The Curse of Knowledge
Holly was sitting in the kitchen three days before Halloween watching Bobbie’s mother make cookies. She and Bobbie were eating toast with grape jelly. The jelly jar was on the table, and while Mrs. Hartsock wasn’t looking, Bobbie dipped the spoon in and put another glob on his toast. Holly ate her toast in neat bites, pushing the crumbs toward the center of the plate when she was done.
“Why don’t you put your backpack on the floor,” Mrs. Hartsock said. She put the tray of cookies into the oven. “It doesn’t look comfortable on your lap.”
“It’s OK,” Holly said. She had her hand on it and she could feel the shape of the ring notebook inside. She’d found it by the high school, under the bleachers. The spells were written mostly in pen but some parts in pencil and marker, with pictures every few pages. She had been fooling around, kicking up the dead leaves and trash. After a game, she sometimes could find money that fell out of people’s pockets through the bleacher seats. The notebook had been half-hidden under a rusty wheelbarrow full of fast food wrappers.
“I saw your father going to work today.” Mrs. Hartsock smoothed her hands down the front of her blouse.
Holly pushed the crumbs into the tiniest pile she could manage. She looked at Bobbie to see if he was almost done eating his toast. She hadn’t decided if she wanted to show the notebook to him, but she thought she might.
“I bet he likes chocolate chip cookies,” Mrs. Hartsock said.
Holly’s father didn’t like sweets much at all, unless he’d been smoking, but she kept this to herself.
“Maybe I’ll take some over later, if he’s going to be home.”
“I don’t know when he’ll be back from work.” Holly kicked Bobby under the table, which he took as a signal to eat faster. He crammed the rest of the toast into his mouth and chewed furiously. Bobbie probably wouldn’t have anything sensible to say about the spell book. He was just a baby, only nine, two years younger than she was. But who else would she tell about it? As she thought this, a picture formed in her mind. Curtis Bird, with his bangs falling in his eyes. Two days ago at school, he had elbowed her in the hall as he was going past, and said that she had a cute ass. She had wanted to put her hands over the ass in question, to hide it, but she had stayed pretty cool, just giving him a look which she hoped had been disdainful. You could tell Curtis Bird, her little voice said, but she wasn’t as sure as the voice. She’d always had it, that voice, or at least she’d had it since her mother had left last year. Sometimes she listened to it and sometimes she didn’t.
Mrs. Hartsock’s mouth pulled in and then pushed out, her lips almost like a bird beak, which Holly thought was not very pretty at all. She felt like telling her that she knew she’d had sex with Holly’s father, and that probably he didn’t want to do it any more, since he never did. A couple of times and it was over. It seemed like a messy way to live to Holly, since the women he was done with often didn’t seem to get the message. They called or came by—“just dropping in”—made scenes, crying or yelling. The cookies were a game play she recognized. She and her father had benefited from the female belief that all it would take to win back his attention was a casserole or a meatloaf or a pan of brownies. Holly liked chocolate chip cookies, so she said, “He’s usually home late on Thursdays.”
Mrs. Hartsock, whose name Holly knew was Jenifer, smiled and tucked her curly hair behind her ear. “I’ll look out for his truck,” she said.
Bobby had the same brown curly hair, and Holly gave it a pull as she got up. “Come on,” she said. “Let’s go and look at the cat.”
She and Bobbie escaped the kitchen and went out to the backyard where the cat was reclining in a wire pen in the garage.
Holly and Bobbie had rescued the cat after it was hit by a car three days ago, the same length of time that Mrs. Hartsock’s relationship with Holly’s father had lasted. The two of them had “bonded” over the cat (Holly’s father’s word) and the bonding had ended in them hooking up (Holly’s word).
“Your dad’s friend was pretty cool,” Bobby said now. He was petting the cat on its head, careful to avoid the line of stitches over one eye that Kevin’s friend had put there.
“He used to be a doctor,” Holly said. She didn’t think that Bobby knew that her father had been screwing his mother, and Holly wasn’t going to tell him.
“I guess a doctor is better than magic,” Bobby said.
Holly didn’t agree. She had wanted to get a witch to fix the cat. She knew there were witches down in the flats. Everyone knew that. She had wanted to get her father’s friend Ray to get one of them to come, since he knew one of them. But she guessed it had turned out OK. She got the hose to fill the cat’s water dish, and Bobby scooped out a handful of cat chow from a sack in the corner of the shed.
“Come on,” she said to Bobby. “I’ve got something to show you.”
Without discussion, they went behind the garage, which was their secret place. Bounded by the garage wall, rough with peeling paint, and the wooden fence that the neighbors had put up, it was overgrown with weeds and young maple trees. If you pushed through the growth, there was a bare spot big enough for both of them to sit, and a little more space for things that might come in handy. The fence hung slanting from its posts here, leaning protectively over them—along with the leafy maple branches, it hid them from sight.
Earlier in the summer, they had brought a wooden crate and an old red stool to sit on. Holly sat on the stool, as she always did, and put her backpack down between them.
“When can we bring Candy back here?” Bobby said.
It was a plan of theirs to bring Candy back here to live when she was healed from her injuries. Bobby had begun to gather scraps of wood and sheets of cardboard to make her a cat house. “She still has her stitches in,” she said. “Plus, she has internal injuries.” This was what the former doctor had said.
“She’ll like it back here,” Bobby said. “I’m going to make her a bed, too. And a box to keep her cat toys in.”
“You don’t know how to make a box.” Holly unzipped her backpack. “Do you want to see what I’ve got or don’t you?” She put her hand on the notebook, but didn’t yet pull it out. She ran her fingers over the rings, and the smoothness of its cover.
