Twelve Rainy Days
Richfield, North Carolina
Noah Freeman, ten and fair-haired, had never seen a porno before. He stared at the TV,
his friend Tim beside him on the couch. The housewife onscreen, soaking in a sudsy tub,
looked like his Aunt Nell, which added an extra layer to it. And there were already layers.
All kinds. His body was tingling all over with dread and pleasure, as if covered in angry
ants and snuggly caterpillars. When the plumber entered the bathroom and the real stuff
began, Noah became so disturbed and aroused that he made up an excuse to go home.
Walking down the crunchy sidewalk, he knew that he’d failed some kind of
initiation. That Tim was disgusted in him for leaving. But Noah was even more troubled
by all the thrusting in the porno. No one had ever told him about that part. He had thought
that you just stuck it in and cuddled peacefully. It was like that time in first grade when
Mrs. Ellis showed an animated film of dinosaur life, with all the different breeds chowing
down on each other, whereas Noah had thought they roamed together in sunny harmony.
Nearing his house, almost tripping over a smelly stray cat, he was zapped by grief. Dumb
old world! Mean, mean. Whimpering, grunting, he scooped up rocks from the sidewalk,
then spun around and took aim at the cat. Fine, then! He’d be mean too. The cruelest.
Leonard Yates, twenty-six and a fluent optimist, had a feeling the letter would come
today. Seated in his office cube, sorting through the usual paperwork drudgery, he was
happily swamped by visions of his future as a graduate film student in California. True,
he had applied without success the previous year, to the same school, the alma mater of
all his favorite directors. But for this year’s application, he had expanded his short film,
spiced up his statement of purpose, and overhauled his resume. Success was certain.
Except, of course, if it wasn’t. When he got home, there was a letter from the
school in his mail slot, all right, but it was standard-sized and perilously slim. Leonard
rubbed his beard nervously. Acceptance, he sensed, would be an oversize envelope or at
least a double-thick one, stuffed with information about classes and financial aid. But he
soon rallied. Relax, guy! Probably just a preliminary letter of congratulations.
Leonard entered his apartment and sat down on the couch. He gulped a ragged
breath, then opened the letter. Saw at once that it was the same polite rejection as last
year. But his sunken spirits were almost instantly buoyed by hope. Next year, man! He’d
make another short film, a better one. But then he saw the handwritten note at the bottom.
We appreciate your interest and your persistence, it said, but please don’t apply
again. You’re simply not qualified to attend this school.
Dust motes swarmed in the window light. Outside a dog barked and was shushed.
Leonard stared blankly, embarrassed to the bone. Had he ever been so wrong? Had
anyone? He set the letter aside and moaned softly as the visions that had sustained him all
year—the witty friends and wise teachers, the bright skies and dark cutting rooms—were
maliciously yanked away, as if they were never rightfully his, as if he had stolen them.
Jennifer Deaton, glaring at her tommy gun, her finger on the trigger, sat in a corner booth
and cursed the very concept of online dating. It was horrible to be stood up, although
also, let’s be honest, not to be stood up. She couldn’t count the number of coffee dates
she’d had with men who turned out to be older or chubbier or more married than their
profile pictures. It was a liar’s paradise. And, really, who comes up with a fancy idea for
a first date like a pub Halloween party, insists on Bonnie and Clyde costumes, and then
has the nerve not to show? What new breed of creepster was she dealing with here?
Deep breath. Happy thoughts. She resolved to stay and have a drink. Cocked her
beret and sent out I’m-sexy vibes. And she was! A slender and pretty thirty-six, wild
about sports and books alike, a fully rounded catch. Returning from a bathroom break,
she smiled at two zombie guys and even playfully took aim and pretended to shoot them.
They grinned and pantomimed zombie death and promised to chat her up soon.
But an hour later, still in her booth, still not chatted up, she was deeply depressed.
