CHAPTER 8 – NATE
I follow Mom to my bedroom on the second floor of our house. She doesn’t speak to me along the way, even though I ask her why she can’t stop and talk to me somewhere on the first floor. If I feel this uncomfortable already, I can’t imagine what Emi’s feeling like.
“Close the door, Nathan,” she says once we get into my room. I do as she asks. “Have a seat.” I wonder if she’s found out about my incident with the cop yesterday. Our town isn’t very big. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone told her. “I was planning on having this conversation with you tomorrow, but apparently it can’t wait.”
I just raise my eyebrows, surprised by my mother’s demeanor.
“I cannot believe you think you can just bring a girl over to my house this late at night. What are you thinking?”
“She doesn’t have anywhere to go, that’s all. You’re a charitable person… we have plenty of room. I thought it would be okay.”
“And where did you find her?”
I let out a small laugh, but my mom isn’t smiling. “I go to school with her, Mom. She’s in my art class.”
“And why haven’t I seen her before?”
“She just transferred. Her parents are splitting up. She’s just having a rough time. I wanted to help her. Honestly, I didn’t know how, but she asked if she could come here, and I couldn’t say no. I couldn’t just leave her in the middle of Morristown on her own.”
“This is all quite a convenient story, Nathan, but I thought we had a better relationship than this.”
“What are you talking about? I’m telling the truth!”
“Were you planning on using these?” she asks as she reaches into my nightstand and pulls out a box of condoms. She empties the contents in her hand: two remaining rubbers. I stand up and grab them from her quickly, putting everything in my pocket.
“No?!” she asks, suddenly upset that I’m not planning on having sex with Emi. I realize a few seconds later what she’s thinking.
“God, Mom, give me a little credit. Emi and I are just friends. I just met her yesterday.”
“So you realize this relationship is moving too fast.”
“In your mind it is,” I tell her. “We don’t have a relationship, Mom. We barely have a friendship. She just needs a place to stay tonight.”
“Then why do you have the condoms?”
“Why were you going through my things?”
“Because you smell like cigarette smoke, and I wanted to get rid of whatever you had. I found the pack in your car. I was sure there were more in here.”
“There aren’t,” I start, “and I don’t appreciate you invading my privacy. You could have asked me, Mom. That’s the kind of relationship we have. Not this bullshit.”
“Watch your language.”
“Well, it is.”
“If it’s… that,” she says, careful not to repeat my profanity, “then you should have talked to me about what’s in your pocket.”
“Sorry, but… I just want to be prepared, that’s all.”
“So you’re not having sex,” she says.
“Not actively, no.”
“But you were.” I shift my eyes ever-so-slightly, and she knows the truth. “Nathan,” she says as her eyes tear up. “Baby, you’re too young. This is why I was against sending you to public school.”
“Mother,” I sigh, sitting back down on my bed. “I’m sixteen.”
“You’re not equipped to make such decisions, though,” she half-whines. “And we haven’t even had the talk. I never could do it, Nathan, I just wasn’t prepared and every time I tried, I’d just imagine your father being here, talking to you. It should have been him–”
“Mom, stop–” I don’t want to see any more tears falling down her cheeks. When she gets like this, it makes me emotional, to the point that I have to confine myself to the art room for hours to get it all out in private.
“And then, I was hoping you and Victor would eventually become close enough–”
“I don’t need to have the talk with him, Mom, or anyone for that matter. It’s kind of self-explanatory. And I took a health class, anyway. I know where babies come from,” I say, trying to lighten the mood.
“This isn’t funny, Nathan,” she says.
“I take it seriously, Mom. That’s why I have these,” I tell her, holding up the condoms.
“Put those away,” she says, blushing.
“You got them out.”
“I don’t want to see them anymore.”
“Fine.” I shake my head and step over to the nightstand, shoving the box and condoms in the back of the drawer.
“Was she good enough for you?”
“We’re not going to talk about her right now, Mom. There’s another girl downstairs who’s waiting for you to decide whether or not she will be sleeping in a warm bed or in a patch of ice outside. And she’s a nice girl. I want to help her.”
“This is not a safe haven for strays,” she says. “We don’t harbor runaways here.”
“She’s not exactly a runaway.”
“So her parents know where she’s at?”
“No,” I admit. “But she’s going back tomorrow. I’ll take her there myself.”
“I have to call her parents.”
“It’s her mom,” I tell her. “She just lives with her mom now.”
“Well, she must be worried sick, on a night like tonight. She can stay on the condition that we notify her mother, that she sleeps in a room on the first floor– she can stay in the antique room– and she leaves to go back to her house in the morning when the ice melts. And the only reason I’m allowing this is that the weather’s too bad for anyone to be out driving in it. I’m putting Victor up in the east room.” I glare at her suspiciously. “He can’t drive in this.”
