for so long someone barges into their apartment with the help of a crowbar and steals their TV, actually Ben’s TV, since Shelby owns nothing. Naturally, it’s Shelby who forgot to double-lock the door. Ben doesn’t blame her. He doesn’t raise his voice even though he now wears a soft cast and can expect to have pain for up to thirty days. He simply says, “Welcome to city living,” and begins to unpack everything that hasn’t been stolen, mainly clothes and pots and pans his mom gave him, along with his great-aunt Ida’s dining room table and chairs, a set so ugly no one in his right mind would steal it. Ben’s kindness only serves to reinforce Shelby’s notion that he’s all wrong for her. Before it’s even begun she knows she’s made a mistake.
She’s moved into a cramped studio apartment on Tenth Avenue with Ben because she was haunted in her hometown on Long Island. Ben is well meaning, with a kind and open heart. For some reason he’s fallen in love with her, so when he asked her to come to the city she said yes before she thought things through. She still doesn’t understand what he sees in her, but she doesn’t bother to ask. They’d been thrown together by fate and boredom. They began their relationship by reading chapters of The Illustrated Man to each other. Shelby blames Ray Bradbury for tricking her into having sex with Ben. His stories made her feel something around the edge of her heart. Still, the intimacy of being scrunched into a single bed in the basement with Ben felt all wrong. She thinks of sex as something nasty, quickly over and done with on a bathroom floor while someone holds you down and treats you roughly. Ben was tender, which was upsetting. Shelby didn’t know how to respond. This was her parents’ house after all. Once, while in bed, Ben was whispering something about being in love with her and she was thinking about the snow falling down, Shelby had heard her mother’s tread on the stair, probably as she carried down a basket of laundry. The washing machine was only a few feet away. Panicked, Shelby had shouted out, “Don’t come down here!” as if she were packaging cocaine or running a house of prostitution. Her mother had run back up the stairs and shut the door.