How long could a losing streak last? Not since twenty-five had someone called her
beautiful. Not since thirty had anyone truly listened to her. Vision smoggy with gloom,
she was slow to notice, on her left, the grinning man in vest and fedora. Her Clyde! Two
hours late, but still! Then she saw that his costume was pure lazy-ass, that he had no gun
and his bottom half was jeans and sneakers. Disgusted, she jabbed the barrel of her
tommy gun into his stomach. He yelped and fell back. Jennifer grabbed her purse, then
swung the tommy gun like a sword and caught him in the face with the handle. His eyes
bugged, his hand sprung to his welting cheek. She raced tearfully to the exit, dimly aware
of the staring faces. Let them stare. Let them! She deserved better. She deserved babies.
Ambition. It was back. Connor Putnam just wanted a final, career-capping success. His
list of credits suddenly seemed one shy of a full career; his imagination, the slumbering
beast, heard the call and stirred anew. So he lugged out his typewriter and embarked on
his first new play in seven years, Tarrytown Nights, a three-act about marital infidelity.
Clacking the ol’ keys again, what a thrill, what a strain. The final draft gleamed like fresh
roses. He and his editor decided to release it at once, and let producers come to them. On
the night before publication, Connor paced his home endlessly, clutching his spotted,
time-withered hands. One last whirl with the critics, ugh. They might be purring cats or
hissing rats, you just never knew. In the morning he was up and online by six, his wife
laughing at him cheerfully. But he couldn’t find the reviews. What was the deal here?
After a few hollering calls to his editor, the situation became hideously clear. There were
no reviews and, except for a few small markets, there weren’t going to be any. The world
had already filed him away as a playwright of the past; the file wouldn’t be reopened
until his obituary. Connor laughed soundlessly. Crept back to bed. Stayed for months.
Jackson Geary, after receiving the decision from the patent committee, stood in his
garage staring wistfully at the prototype on his workbench. The Gator Insulator, an olivegreen
wetsuit that allowed you to travel unnoticed in alligator-infested waters, to study
them, or just get in a safe swim. The Gator Insulator, three years’ work, his gift to swamp
lovers everywhere. He caressed the hood, lovingly crafted with the teeth and eyes just
right. Oh, Gator Insulator, you sweet dream! You sweet, unanimously rejected dream.
Seth was utterly surprised. Toward the end of the Fall Harvest Dance, standing around
with a few friends in the dark gym, but already projecting ahead to the Horrible Crowes
in his bedroom, he noticed blonde-haired Rochelle from after school theater snaking
toward him through the crowd, dragged by a tall brunette he didn’t know. While Rochelle
looked away, her face pained, the brunette explained that Rochelle wanted to dance with
him. Seth just stared. The brunette crooked an annoyed arm to her hip. Well? Yes or no?
Before he even finished saying yes, the brunette grabbed his wrist and whirled
them away from his snickering friends. Around swaying couples and dangling decor.
Rochelle, chin nicked by a low-hanging leaf, grunted shyly. The brunette halted in an
open space, arranged them into slow-dance position, said have fun kids and stalked off.
Seth was painfully flummoxed. He had no idea what to say, plus he didn’t know
this particular song and wasn’t sure how to sway to it. But then Rochelle started
whispering easy questions, about school, about camp. Soon she inched closer, moving her
hands from his shoulders and clasping them behind his neck, and began matching her
sway to his. Seth nearly gasped; the closeness was shocking. Her perfume sweetly
entangled him. He’d never particularly noticed Rochelle before, but now, in this delicious
proximity, her adorableness was both obvious and overwhelming. Lips full, glossed in
pink, body soft and curvy under the boxy oversize yellow sweater. Her eyes watched him
warmly. At the end of the song, she thanked him and then vanished into the crowd.
Over the weekend, which he spent lazing around his bedroom listening to music,
snacking, doing homework, he both savored the memory and vowed to build on it. There
were possibilities. She went to the other area junior high, which meant he wouldn’t see
her until play practice at his school on Thursday, but if he acted fast during a break or
after practice, he might be able to lure her out to some hidden hallway nook and kiss her.