“Sure,” Bobby said.
“You have to swear you won’t tell anyone.”
“No, you have to swear, on something important.”
Holly considered for a minute. “On your mother’s life.”
“What does that mean?” Bobby said.
“It means that if you tell anyone, her life is forfeit.” Holly narrowed her eyes and grimaced at him.
“You mean like she’ll die?” Bobby shook his head vigorously. “I won’t say that.”
“OK,” Holly said. “How about on Candy’s life?”
Bobby still looked worried. “I don’t want Candy to die either.”
“Don’t be stupid,” Holly said. “It’s just to say how you’re taking it seriously. You have to do it, or I won’t show you.”
Maybe this was a mistake, she thought. She imagined how this would go if she was showing it to Curtis instead, his head leaning down to her, his smooth hair swaying forward. He was older, fourteen or almost. Holly had no illusions about her looks. She was skinny and her hair was always a mess. Her knees were often scabbed, and she never had cute clothes to wear, unless one of her father’s girlfriends left something that halfway fit her. If she wanted Curtis to notice her, she needed something to make up for the fact that she didn’t have any tits. According to the girlfriend before last, she couldn’t expect to have any at least until she was thirteen.
Bobby kicked the heels of his sandals against the wooden box. Holly started to close the backpack zipper. “OK,” he said. “I’ll swear it.”
“Say, I swear I won’t reveal anything of what is going to be revealed on pain of Candy’s life. Hold your hand up, like this.” Holly demonstrated, holding her hand palm out, like she’d seen people do on Court TV.
Bobby repeated it, holding his hand like hers, their two palms almost touching.
“OK,” Holly said. She opened the backpack all the way and pulled the notebook out.
The cover of the notebook was dark blue. Someone had used a paintbrush to write “The Secrets” in silver paint. Flowers, hearts, and a lumpy skull were drawn in the same paint. Holly used her backpack as a sort of table between them, laying the notebook out on it.
“What is it?” Bobby didn’t sound impressed. “What kind of secrets?”
Holly opened it to the first page with a kind of “tada” gesture. It was covered with small squared-off printing, under the heading “How to Ace a Test.”
“Is it about cheating?” Bobby poked his head closer, his nose almost touching the page. “Cheating? I don’t think you ought to do that.”
Holly snorted. “I don’t need to cheat.” She was the smartest girl in her class, another problem in the Curtis equation. “These are spells,” she said. “Like magic. Some of them are dumb,” she said, as Bobby turned another page, where it said “How to Grow Tits” in fancy purple letters. “But look, here.”
“How to Find what is Lost,” Bobby read, his finger following the letters. He looked at her, his eyes widening so that they looked almost perfectly round. “You want to find your mother,” he said.
Holly shrugged. Sometimes Bobby was so dumb, but other times he was annoyingly smart. “Maybe,” she said. “I guess.”
“Can I help?”
“Maybe,” Holly said. “I don’t know. Maybe it’s something you have to do yourself.” Holly closed the book. “I’ll have to think about it. Come on, let’s go and play with Candy.”
While they petted the cat, and tried to feed her some disgusting tuna that Bobby’s mother had given them, Holly thought about doing the spell. Telling Bobby about it had made it seem more real in one way, but also somehow more difficult or unattainable. It bothered her that he’d immediately guessed what she wanted to do. She had told him about her mother when they first started hanging out, when she’d just come to live with Kevin. Her mother had left her at Kevin’s house one day, saying that it wouldn’t be for long, but she’d never come back. After, Holly found out that she’d packed up all Holly’s stuff and put it on Kevin’s back porch before she drove away.
It wasn’t so bad. It wasn’t like she didn’t remember Kevin. They’d all lived together when she was little, until she was maybe seven. She remembered some things from that time. Sitting at the kitchen table while she drank milk and Kevin and her mother drank something alcoholic. Playing in the tiny back yard, looking out at the zoo valley with its falling-down buildings, her fingers clutching the chain-link fence. Trying to ride the dog they’d had then. She always fell off. The dog was dead now. Kevin hadn’t been too mad when Holly got dumped on him.
She wanted to know about her mother, that was all. Like, if she was dead. Or why she didn’t come back. Holly had visited the school psychologist a couple of times, and knew that what she wanted was closure, which she associated with a door, which could be open so that your life and the things you remembered ran through it in a stream, nothing stopping it. Or you could close it, and dam up all that stuff in the past, close it up and put it into a hole where it wouldn’t come out and bug you.
If she could find her mother, one or the other of these things could happen. She told herself that it didn’t matter which one.
“What are you going to do about that book?” Bobby said.
Holly didn’t answer. She was holding a piece of tuna just above Candy’s head, so she’d have to reach for it. It was good for her, Holly thought. Like exercise.
“You should throw it away. It’s creepy.” Bobby lay down on his stomach next to Candy.
Holly pretended she was going to feed some tuna to Bobby. “Don’t be stupid,” she said. “I’m going to do it. The spell. Why shouldn’t I?” she said, when Bobby didn’t say anything.
For a minute, they were quiet. The cat moaned a little, turning her head, and Bobby petted her. Outside, they could hear the bushes scratching up against the back of the garage when the wind blew, and a high screech from down the block, a peacock. They would escape from their pen in the zoo and fly up the hill to look for food, but they always went back, which made sense to Holly. The pen was home, even if it had bird shit in the corners. She could never understand why anyone left home.
“I have to do it,” she said to Bobby. “You’re too little to understand.”
Bobby ignored that. “I can help. It’s not going to be gross, is it?” he said, sounding as if he hoped it might be. “Can I help?”