“Convenient,” I mutter.
“Nathan, you’re making a fool of yourself. We only work together.”
“Whatever. As long as he leaves first thing in the morning, when the ice melts.”
“You don’t make the rules here, honey,” she says, her voice syrupy but her words rather harsh. “I could easily tell her no… because of my own suspicions…” she threatens.
“Sorry, Mom. Forget it. Thanks for letting her stay.”
“And you two are not allowed to be sharing a bed for any purpose, do you understand? Or a couch or anything.”
“We can’t sit on a couch together?” I ask.
“No,” she says. I can tell from her expression she realizes it’s a strange request, but I can also see that she isn’t going to back down, either.
“Whatever you say.”
“And you are not allowed to have sex in my house. Ever. Got it?”
“Fine, Mom.” Since she works out of the house and has a housekeeper to run her errands, she rarely leaves the premises anyway. The only place I’m ever really alone is in the art room… which is where I plan to take Emi. I guess that room isn’t a threat to Mom since there’s no comfortable seating at all in there.
I can bring in some pillows.
“Okay,” she says, finally wiping the mascara from her eyes. She squeezes my arm before opening my bedroom door and leading the way back into the kitchen.
“Emily,” my mother addresses Emi from across the room. I meet her sea-green eyes and she shakes her head, as if telling me not to correct her again. “You can stay in one of our guest rooms, but I have to call your mother and let her know where you are. As a mother, I can’t let her worry about you like that, even though I know you–”
“Okay,” Emi says, cutting her off.
“Oh,” Mom says, a little surprised. “I can call her?”
“I was about to call her myself. Well, I was going to call my brother, but I don’t really care who you call. Here’s the number,” she says, pulling out a slip of paper and handing it to my mother. “Her name is Karen Hennigan.”
“I’ll show you where your room is,” I tell Emi, motioning for her to follow me as my mom makes her way to her office. She picks up her purse and follows me down the long hallway. I point out the bathroom to her on the way.
“What’d she say?” Emi says softly.
“That you could stay as long as we called your mom, that’s all.”
She smiles and sets her purse down on the bed. “Your mom’s cool.”
“She’s not bad,” I tell her. Emi glances at herself in the mirror. She touches her lips thoughtfully.
“It is too much, isn’t it?”
I smile a little, happy that she wasn’t offended at what I’d said earlier. I couldn’t tell by her reaction. She has such natural beauty, without even trying. I can’t imagine what horrible woman’s magazine would have convinced her to paint herself like that. It must be the same one that Mom reads.
“Can I wash my face?” she asks me.
“Of course. There are towels and soap under the sink. I’ll be in the kitchen. I want to show you something, if you can stay awake a little longer.”
“I’m not tired at all,” she says. “I’m guessing chai tea has caffeine. I’m a little jittery.”
“Yeah,” I admit. “I’m used to drinking it to help me stay awake. That was my plan tonight. I’m mid-painting.”
“Is that what you want to show me?” I nod. “Cool. I’ll be there in a few.”
Returning to the kitchen, I search the refrigerator for something to eat. “There are some honeycrisp apples,” Mom suggests. “Elsa got them at the farmer’s market this morning. I know they’re your favorite.”
“Do we have any ice cream?” I ask her, taking out an apple.
“Cookies and cream,” she answers. I shake my head. “But you love cookies and cream.”
“I was going to offer it to her.” Mom raises her eyebrows. “She has this thing against chocolate. Did you talk to her mother?”
She gives me a disapproving glance. “She was in a panic. They aren’t from around here, Nathan. They don’t know who we are. I was hoping to ease her mind, but I don’t think it worked. I did talk her out of coming out here tonight in this conditions,” she adds. “But she has our address. I have no doubt she’ll come looking early in the morning if we don’t get her home as soon as the sun comes up and starts melting the ice.”
“I’ll take her first thing.”
“We’ll get the service, Nathan. I don’t want you out there until it’s all dry. I worry about you.”
I decide not to argue with her.
“Your towels are so soft,” Emi says, addressing my mother. Once again, her eyes are the first thing I notice about her, and she seems more familiar to me again. “And your house is… overwhelming. Thanks for letting me freshen up.”
“You’re welcome, dear. And thank you. I spoke with your mother. You’ve really worried her,” Mom says.
My new friend comes and sits next to me at the kitchen island. I offer her the apple I’d cleaned up for myself, and to my surprise, she accepts it. Mom notices and gets me another one from the fridge. “She’s leaving my dad,” Emi says. “I honestly don’t know how to deal with this.” She takes a bite of the apple and chews it slowly, tracing the marble pattern of the countertop.
“I’m sure it’s not easy, Emily.” Mom leans on her elbows on the island, attentive to Emi. “Sometimes it helps to talk about it.”