This vision absorbed him for hours. Her warm eyes staring as he leaned in close, her rich
blonde hair nestling her neck. The melting taste of her tongue as they slowly frenched.
Here was another vision. A park date, an afternoon of talking and hiking. Secret
thoughts. Personal stories. He longed to tell her about the Horrible Crowes, especially the
song “Cherry Blossoms”; he knew that, if he played it for her, she would instantly
understand how he felt about it. Understand, too, about his discomfort with the constant
ridicule he was expected to give and receive, among his friends, his older brothers.
Play practice, held as usual in a classroom cleared of desks, was everlasting. The
director had them act out the whole play and didn’t give any breaks. In the middle of a
scene they shared, Seth thought Rochelle flashed him a secret smile but he wasn’t sure.
After practice, he approached her at the coat hooks. Nervously asked if she’d like
to go somewhere and talk. Putting on her coat, she turned to him abruptly, no warmth in
her eyes. You’re not my crush, she said. I was just desperate. You know that, right?
It was as if she’d reached out with both hands and shoved him away from her. His
mouth filled with a cold harsh taste. Sure, he said finally. I mean, yeah, me too.
But she was already walking away. Drained, he took his windbreaker and headed
to the lobby to wait for his mom. A chilling thought rose up: that Rochelle had maybe
hoped he would email her over the weekend, and his not doing it had turned her against
him. Maybe the brunette had coached her on what to say; it sounded like the brunette. But
he sensed that in any case the glowing moment of possibility had irrevocably gone dark.
She would never hear “Cherry Blossoms.” He would never know her sweetest secrets.
Brooklyn, New York
Margaret Peterson, shy on the surface, was sheerest appetite. Her guts drooled with want.
No one, not even her closest friends, suspected that this quiet coffee barista regularly had
growly one-night stands, that cardigans and loafers by day gave way to lingerie and
stilettoes at night. Or, even less so, because so slim, that she often dimmed the lights of
her studio apartment and devoured endless donuts. But her most raging desire, her most
drooling want, was to publish a short story in a certain prestigious magazine.
She’d been working at it with zero success for years. Ten gloriously decadent
stories, ten heartless form-letter declines. Reading this latest, the tenth, Margaret fumed at
the computer screen. Butthead editor! No-taste jerk! But after she flopped down on her
futon with her reefer and her needlepoint a devious plan started to form.
It wasn’t even hard to find him. The tweedy dope telegraphed his every move on
Twitter. A few days after the latest rejection, she tracked him to a swank lounge on the
Upper East Side, where he was having cocktails with some other snoots. She cornered
him as he was coming out of the restroom. You! Editor man, she hissed. I’ve sent you
mutts ten kick-ass stories. You’ve rejected them all. What’s up with that?
The editor frowned in confusion, then sighed heavily. They talked. They argued.
When a waiter passed with a dessert tray, Margaret boldly snatched up an éclair, then
made a shy please-please face. The waiter shrugged, then moved on. We accept only a
very few, the editor said, pinching his fingers to illustrate. Mmm! Lemon, Margaret said,
tasting the oozy filling. She was about to bounce, maybe check out the new sex shop a
few blocks away, when she noticed that the editor was smiling wryly. Tell you what,
Margaret, he said. Email me your three best stories and I’ll see what I can do.
Anoop Chandra, nervous but hopeful, about to serve overhanded for the first time in an
actual game after a week of practice, raised the volleyball with one hand and whacked it
with the other. Something about his maneuvers was off—was almost always off—and the
laughter began even before the ball spiked the floor on his side of the net. Even Mr. Kern,
the gym teacher, was smirking. But then, Kern disliked minority kids in the first place. It
was Anoop’s curse: he was born here but would never belong here. Then, in a nightmare
development, a few cheerleaders wandering the halls paused in the doorway and peeked
in just as he was about to take his next serve. When he botched it, they didn’t laugh, just
stared with strange faces. Anoop was smothered in embarrassment. He didn’t see how he
could stay in the gym, much less rotate to the next position and keep playing.