“I’ll tell you tomorrow,” Holly said.
When Holly went home, Kevin was back from work. Ray was there, and Johnno. She could hear them talking out back. Holly tried to look in the side mirror of Kevin’s truck to see if her hair looked stupid, but all that showed was her eyes and the fuzz of her bangs. She gave up and went inside to the kitchen to get some pop.
They were talking about the Halloween party that Kevin always had. Holly remembered it from when she was little. People in costumes drinking and smoking, loud music playing, lots of candy everywhere. She had eaten so many Mars bars one year, fifty of them maybe. They’d been her favorite then but she’d been so sick she’d never eaten them again. She remembered throwing up in the upstairs bathroom and going back to her room and finding someone having sex in her bed. She wondered who it had been. She’d slept on the glider, until her mother had found her and carried her upstairs. All of these things she remembered, not as a smooth story that glided from one event to the next, but as a series of jerky pictures punctuated with smells, beer and vomit and perfume, the edge of the door against her hand when she looked into her room, the feel of the plastic cushions on the glider, her mother’s hands on her skin when she picked her up. Adults stopped picking you up at a certain point, like there was a rule that they all knew but wouldn’t tell.
Kevin was teasing Ray about someone, a girl. “Gin is going to be there, Rayray. Maybe you can take her away from Johnno.”
Holly drank her pop and rubbed her bare foot against the cool floor. Maybe she could invite someone to the party. She could invite Curtis. She cocked her head, trying to imagine this, Curtis at her house, sitting on the couch, playing Wii games. She had a picture in her head of playing one of the Scooby games with him, but that would be stupid. Scooby was for kids.
“What the hell, man,” Johnno said. “I’ve got an in there.”
Holly pressed closer to the window, keeping out of sight. She could see Kevin’s back, with Johnno on one side of him and Ray on the other. They were leaning with their arms propped on the chain-link fence, looking down into the zoo valley. She could see the side of Ray’s face, his lips pursing around the neck of a beer bottle. She used to have a crush on him, but she was over it now. She watched him swallow.
Kevin punched him in the arm. “You can bring the new woman,” he said to Ray. “Bring her to meet the folks.”
“What are you, my dad?”
“Right,” Kevin said. “I’m your dad, and Johnno is your dirty uncle, and Holly is your little sis.”
Holly huffed. She was so not Ray’s sister. She used to imagine how she would be older and run into Ray some place and he would buy her a drink (in the dream, it was always a Dr. Pepper, even though she didn’t like them). And then they would kiss. She used to write Holly Dacey in her notebook and then tear out the sheets and throw them away. It had all been pretty stupid. She watched Ray finish the last of his beer and set it down on the ground by the fence. His hair shone in the sun. Black hair was so much nicer than brown, she thought, although Curtis Bird’s hair was not bad, a very dark brown. It was almost black.
“So, no details,” Kevin said. “The witchy woman,” he prompted when Ray was silent. “In the sack.”
Why was it called a sack, Holly wondered. Was it something to do with a sleeping bag? Ray wasn’t answering, which she considered to be because he was a gentleman. Kevin was always going on about who would do what in the sack. Not in front of her, but Holly was good at listening. She felt it was owed to her, whatever she found out by eavesdropping, a vague sense of having been shortchanged somehow that had to do with her mother. She needed all the information she could get.
“Want another?” Johnno said, and she realized that he was coming into the house. She pressed herself between the window and the metal cabinet where Kevin kept canned food. Johnno opened the refrigerator. If he looked over at her, he would see her, but he didn’t. She kept herself still, hardly breathing. One of the pages in the notebook promised to “Make You Invisible,” but Holly didn’t need that one. She’d always been good at not being seen. Sometimes people didn’t notice her when she was in the same room with them. Maybe she had some magic of her own, she thought. Maybe it would turn out she was good at it. Johnno stared into the refrigerator as if there was a TV in there. Finally he took out three beers and shut the door. It seemed like he had to see her, but even though his eyes seemed to pass over her, he didn’t. Holly let out her breath when he’d gone out the back door.
Kevin was still razzing Ray about his girlfriend. Kevin never knew when to let things go. He would go on and on until someone took a swing at him. Although Ray wouldn’t do that, he was too nice. But Holly was tired of it. She didn’t want to hear any more about Ray’s stupid girlfriend, even though she was a little curious about whether she was really a witch or not.
She got a bag of chips, a bunch of bananas, and a couple of apples, closing the cupboard doors carefully so they wouldn’t make noise, and went back through the house, leaving through the front door. She went down the street two houses and then ran through someone’s side yard to get to the place where the chain-link ended. She edged along it until she came to one of the paths that went down into the valley. She ran down it, sliding the last part with her heels dug in to slow herself down. At the bottom, she adjusted her backpack and started toward the elephant house.
The elephant house was one of the last new buildings built at the zoo. There were rooms in it with one glass wall so that people could see what the elephants were doing, but some private rooms also. Holly was glad they had those rooms. It seemed awful to her that someone could watch them all the time. She had had a nightmare about it once. Her room had had the glass wall, and people came to stare at her through it, kids from school, the neighbors, people she had never seen before. She had had to do what she always did in her room, lie on her bed, sit at her desk to do her homework, play with her stuffed animals—because in the dream she had to do those things as if she were a robot or an actress playing herself.
She came up on the elephant house from the back and then walked around to the front, letting her hand trail on the wall around their yard, for they had a yard, as if they lived in a real house. No grass though, or not much. It was mostly bare dirt. When it didn’t rain for a while the elephants kicked up clouds of dust when they were outside. They had a tank of water to drink from and some giant balls to play with. The yard was big enough that Holly’s own house could have sat in it comfortably, with room around the edges.