I don’t want to make her uncomfortable. “Mom–”
“He cheated on her. I caught him,” Emi continues. I look at her, biting my lip, allowing her to speak. “He took her to this restaurant. I was there with some friends, and this woman’s laughter rose above the noise of the entire place,” she says evenly. I can tell that emotions lie just beneath the surface, but I admire her strength as she continues. “I watched her for a few minutes, thinking it was sweet how her date was feeding her fruit dipped in chocolate. They had a fondue pot between them. He held a cherry up by its stem, covered with chocolate, and fed it to her. The chocolate dripped down her chin, and he stopped her from wiping it off with her napkin. I was entranced. It seemed so intimate. I was imagining that being me someday. I even nudged my friends and got their attention, showing them what I was watching. And then her date leaned in and licked the chocolate from her face, eventually meeting her lips with his. He kissed her for a long time, and one of my friends said, ‘That looks like your dad.’”
Mom has a distinct frown on her face, and she puts her hand on Emi’s arm. Chocolate.
“I hadn’t even looked at the guy. But my dad has a distinctive mole on his neck… and it was him.”
“Sweetie, I’m so sorry,” Mom says. I’m glad she speaks up, because I’m at a loss for words. “That must have hurt you so much.” Emi nods. I want to know what happened next, but I’m afraid to ask.
“I hate him,” she says. It stings to hear her say that. I was angry with my dad when he died. I felt betrayed by him, too, but I could never say that I hated him. He was my dad.
“Hate is such an ugly word,” Mom says, now moving to the side of the island that Emi and I are sitting on. She puts her arm around Emi’s shoulders. “But you have every right to be angry with him. You need to find an outlet for that anger. Nathan can tell you all about that.”
When Emi looks up, the whites of her eyes are red, and the green color I’d seen before is deeper, even more faceted. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to replicate the depth of color in her irises– but it won’t be for lack of trying. “I’m sorry,” Emi whispers, looking at me. “You must think I’m awful. That I take him for granted.”
“I don’t think that at all. Mom, I’m going to show her the art room.” I wait for her object, unsure if she’ll be okay with us up on the third floor, alone, when she and Victor will be settling into their bedrooms on the first floor at the other end of the house.
“I think that’s a good idea, Nathan.” When Emi stands up, apple still in hand, she embraces my mother tightly. Mom shuts her eyes and runs her fingers through Emi’s straight hair, comforting her as best as she knows how. It’s one of the things my mom does best. It’s why she’s so good with the terminally ill children at the hospital she volunteers at. “And Emily, just try to get a good night’s sleep. You’ll probably feel much better with a clear head.”
“Okay,” she says with a smile.
“Nathan can get you some extra blankets, if you need them.”
“Thanks. Thanks so much, Mrs. Wilson.”
“It’s Donna,” she says. “Always call me Donna. And anytime.” Mom kisses her forehead, making Emi smile and blush. I can tell she already feels better, and a part of me wishes that I could have made her smile, blush… that I could have made her feel better.
Emi follows me up the spiral staircase to the third level of our house. This is considered the entertainment floor of the house. All of Mom’s parties take place here. We have a built-in theatre in the east corner. My art room takes up the entire northwest corner of the house. It has a wide balcony where I can take my easel and work, or just sit and enjoy the sunset across the small reservoir and lush landscape of trees. The room has its own fireplace and skylights, both of which provide me with unique lighting. My favorite is natural lighting. It’s when colors are purest.
“Is this some sort of poinsoned apple?” Emi asks, taking another bite of it and wiping her nose with the back of her hand. I stare at her curiously, taking a slight detour into the library to grab the nearest box of tissues. “How’d your mom do that?”
“Are you implying she’s a witch?” I joke with her.
“Not at all,” she laughs.
Emi and I trade– her apple for a tissue– and she tries to compose herself again. “Mom’s had a lot of practice.”
“Some with me,” I admit. “Although I must be immune to some of that. I had to seek outside therapy. She couldn’t fix me entirely.” I smile and shrug, then realize that just like that I’ve told her more than I’ve told any of my friends.
“Why’d you need to be fixed?” I open the door to my art room, motioning for her to enter. “Are these all yours?” she says, eyeing all of the artwork on the walls, on easels, on the floor. The overhead lights are off, leaving only the museum lighting over each of the paintings. This is how Mom likes to leave the room all the time when I’m not using it.
She starts on the left side of the room, looking first at the paintings centered in the wood paneling. What she says about them will tell me if she truly is the artist I’ve assumed she is. But she’s silent, and I watch as her eyes jump back and forth, up and down, taking in every element of each piece of work. On the third one, the largest one in the room, she walks backwards about ten feet. She swipes at tears with the tissue before they have a chance to fall. “It hurts,” she says. “That one. That’s how I feel. It’s so… empty and… and… ugly… and angry.”