Fucking sissy-pants, a voice behind him said.
Anoop spun around, instantly prickling with rage. The voice belonged to Rick
Sutton, a sneery, long-haired burnout in heavy metal T-shirt and jeans, relegated to a
chair in the corner for forgetting his gym clothes. Foreign faggot, Sutton muttered. That
clinched it. Anoop, whose few precious friends included the gay librarian and a lesbian
senior, tackled Sutton, catching hold of his greasy hair and tumbling him from the flimsy
chair to the floor, pinning him down, punching furiously. But almost instantly he sensed,
from the confused and alarmed voices closing in around him, that even this seeming
victory would be regarded as a failure. A bratty tantrum. A sissy-pants overreaction. He
knew what was next—a trip to the principal’s office, a conference with his parents. When
Mr. Kern yanked him up, gripping his arm with hating fingers, Anoop felt as weak in the
world as a kitten. And this was only sophomore year. He had a whole life to get through.
Jim Culp, flop novelist, fifty-five, hoped he’d have the nerve to light the match. The
barrel was filled not only with hard copies, but also notebooks and jump drives. Best to
make a clean break. Absently squirting the lighter fluid, he regarded his neglected
backyard, the mucky lawn, the jungly bushes. He would have time for this now. Time,
also, to tend to his own body, currently blubbered up from so many idle hours at his desk.
Except, goddammit, not idle! Vigorous hours, spent conjuring up layered
characters, teeming families, tortured dilemmas. He gazed down at the pack of matches in
his hand. He was destroying entire worlds. Beloved to him, utterly unwanted by anyone
else. And there you fucking had it. If no one read it or paid for it, if it neither entertained
others nor sustained him, then it was nothing more than a worthless suck, a greedy leech,
on his time and energy. But damned if that didn’t sum up his whole life. Busted marriage,
dead-end day job. Oh, God! Jim tore a match free, then struck and dropped it. Wept
openly as orange flames whipped up and poured grey smoke into the clear sky.
Franklin Meeks, government scientist, bald and pissed about it, stared dismally at the
results printout. Crud. Another fail. The elixir, a secret personal project, was supposed to
grow permanent head hair, whereas the results kept pointing to temporary hair growth all
over the body. He pounded the lab table, livid. But then, just as he was about to cast the
printout aside, and hit the vending machine for a consoling snack, he noticed a strange
anomaly. Gulped uneasily. Scribbled calculations. No frigging way! But it was true. He
had accidentally created a serum that would induce full, fang-bearing lycanthropy.
I’m a flower, was Kate’s thought upon starting college in Boston. I’ll bloom and bloom
and bloom. She tried everything. Acting? Sure! Cross country? Why not. Everything she
tried, she thrived at. And the boys were attentive beyond her wildest dreams. She walked
the campus lawns to class feeling like floating marigold, lighter than air, trailing light.
Manhattan was glorious. Her theater friends had begged her to come along, to
forget about her teaching plans. The applause was like love from above. But after that
first play, which closed after three months, no further acting opportunities developed.
I’ll be a bird, was Kate’s philosophy about returning to Wisconsin. I’ll fly home
for a while, then swoop away to sunnier skies. But teaching high school was the dullest
grind. And when her father died unexpectedly, of heart failure, she was plunged into
inconsolable grief, a broken bird, a sickly raven. She quit her job and moved in with her
mother. The clubs beckoned, the streets. Straight whiskey? Pour it. Blunt? Spark it up.
On the verge of giving a blowjob in exchange for an ounce in a garbage-stinking back
alley, she suddenly came to her senses and got her ass out of there. She went back to
teaching and got her own condo and started hosting a weekly improv night at a local pub.