Only one of the elephants was outside, the oldest and biggest, whose name was King. Holly called to him, but he ignored her, turning away and raising his trunk. He wasn’t friendly, but he wasn’t mean either. According to Bim, who had always taken care of the elephants, they had had a rogue at the zoo once, long before Holly was born. He had run amok, Bim said, and they had to shoot him before he killed anyone. “He would have trampled anyone down who got in his way,” he said, “it was no never mind to him.”
Holly enjoyed this story, but she was just as happy that that one was gone. She loved all the elephants who lived in the elephant house now, even King, who snubbed her. She had been coming to visit them since she was seven years old, when she and her mother and Kevin still lived together.
She walked around to the people-sized door on the side of the house. Once it had been padlocked, and there was still a sign on it that said “Emergency Door, Alarm Will Sound,” but the wire for the alarm hung down the wall, unattached. Inside, it was dim, but she could see that all the elephants were in the private side of the house. “Bim,” she called.
Several of the elephants turned their heads to look at her out of their small eyes. They made welcoming noises that sounded a little like a rusty gate but also like a clarinet. Bim came out from what he called the control room, and saw her. “Princess Holly,” he said, and bowed from his waist.
Holly thought he shouldn’t call her that, that it was a kid thing and a little silly. But she never told him to stop. “Hi, Bim,” she said. “I brought some fruit.”
“They like this,” he said, “as you know. We don’t get so much fruit anymore. It’s hay and mash, hay and mash. I think they dream about fruit. They dream about melons and pineapples.”
“We didn’t have any of those,” Holy said. She laid out the apples and the bananas.
“You have brought a feast,” he said. “I’ll save it for their dessert. Unless you want to give it to them yourself?”
“That’s OK. I can’t stay too long,” Holly said. She sat down on one of the two folding chairs by the straw bales that were piled up to the elephant-sized ceiling. She zipped her backpack up, then unzipped it. The notebook was inside. Again, as with Bobby, she felt the urge to show it, but she held back.
“You are always welcome, no matter how short or long.” Bim sat down beside her, not in the other folding chair, but on the dusty, straw-littered floor. “I’m always here,” he said.
He was, Holly thought. When she was little she hadn’t thought it strange that he lived here with the elephants, but now she realized it wasn’t something normal. But she couldn’t imagine him in a regular house or apartment in his odd, foreign clothes.
“You used to sit on my lap,” he said, “when you were only so tall.” He held his hand out to show her how small she had been. “But now you are almost a young lady.”
“I’m not,” Holly said immediately, but she was pleased, even though being a lady was not among her ambitions. Curtis Bird came into her mind, as he seemed to do more and more often. “I’m just the same,” she said, even though she didn’t believe it.
She put her hand in her backpack and ran her fingers over the rings that bound the notebook together. “Do you know about magic?” she asked him.
He put one hand on the top of his head and seemed to think. “All of life is magic,” he said. “The world a magic construction.”
It sounded to her a little like the way they talked in church, when she used to go. “Not like that,” Holly said. “Magic that does things.”
He nodded his head, his hand still rubbing lightly over his hair. “Practical magic,” he said. “There are people who believe in it, and people who do not.” He paused. “There are people who make a living at magic, but sometimes these people can’t be trusted.”
“But if you do it for yourself?”
He looked out at the yard, where more of the elephants had gathered to stand in the sun or nibble at the hay spread in the troughs. “Why are you asking? What have you got in your little bag?”
Holly pulled her hand out quickly, as if she had something to feel guilty about. She didn’t ask how he knew she had something, for he often knew things about her that she hadn’t told him. “I found something,” she said.
“Mmm-hmm,” he said, humming a little. “Something magic. I see. Are you wanting me to tell you how to use it?”
She shook her head, although maybe she had wanted that, a little. “I know how,” she said. “It’s a book. There are instructions.”
“Spells?” he said. “You didn’t steal it?”
“I found it,” she said. “It was just lying there.”
“Ah,” he said. “A fate. Of course. Let’s go outside with the boys and girls and you can tell me about your book.”
Holly got up and followed him into the sun and dust of the elephant yard. Her favorite, Darla, came up to her and wound her trunk around Holly’s arm. She had known Darla since she was a baby, only a little taller than Holly was then, when she was seven. She had used to think of Darla as her sister, her elephant sister, or sometimes that she was her sister who had been turned into an elephant. She had imagined that someday she would find out how to turn her back, and she and Darla would live in her room at Kevin’s house, and wear each other’s clothes and play with dolls under the bridal wreath bush at the side of the house.
Now, she ran her hand up to pet Darla’s trunk, and then put her backpack down to give her a banana. Darla ate it neatly, skin and all, which grossed Holly out.
“I hope you don’t want to turn the color of your eyes or make yourself prettier,” Bim said.
“Of course not,” Holly said, although she had lingered over a spell that promised to make hair smooth and shiny. Her own had a tendency to be frizzy.
“Because you are as pretty as you need to be.” Bim opened one of the barrels of mash and tipped it into the trough along the wall. The elephants began to move toward them, lumbering as if in slow motion.
“I’m not pretty at all. And I don’t care anyway.” What did that mean, as pretty as she needed to be? Maybe he didn’t think she needed to be pretty. Which would mean that he thought she wasn’t. Not that she cared.