I turn away from her so she can’t see my eyes start to water. “Thanks.” I have to clear my voice and repeat the word to make an audible sound.
“I didn’t mean it as an insult,” she says quickly.
“I’m not taking it as one,” I assure her, disguising the unsteadiness in my voice.
“I wasn’t always like this,” she says. “Empty and angry.”
“And you won’t always be,” I tell her. “I don’t think that’s who you are, Emi. You can’t let what happened to you turn you into someone else. You’re in control,” I say, remembering the words of my therapist. “Not your dad. Not what he did. You make the choice.”
“What made you paint that?” she asks. That piece was an emotional breakthrough for me. I think I was fourteen.
“I had a lot of shit going on,” I tell her, standing motionless and trying to sort out what to tell her. She startles me, placing her hand on my shoulder. I turn around quickly.
“Sorry,” she says, taking a step back. As I start talking, she walks back over to that painting.
“Dad died suddenly, when I was ten. In a car wreck. He was drunk.” I stare as I tell her the last part. She turns her head to look at me, her expression one of pity as she puts one hand over her mouth. I shake my head. “Don’t feel bad. That was his choice.”
“When I was ten, it was sad. And I was angry that he died, and even more so when I found out he’d been drinking. But that was just, you know, the typical reaction you have when someone dies. As I got a little older, though, I started blaming myself. Dad and I got along fine, but we were never that close. I mean, it seemed like we were, but when I learned about other dads, and how involved they were, I realized we had a strange relationship. Like, he was a part-time father. And I was content with that, not understanding that as his child, I could have asked for more. I could have pushed for more. Had I been more of a part of his life, maybe he wouldn’t have needed to drink as much. Maybe he would have felt the need to stay home with us that night, instead of going to a bar.”
“It’s not your fault,” Emi says quickly. I walk over to her and we look at the painting together.
“I realized it wasn’t my fault as I painted this,” I tell her. “I know it sounds weird, but I don’t consciously remember painting parts of it. Sometimes I just get so focused that… I don’t know… I transcend reality or something.”
She looks at me seriously, nodding her head. “That sounds a little crazy,” she says. Her lips remain in a soft line, but her eyes smile at me.
“Tell me something I don’t know,” I respond, pushing her shoulder playfully.
“It’s brilliant,” she says.
“Again,” I repeat, “tell me something I don’t know.”
“Seriously. Thank you. I see it and think there’s something there, but it’s a little too avant garde for most people’s tastes. It’s not a field of wildflowers or an image of lovers on a rainy day.”
“What is it, exactly?” she asks. “I mean, is there anything literal there?”
“Sure,” I tell her. “It’s how I feel. I can’t get much more literal than that.”
“I guess not.” She moves on to the next painting, and then another. I cross the room to the other side, flipping on the lamp I’d chosen to work with this morning. Grey. I think there may have been grey.
“Is this him?” she calls out, her voice echoing. She covers her mouth as she realizes how loud it can be in the art room, with no curtains, carpet or furniture.
I know which painting she’s talking about without looking. I tried to paint him, from memory. It was rough, and disproportionate, but Mom loved it. “Yeah, I did that when I was twelve.”
“You went from this portrait thing, to that?” she asks, seemingly surprised.
“To what? The empty, ugly, angry thing?” I quote her words back to her.
“You know I didn’t mean it was ugly, right?” She crosses the room quickly. “I meant dark, and dire and sad. But I think it’s incredible.”
“Stop, I’m messing with you.” Her posture loses some of its tension. “And yes. Somewhere along the way, I began to see the world differently.”
“You’re a prodigy?”
“No.” I’d never liked that word. “I just found my calling at a young age.”
“Some people spend their whole lives searching for this, you know? I mean, is this something you love to do?”
“No,” I tell her. “It’s something I have to do. It’s the only way I feel alive. It’s the only way I can process the world around me.”
“Prodigy,” she whispers again.
“Tragedy,” I counter. She squints her eyes at me. “It’s how I cope. Some people need medicine. Some people need to see a shrink every week. Some people drink,” I say softly, understanding that was my dad’s way to deal with things. “I paint. A prodigy could do that abstract thing at six,” I explain, motioning toward the ugly painting. “I had to live and die first.”
“How are you my age?” she asks.
“Everything you say is so thought out and profound.”
“I’m not always like that, either,” I explain. “I’ve just been hyper-focused on the art these past few weeks. I’ve been painting more, reading more, writing more.”
“I have nothing else to distract me.”
“What was distracting you before?” she asks. I like that she picked up on that. I want to tell her things.
©2012 Lori L. Otto
Do you like what you’ve read so far? This is a prequel to my Emi Lost & Found series. You can download the first book, Lost and Found, for only $.99!