Forty came quick. Before going out with her friends to celebrate, she took a glass
of wine out to her sun porch and sat down to watch the rain and count her blessings.
Friends were purest treasure. She had no interest in marriage but when she craved a lover
she had no trouble finding one. The cruelest part, the saddest twinge, was that twenty
seemed like yesterday, like something she could return to if only she hoped and prayed
hard enough. Soaring solo runs across the early-morning quad. Secret beery kisses at latenight
dorm parties. She stared at the blooming rain, at the drenching past, and prayed.
South Bend, Indiana
Mark Rift, twenty-eight, wrists still healing, woke up Friday morning feeling supremely
glad that his suicide attempt three months ago had been unsuccessful. He arrived at his
chump office job actually grinning. Couldn’t help it. Didn’t want to. For lunch he was
meeting an old college friend, Todd, an arts reporter with gallery connections who had
news about Mark’s drawings. Then, after work, he had a first date with Sabrina Pride, the
company’s sizzling new brunette. Life, at long last, might finally be starting to get good.
Or not. At lunch, Mark saw right away that his artwork was just an excuse. There
was no news about it. Actually, there is news, Todd said, mauling his cheeseburger, but it
isn’t good. No one wants it. But the real reason Todd had suggested this lunch was that
he had been fired from his job and was hoping Mark could hook him up. The sly fucker
had even brought a manila folder with his resume and writing samples. Accepting the
folder, Mark instantly pictured feeding it into a paper shredder. The psych ward had
utterly failed to cure him of his gift for satisfyingly vengeful thoughts.
Back at work, about to enter his private office, he saw Sabrina entering the lobby.
She had used her lunch hour to change for their date, cider mill, then dinner—grey shirt
and slacks had given way to purple dress and white stockings. Happiness swallowed him.
Down the hall she came, fast, excited, smiling brightly and swishing like crazy. So warm!
So scorching. Except when she stopped to talk she was talking, weirdly, about the post
office. A lost invitation. In time, he started to get it. Her cousin’s bachelorette party was
tonight and she had to cancel. He shrugged awkwardly and suggested Saturday instead.
Can’t, she said, turning back to head to her own office. I’m babysitting my niece.
Maybe another time. Or, hey! Maybe we can just grab lunch sometime?
He nodded calmly, then went to the restroom and sobbed violently. Locked in a
stall, using butt tissue to clean up his drippy face, he considered calling his mom. Or, no,
a buddy. Crap, no, neither! He had to stop bugging everyone, worrying them.
After work, terrified of his lonely apartment, he went back to the pub where he
had met Todd. He scored a beer from the cute ginger-haired bartender and started
shooting solo pool. A guy approached him, wanting to play for money. Emboldened by
six weeks of practice in the psych ward’s rec room, Mark gladly accepted, then promptly
lost three games. He put his wallet away and went back to playing solo. The bartender
glanced over and gave him a freckly smile. When Sabrina Pride entered the pub with a
mere two other girls, neither of them wearing a tiara, he gasped quietly and pictured
bricks raining down on her but kept on playing. In time, she noticed him and came over.
Sorry about blowing you off before, she said. But it was never a real date,
obviously. We’re just friends. And, well, I know about the hospital thing, your
depression. I mean, no offense, but you’re probably still too screwed up to date.
Nah, we’re not friends, he said, digging out his sketchpad and a pencil from an
inside coat pocket. When she protested, saying of course we’re friends, he interrupted
her. Do you mind? I’m trying to draw here. He glared at her until she went away.
Finishing the sketch, an autumn forest scene with owls and raccoons, a cozy moon, he
wrote his name and number beneath it, then carefully tore out the page and went over to
the ginger bartender, who looked up quizzically when he placed it down on the counter.
I had kind of a hard day, he said, his voice cracking. But I made it. I’m still here.
Call me if you ever need a date or a friend. He turned to go, to leave the pub, then added
over his shoulder, I’m fucking valuable, you know? I’m sad but I’m like gold.