“What is it that you want to do then?” They moved away from the trough, out of the elephants’ way. Even Darla deserted her in favor of dinner. Bim took her hand and they went to sit on the wall at the edge of the yard. From here, they could see the lower level of the zoo, the gate, the now-dry pool where the seals and walruses had once swum and flipped, the fake savannah where African animals had roamed. The zoo still charged admission to see what animals were left—the elephants, the peacocks, one lion and a polar bear, the monkeys on monkey island. But it was easy to sneak in, so few people paid for it. The zoo only managed to stay afloat, Bim had told Holly, because some rich person had died a while ago and left all of his money for the care of the animals. He had wanted the zoo to be renamed after him, but no one had bothered.
“How do you know I want to do anything?” Holly kicked her heels against the warm stones of the wall.
“Because you can’t let things alone. Because you are full of wants.” He let go of her hand and rubbed her hair, taking one lock and pulling on it. “Because you are smart and determined.”
Holly pulled away from his hand, although in a way she wanted to burrow closer to him. “Well, I do,” she said. “I mean I’m going to. So, do you think it could work?”
“How would I know?” he said. “I am only a poor servant to the elephants. Whatever I knew of magic has flown out into the world, which is better altogether.” He sighed. “If I told you not to, you would do it anyway, so I won’t.”
The next day at school was track practice. Track was one of the sports that they still had, because it was cheap. She stood out on the cinder track behind Rhodes School in her uniform skirt and a hoodie, hugging her arms to her chest. The team was waiting for the coaches to get back from their smoke break. They were supposed to be running laps, but no one was.
“Holleeee. Want a drag?” A group of girls stood on the north side of the track, against the fence. There was an opening there that had once been a fenced passageway to Behrwald Avenue, now closed off and grown over with trash trees. They were smoking a joint.
“No thanks,” Holly said. She fiddled with the ties on her hoodie, looking at the back of the school on the other side of the track. She had gone here when she was little, too, when she lived with Kevin and her mother. She’d heard it used to be a high school only once, but now there were fewer kids in the neighborhood, and all the classes went to Rhodes, from kindergarten to the end of high school. The yellow bricks were dingy, the color of the brown mustard that Kevin liked on his sandwiches.
“Like you’re so pure and all,” Cinda said. She was the prettiest one of the track team girls, but none of them were stellar pretty like the cheerleaders, for instance. “Why are you being such a priss?”
“I just don’t feel like it,” Holly said. She hunched up her shoulders, and tried to look bored. “Anyway, I can get whatever I want at Kevin’s. At home, I mean,” she added, remembering how she was supposed to be calling him Dad now. “Better stuff than weed.”
“So you say,” Cinda said. She came across the track to where Holly was standing on the grass. “I think you’re just making that up, bitch.” Cinda was two years older than Holly, but she was in her grade. No one failed grades anymore. It was called resituating, but everyone knew what it meant. Cinda took hold of Holly’s arm with her fingernails and dug in.
Holly gave Cinda the stoniest look she had. “You think I’m lying?” Inside, she could feel her stomach shaking, a kind of liquid roll that moved from her belly button to her throat. She hoped it didn’t show. Cinda was bigger than she was, and stronger, but she was stupid and she got bored easily.
“Yeah, Holly bitch, I think you’re lying.”
The other girls had come up behind Cinda. They didn’t look threatening, but they looked curious about what might happen and that was almost as bad. The coaches had only been gone a few minutes.
“You know what I think?” Cinda said. She bared her teeth, so that Holly could see her chipped tooth. She shook Holly a little, her fingernails digging into Holly’s arm, which really hurt.
Holly knew how to run, and she was fast, but she had to get away from Cinda first. She tried to think of something to say or do. Kevin said fast talking could get you out of a bad situation, and he said there was nothing wrong with making nice, even if you didn’t mean it. Holly opened her mouth, to say something to make Cinda let her go, but what came out was “I didn’t know thinking was your best thing.”
“What?” Cinda said. One of the girls behind her giggled.
“Thinking,” Holly said. She was starting to shake a little, but her voice sounded OK. “Like, you need a brain for that, right?”
“You little bitch,” Cinda screamed. She got a hand in Holly’s hair, one fist raised. Holly closed her eyes, waiting for the blow, but before it came, someone had pulled her away from Cinda, an arm around her waist. “Ouch,” she said, because some of her hair pulled out, clutched in Cinda’s fist.
She thought it was one of the coaches, and was already preparing her story, what had happened and how she wasn’t to blame, nothing said about drugs. But when she turned around, she saw that it was Curtis Bird who had his arm around her. “Back off, Cinda,” he said, and she did.
“You want to ditch?” he said to Holly.
She straightened her hoodie as he stepped away from her. “Sure,” she said.
All they did was smoke a cigarette, hiding in the breezeway, sitting close but not quite touching. Holly wasn’t sure if she was disappointed or relieved. “You’ve got a smart little mouth,” Curtis said approvingly. “How old are you?”
“Twelve,” Holly said, lying unhesitatingly. She would have said thirteen if she thought he’d believe it. “How old are you?” She knew, but it seemed polite to ask.
“Fourteen. I can drive,” he said.
“Do you have a car?” Lots of kids drove without a license, she knew. No one cared too much unless they had an accident.
“I can use my brother’s sometimes.” He inhaled, sucking in the smoke and blowing it out of his nose, which fascinated Holly. She didn’t even attempt to do it when he passed her the cigarette. Their fingers touched, and she tried to decide if it was by accident or on purpose.
Holly wished she could look at him. She loved the way his hair fell forward, brushing his cheek. She pulled her uniform skirt over her bent knees, hiding her legs to the ankles.
“You’re smart in school,” Curtis said.
She turned to stare at him, forgetting her shyness. “How do you know?
