Authors: Melissa Simonson
© 2016 Melissa Simonson
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I go back to September all the time.
It’s hard not to when everyone wants to know why Caroline set that fire. “
Did she know he was inside the house?”
they’ll sometimes ask. “
Of course not,”
I always reply, “
she had nothing to do with that fire
but she did.
September’s the tail end of fire season in California, and the day Brian’s house burned to the ground was a scorcher.
“He always wanted central heating,” Caroline told me later with a shrug and a little cat smile on her chapped lips. And if he didn’t want to die, she’d also said, well, then maybe he shouldn’t have frozen her out the way he did. “I mean, seriously,” Caroline said with one eyebrow high on her forehead, “not even a fucking text? Morse code? Shit, I’d have taken a breakup carrier pigeon.
Looks like it’s not working out anymore, Caroline, I’d rather dick around with Hailey Whatsherface.
How hard would that have been? Hmm?”
Obviously I was supposed to agree, of course it wouldn’t have been hard, have fun dicking around with Hailey Whatsherface, so I recited my lines accordingly.
Her lips thinned. She gazed at the ugly powder blue scrubs the facility had made her change into, stared at her knees. “You think she’s prettier than me, Hailey Whatsherface?”
“Nobody’s prettier than you.”
She already knew that. Anyone who’d ever seen her said it. A lot of men were afraid of her, and most women hated her. It was the way of her world, and she didn’t mind.
It’ll be the same for you when you’re older,
milaya, she used to say in an exaggerated Russian accent when she’d braid my hair before bedtime.
“Then what the fuck?” She made to turn her hands palm-up, but the restraints wouldn’t allow it. “Men are morons. I almost wish I’d had some lesbian experience in college. Could have saved myself this bullshit rubber room stint.”
“It was never about looks,” I finally had to say. Caroline was smarter than me; she had to have known that, too. “He was simple. You’re anything but. He didn’t have it in him to work harder, figure you out.”
“It’ll be the same for you when you’re older,
“You should learn some new words. That one’s getting tired.”
She snorted, rolled her eyes. Wrinkled her nose when the guy across the room started banging his head against the wall, yelling something to do with a ferret. “Well, hey. I might have all the time in the world to learn the whole goddamned language.” She nodded across the room at a girl no older than me, whose neck and collarbones choked against huge pinky-white blotches of scar tissue, a few tufts of new hair poking through her bald scalp. A dead girl rolling around in a rickety wheelchair. I’d seen her before, and she scared the hell out of me. “She doused herself in gasoline eight months ago. Lit herself on fire out of the blue one morning.”
A noise of disgust caught in my throat, and Caroline didn’t miss it. “Yeah, crazy. How brave could she be, lighting that match? Fire? Jesus. I thought women took pills. Maybe an ambitious one might use a gun, whatever.”
I aimed a pointed look at her bandaged wrists.
“That was just for show,” she qualified. “Suicide’s for pussies.”
I guessed that meant the female members of our family were largely made up of pussies. I tried thinking up a joke in that vein but came up dry.
Caroline read my mind, flipped through thoughts with nimble fingers like she has my whole life. “Russians. Just our luck. The whole lot are a bunch of boring-ass depressives.”
We weren’t even awake when they came for her.
Later, Detective Slater told me his favorite time to arrest people was five thirty in the morning. If they’re upstanding citizens who work regularly, chances are they haven’t left yet. If they’re lousy, layabout party animals, they’ve probably slunk home by then.
Caroline didn’t exactly fit either category, but she was still home.
I didn’t hear the first knock, but I felt Caroline start, her hand on my shoulder through an old quilt our mother made a thousand years ago.
The second knock came, and the third was loudest.
I threw the covers off, sat up on the couch, opened my mouth, but Caroline held her hand up, listening.
She was at the door by the fourth and final knock, right in time to hear the muffled bellow of Detective Slater.
Her nightshirt hung off one golden shoulder when she wrenched the door open.
“Caroline Smirnov?” He didn’t wait for her nod or an answer of any kind. “You’re under arrest.” He whipped her around, grabbed both her hands in one of his. She blew a heavy curtain of dark, honey-blonde hair off her face and asked
exactly the same way she did every time some guy asked for her phone number.
“Arson and first-degree murder.”
Caroline’s eyes were on mine when she told Detective Slater he was out of his fucking mind and for God’s sake could she at least put on a pair of pants before being hauled out of her house in front of her baby sister, what kind of savage was he?
A shiny pair of cuffs hung loose off one wrist as she crossed our living room in three quick steps.
“Don’t worry,” she told me, grabbing for the pair of yoga pants on the floor. “I’ll be back by noon.”
That was the first time she lied to me.
Later I was told who she supposedly killed, and how. I didn’t believe she was innocent, but after confronting her for the first time at Breakthrough Recovery Center, I wasn’t fully convinced of her guilt, either. He’d killed a chunk of Caroline, turned her into a zombie who didn’t do anything other than hang out on our roof. She didn’t have to kill him, but he didn’t have to rip her heart out and stomp on it, laugh to his friends that arguably the most beautiful woman any of them had seen outside movies pined for him.
As far as who had more inherent worth, Caroline would win hands-down.
Brian was like all the other men before him, pestering Caroline for her number. She didn’t give it to him, but he found out where she worked and called her there.
Tell him I’m involved with the prime minister of Bulgaria
, she’d tell the receptionist at the magazine she freelanced for.
He’s got a shitload of goons he’d just love to sic upon the idiot masses of men who want me. You probably don’t want to tempt him.