“My sister works in the office,” he said. “She sees everyone’s records and stuff. She could change anyone’s grades in the computer if she wanted to.”
“Does she change yours?” Holly asked. She took the cigarette from him and puffed, letting a tiny amount of smoke trickle in.
“Nah,” he said. “I don’t care about that shit. What’s the point of being smart?”
Holly didn’t answer, because she wasn’t sure. Once, she supposed, it was good for something. You’d get a scholarship and go to college and get an important job, but that wasn’t how things went now. Being smart wasn’t something she could stop though. She was stuck with it, and really, would she rather be dumb?
“So you want to do something?” Curtis said. He shifted his knee to bump against one of hers.
Holly froze. She had given him the cigarette, so she had nothing to do with her hand. She felt around for her backpack, feeling for the ringed edge of the notebook, for comfort.
“Now?” she said, her voice squeaking. “I have to go home.” This wasn’t really true. Kevin didn’t care when she came home, as long as it was before dinner.
“What about tomorrow?” he said. “It’s the night before Halloween. We could do something spooky or shit. Can you get out at night?”
For a minute, she thought he meant going out, like on a date, but then she realized he meant sneaking out.
“I don’t know,” she said. She took the cigarette back from him and put it to her lips. It was so short that it burned her fingers a little.
“Come on,” he said. “Don’t you owe me for saving your life back there?” He put an arm around her shoulders, and Holly jumped. His arm felt hot through her hoodie.
“She wouldn’t have hurt me much,” Holly said. She had never felt this way before. Was this what Kevin felt like when he was loving someone up, she wondered.
“She was going to kick your ass,” Curtis said.
“I guess,” Holly said, and then, “maybe I could get out.”
Curtis jumped to his feet, pulling her up by one arm. “Great,” he said. “Where should we meet?”
When she got home from school the next day, Kevin was packing stuff into his truck. “I’ve got to go and work on Johnno’s car,” he said. “You be all right by yourself?”
“I don’t need anyone to babysit me,” Holly said.
“You sure? You could stay with Ray’s sister.”
Holly thought of telling him how she’d stayed home a lot of nights when she lived with her mother. She’d tuck Holly into her bed with the TV on for company, and leave her a cellphone, so she could call someone if she needed to. She always bought Chips Ahoy for those nights, because they were Holly’s favorite cookie then. But Kevin didn’t like to hear about stuff like that, how things had gone when she lived with her mother.
“I’ll be OK.” It would be easier to sneak out, she thought.
“Holly! Holleee!” Bobby was running across the street, and his mother was standing on the porch looking toward them. “You want to come over and visit Candy?” he asked when he reached her. He was out of breath.
“I’ve got homework,” Holly said. “Catch you later.”
“Candy misses you.” Bobby leaned closer, so that she could smell the bubblegum on his breath. “Are you going to do the, you know, the thing?”
“I didn’t decide,” Holly said. She felt a little bad about lying to Bobby, but it was all too much to explain while Kevin was getting ready to leave. It was better not to do it with Bobby, she thought. He was too young, and it might be dangerous. The idea of danger made her breath come quick, and she had a flash of running with Curtis, the two of them running from something, she didn’t know what.
Bobby’s mother was waving her arms around, and Bobby said, “Oh, yeah. My mom wants to invite you to dinner, with your dad.”
Holly knew Kevin had heard this, because he snorted. “I don’t know about that,” she said. “Kevin’s pretty busy. We’ll call, tell her.”
Bobby ran back to his mom, and Kevin laughed. “Pretty smooth, H. You’ll be good at turning down the boys when it’s time.”
Why did he think she’d turn them down, Holly wondered. It was because she was a girl, probably. You were supposed to say no.
Holly waited an hour, watching stuff on TV. She was supposed to meet Curtis when it got dark. At 5 o’clock, she got out her phone. U there? she texted. She’d expected she’d have to wait for an answer, but almost immediately Curtis sent back, Yo. Still 2nite?
Holly held her phone up, her thumbs tense. Meet u @6, and waited for Curtis’s reply, which was Yo gotcha. Holly flushed with pleasure. She didn’t know why Curtis had an interest in her, but she felt that she had to do something extraordinary to keep it. She’d been going back and forth about the notebook, but now she decided. Yes, she’d show it to Curtis, and she’d invite him along for the spell casting. This was what you called it – she’d looked it up on the computer at school. You cast it, like you threw it someplace, into the air, up to heaven, which she liked. Like the javelin at track, except it wouldn’t fall to the grass, it would keep on going, the spell a bright line that would wind around the earth searching for what was lost. She didn’t plan to tell Curtis what she was looking for. She didn’t want to be the girl who wanted her mommy. She was going to take him down to the zoo, to a place where she wanted to do the spell. She had the stuff ready – a mirror, some whiskey in a baby food jar, a candle, a peacock feather. She had one of her mother’s scarves.
Walking fast along the street, she felt like she was flying, or like she’d taken something to get high. Was that why they did drugs, Kevin and his friends? Did it make them feel like this? Her stomach was clenched tight, but she didn’t feel sick. Her heartbeat was buzzing in her head. She wished she’d taken the time to comb her hair, and she smoothed it away from her face. When she was almost there, she stopped and waited to catch her breath, which seemed to be coming too fast. She stood by a tree, spying ahead to see if she could see Curtis. What if he hadn’t come?
But she saw some movement in the shadows. He had a cigarette, she could see its lit tip. He was leaning against the fence, the trees rising out of the zoo valley behind him. For a minute, she didn’t move. While she stood there, before he saw her, it was like she had him, like he was hers, before she could say or do something stupid that would ruin it all.
She thought probably he’d want to do something, because that’s how boys worked, and she told herself that she was ready to do it, whatever he wanted. It was no big deal, after all, she knew that from hearing how Kevin and all of them carried on.
“Hey,” Curtis said, as she came up to him. He lounged against the fence, his hips angled out, his legs wide. “Is your dad gone?” Curtis said. “Can we go in the house?”
“I thought we could take a walk.”
“You could show me your room,” Curtis said. He took hold of her arm, just above the elbow.
“No, really,” Holly said. “Kevin might come back any time.” Her arm felt hot, almost burning, even though he wasn’t touching her skin.
“Why do you call him Kevin?” Curtis asked. He ran his fingers up and down the back of her arm absently, as if he were thinking of something else.
“I don’t know,” Holly said. “I just always did. What do you care?”
“I don’t,” Curtis said. “It’s cool, I guess. So where do you want to go? The cemetery?”
“No,” Holly said. She pulled her arm away as if she didn’t care one way or the other if he touched her, and resettled her backpack. “Come on,” she said, and led the way to the path down into the zoo valley.
On the path, Curtis kept jostling her until she told him to cut it out. “Do you want to fall?” she asked.
“Oh, I’m falling,” he said with a stupid grin. “So, I hear your dad is a pretty cool guy.”
“He’s OK,” Holly said. They’d gotten to the halfway mark, the big rock that she liked sometimes to lie down on to watch clouds. It was almost dark, and the moon was rising. Clouds were racing across the sky, a little wind coming up. Holly hurried down the path, letting her feet feel their way.
“Wait up,” Curtis said behind her. “It’s fucking dark out here. Where are we going?”
Holly didn’t answer him, concentrating on reaching the bottom. She slid down the last bit of the path and waited for Curtis, then pushed ahead. The whole zoo was laid out before them, silver-edged buildings and fences, the ghostly remains of the outdoor aviary like a haunted cage.
“Is this the zoo?” Curtis said. He came up behind her.
“Yes,” Holly said. What did he think it was? “Come on,” she hefted her backpack, which felt heavier all of a sudden and led him around the back of the elephant house to a bunch of trees along the railroad tracks. She pushed through and they came out into a little clearing, only about ten feet across. It was carpeted with long, uncut grass, the trees ringed around it like a leafy wall.
“Cool,” Curtis said. He sat down on a rock and got out a cigarette.
Holly set her backpack down on a tree stump almost in the center. It was as big as a table, much bigger than any of the trees around them. Now that they were here, she realized, she’d have to tell Curtis what she was planning to do. She played with the zip on her backpack, moving it back and forth.
“What you got in there?” he said. “Something to party with? I hear your dad has the good stuff,” he said. “Like, not just weed.”
“I don’t do that stuff,” Holly said. She sat on the tree stump and put her hand inside her backpack. She touched the notebook, running her fingers over the ringed edge.
“That’s not what I hear at school,” he said. “I heard you got all of the good stuff you want at home.”
Holly stared at him. “I just say that,” she said. “It’s just something to say.”
Curtis got up and came over to her, taking her elbow and pulling her up so that her chest was mashed against his. He got an arm around her neck and rubbed his face against hers. “Don’t you want to be nice to me? Just a little. I bet you could get me something. Your dad wouldn’t mind.”
Holly wasn’t stupid, but she felt as if she were. It was all laid out for her to read, like in a book where the girl is so dumb, but she does all this stuff anyway even though the reader can see exactly what’s going to happen, but she goes ahead and does it. Holly saw that she was like that girl, not smart enough until afterward. But the feel of Curtis’s mouth against her cheek and her lips and her ear was such a powerful argument for being stupid. His chest under his shirt, the easy way he touched her at the top of her spine and at her waist—she had a hard time holding onto the smarter parts of her.
“I like you, Holly,” he was saying in between kisses. “Don’t you like me a little?” He pushed his mouth into hers, covering her with his lips, which were hot and wet. She couldn’t help but open her mouth, and he pushed his tongue inside. She imagined how this would look from the outside, like watching Johnno come on to some girl on the couch at home, and it was a little disgusting, but also so exciting that she felt her breath coming in little pants.
“Come on, now,” he was saying into her neck, “come on.”
“I’m not, I don’t want,” Holly said, but her words were muffled against his shirt collar. She could feel a kind of burning in her body, almost painful, her whole body gathering itself up to push harder against Curtis, and she let her head fall back. His eyes were glittering above her, his eyelids lowered. She thought about what it would be like to have Curtis as her boyfriend, imagining how he would hold her hand and kiss her goodbye when she went to class. They’d lie on the couch together or go up to her room (Kevin wouldn’t care, she supposed). She could help him do his homework. All those things that other girls had, she could have those. Funny texts in class, rides in his father’s car.
But even as she let herself think about these things, she knew she wasn’t pretty enough for Curtis, and she didn’t know how she’d let herself believe in that, even for a minute. She put her hands on his chest and pushed. He resisted for a minute, and then stepped back, letting his hands fall.
“What’s the matter, scared?” He pushed his hair away from his face.
“I’m not scared,” Holly said.
“You should be, maybe,” he said, “all alone down here in the dark.” He grimaced at her, half smile, half sneer. “You can’t run and you can’t hide,” he said, as if it was very clever.
Holly thought she probably could, but she didn’t say anything. Her breathing was back to normal now, although she still felt too hot.
“You sure you don’t want to be friendly? You could just introduce me to your father. Put in a good word, like.”
Holly shook her head.