I’ve been having dreams about you,
he told her the next day as she reached to grab her coffee from the barista.
I’d rather you didn’t,
she said, nostrils flaring in disgust.
This is my lesbian lover,
she’d invented, after he didn’t buy the prime minister thing and she’d dismissed him in Starbucks, one bronze arm drawing me closer over an apple pyramid at the farmer’s market he’d trailed us to.
She looks so deliciously delicate, but she’s got a temper.
Your music sounds atrocious, and I have sensitive eardrums
I find musicians egotistical, juvenile, and unused to typical hygienic practices—wait, aren’t guitar players supposed to be taller than you?
was the fourth excuse, and the fifth was
Laker tickets? I’m not into organized sports. Come back when you’ve got front row seats to Russian roulette; all the blood really turns me on.
I’m secretly a succubus; I’m not sure if you’d make it out alive
was the sixth and most accurate.
It’s not playing hard-to-get, Caroline explained, chopping vegetables on our kitchen counter. It’s called Are You Worthy, And If So, Prove It.
It’s always better if someone loves you more than you love them, she said, biting into a slice of cucumber with sharp white incisors. That way you always know who has the upper hand. The upper hand isn’t something you should ever lose. What’s that get you?
It gets you fucked, that’s what it gets you, she said patiently, after my dumb stare.
And when she really could have used her own advice, she’d conveniently forgotten it.
We have plenty of now-dead relatives who claimed to be fortune tellers. Tarot cards, reading palms, crystal balls. Caroline got all the good genes in our sad little pool except clairvoyance.
I came home from my last day of high school to find her cross-legged on the couch, hunched over the coffee table. A moldering set of tarot cards in a spread of three smeared clean streaks over the dust, and her fingertips were black with grime.
“Queen of Wands, Seven of Cups, the Lovers.” She pointed at each as I closed the door and struggled with the lock that always stuck. “I keep drawing these.”
I dropped my backpack and sank into the cushion beside her. “Maybe they’re bent at the edges. Check the corners, it might be why you keep choosing them.”
“They’re not. I checked the second time it happened.”
She’d been at it for days, muttering to herself, ticking pentacles, swords, cups, and wands off her fingers. “Luck of the draw, maybe.”
A few days’ worth of grease clung to her hair, dyeing it sickly dishwater.
“Past, present, future.” She looked up for the first time, blinking crusted lashes. I hated that little bit of hope glimmering in her eyes. “This’s as good as it gets, considering my question.”
If I thought I’d get away with it, I’d have thrown the deck down the garbage disposal. But that was what happened when you fell in love, I gathered. It was a full-on natural disaster, an emotional hurricane.
“You know your
questions never work. It needs to be open-ended. You have to ask what it is you need to do to find a resolution, or whatever.” I reached to clear the spread, but her clammy hand snared around my wrist, so I pulled away and flopped back into the sofa.
“What happened to logic? Tarot’s just a game. At best, maybe something to help you find answers on your own. You don’t even believe in this stuff.”
“You stop caring about logic when you can’t make sense of anything by yourself. Everyone turns to shit like this when they’re at a loss. You’ve seen it before. How many sad old bats did I do readings for at the fair?”
Over two hundred at ten bucks a pop. Even more men had lined up too, but then it was Caroline behind the table in some gypsy crop top and curls tumbling over her shoulders behind a scarf. What guy could resist?
She picked up the Queen of Wands and waved it at me. “Past. A woman with powerful attraction, loads of energy and adaptability. Sounds right, doesn’t it?”
“Yeah,” I said, swallowing a sigh.
“Present.” She grabbed the Seven of Cups. “Cups are all to do with intimacy and relationships. The jewels in the cup symbolize fruitfulness. And then Future is The Lovers. Ultimate bliss. So a happily ever after. Right? Isn’t that what it means?”
To my blank look, she flapped the cards more energetically still. “It has to mean
. I keep drawing these.” She let them flutter down to the coffee table. “Doesn’t matter how much I shuffle.”
The Queen had eyes hollow as empty wells, and the jewels in the Cup seemed like cubic zirconia. The Lovers inspired nausea, with spines twisted together and laced fingers. Caroline used to roll her eyes at them right along with me.
We need men like we need lobotomies
, she’d said, once upon a humid midnight.
“Maybe you’re interpreting them wrong.”
The way I saw it, the cards and their story weren’t Past, Present, Future. She couldn’t line them up in a neat row and make them behave.
The Seven of Cups was her wishful thinking. Her inaction, expecting a ship to come in without
it happen, or finding an explanation as to why it wouldn’t ever dock. The other two cards were split roads, two different outcomes.
Wands were hostile to cups, which could reverse their meanings. The Queen of Wands was a powerful woman, but when inverted she’d be vengeful, full of spite, possibly self-destructive. All that wishful thinking could make anyone come undone.
I didn’t know much about relationships, but I knew The Lovers were not in the cards for Caroline, at least as long as Brian was involved.
She buried her face in her hands, and when I was sure she wasn’t looking, I bent the corner of The Lovers before shoving the deck into its case.
Maybe karma had something to do with it. Caroline’s relationship patterns were flighty, variable, erratic. None of the men lasted long, though not due to their lack of effort. Most of them began because Caroline tended to tick boxes on a Pro/Con list when weighing the benefits of a prospective suitor. She claimed it was never completely intentional, more of an oblique passing thought, but that English Lit teacher her sophomore year in high school was the reason she got a scholarship to USC. She still gets letters from him.