Curtis grabbed her by her shirt and pulled her a little closer. He grabbed her wrist, and then, fast, the other one, holding them both in one of his bigger hands. He put his other hand on the front of her jeans, over the zipper. “You got any hair down there yet?”
“Where?” Holly said, although she knew what he meant, from health class.
“On your pussy,” Curtis said. He pushed his hand against her, hard, and for the first time Holly began to feel afraid.
She opened her mouth, hoping she’d think of something to say that would calm him down, about how hot he was or something, but then he laughed at her, and she lost it. She butted her head against him, and when he dropped her hands, she kicked him as hard as she could in his leg. He fell back, surprised, and she ran. By the time he’d cleared the trees behind her, she was half way across the field to the elephant house. She could hear him behind her, swearing, and she speeded up, her legs pumping, so much like running when she was a little kid, the kind of running that made you feel you could leave your whole life behind, except that now she was scared. She ran into the shadow of the elephant house and sidled along it until she got to the wall around the yard. She hopped over it, sprawling on the other side in the dirt. The elephants should all have been inside, but King was there, a hulk near the feeding trough. She went to him, moving close until she was near his leg. She put her hand out to him, and he swung his head toward her. She moved right up against him, hiding in the shadow of his leg and trunk.
She could hear Curtis running, and then slowing down. He was looking for her, but he didn’t call out, which somehow seemed more scary than if he’d yelled and called her names. She put her face against King’s leg and let herself cry a little. She knew, because King was out, that Bim wasn’t there. Sometimes he went into the city to get a drink, and carouse, he’d told her. She was on her own, but curiously, she wasn’t scared any more. “Oh, King,” she said. “I wish—” but she didn’t know how to say what she wished. She wished he could be her friend, that he could talk, that he could walk with her up the hill path out of the zoo. She wished that he had an arm he could put around her. She wished she wasn’t so ugly, and that Kevin wasn’t her father. She wished her mother hadn’t left her here. She wished her mother was here right now, but she also hated her and wished she was dead.
King’s skin was wrinkled, dry and a little smelly, with bits of hay stuck to it. He snuffled and began to pull away from her. She followed him, staying in his shadow, although she didn’t think Curtis was looking for her anymore. She watched as he went to the water trough and drank from it, flicking water in the air from the tip of his trunk. He trumpeted quietly, and the elephants inside answered him. Holly went to the wall and looked over it, then got on top to have a better view. The zoo stretched out around her, silvery and alien. Unless Curtis was hiding, he had gone.
She went back to the trees to get her backpack, and found it open, the stuff inside scattered on the ground, except for the baby food jar of whiskey, which was gone. She squatted down and gathered it up. She pulled the notebook out and opened it to the page that said “For finding lost things.” She said the words out loud, not bothering with the candle and the mirror and the other things. “Oh bring her back to me, under the sky and sea, bring her back to my hand.” She paused and said the second part. “Bring her back to me, here in my hand, show her to me, wherever she be.” It sounded stupid, she thought, no matter how pretty the curling cursive letters were on the page.
She put everything in and shouldered her backpack, and went up the hill, feeling the ache in her legs from the climb, and in her arms from where Curtis had gripped her. When she got to the top, she saw that her father’s truck was in the driveway. He and Ray were on the porch with Johnno, setting up the sound for Halloween, a CD of unearthly groans that they had recorded themselves, along with some fake spooky music.
“I thought you were going to be gone all night,” she said.
“Plans changed, as they say,” Kevin was standing on a chair, hanging a plastic cobweb from the porch ceiling.
Ray was on the steps, trying to fix a skeleton that had fallen apart. “What
happened to your shirt?” he asked Holly.
Holly looked down. Her shirt was torn at the neck, although she didn’t remember that happening. “Nothing,” she said. “I don’t know.”
“Holly,” someone yelled from across the street. Bobby was running toward them. She wondered why he was up so late, but when she looked at her phone, she saw that it was only seven o’clock.
“Holly! You want to come and visit Candy?” He jumped up on the curb and ran across the lawn, weaving between the fake gravestones Kevin had put up.
“No,” she said.
“Come on,” he said. “Come on, Holly,” and she heard the echo of what Curtis had said to her. “My mom has some cookies for us. Maybe Candy would like one.”
“Cats don’t eat cookies,” she said. She dropped her backpack on the ground.
“Did you ask your dad about dinner?” Bobbie asked her in a whisper. “My mom said to ask.”
“He doesn’t want to come,” Holly said.
“Why not?” Bobby was kicking at one of the gravestones.
“Because they had sex, and now it’s over.” Holly saw out of the corner of her eye how Ray turned sharply toward her. Fine, she thought. She wanted him to hear.
Bobby stopped kicking and looked at her, his mouth open as if he were going to say What, but nothing came out.
Holly dumped her backpack on the ground by the steps. “They had sex,” she said in a louder voice, “but don’t think Kevin is going to be your new dad, because he won’t. That’s not how he rolls.”
Bobby started to cry. Kevin jumped off the chair. “What the fuck, Holly,” he yelled, but Holly was already across the street. She ran through the backyards, pushing through hedges and hopping or climbing fences. When the noise behind her stopped, she circled back through the alley to Bobby’s yard, to the garage. She thought Bobby might be there, but he wasn’t.
She went into the garage where Candy was lying on the blanket. Holly picked her up and took her back by the fence, where Bobby had said they’d make a house for her. She sat on the crate with Candy in her lap. She was thinking about her mother, and how maybe she was dead. Maybe it was better if she was dead, Holly thought. That’s what you learned in church, she remembered, from when her mother still took her. Everybody died. Candy was moaning on her lap and then, after a few minutes, she stopped.