Authors: J. M.
Copyright © by J.M. 2013
All Rights Reserved
Let me wake up dead.
A thousand times I’ve watched her say those words, her face pale and gazing out from behind the glass plate of her cell phone, her expression dulled by the pixelation and distortion of the electronic eye. In my mind’s eye, her cheeks are ivory petals, and her eyes are jewels that shine deep, brown, liquid, bright, startled and startling. Her dark brows swoop up across her forehead, her hair falls in platinum pleats around her shoulders. I hear her voice, fresh and clear. She is seventeen.
Cell phones, hard drives, surveillance clips, Polly’s endless diaries and notes, and interviews conducted by me and Marcellus form the story—the parts of it I don’t know personally. I met Dana Hamlet in school four years ago. I avoided the mistake of talking about her, because I knew how people would have talked about me. Well, of course they would have been right in a way, but I admired her, too—I admired her above all. She was intuitive about science, I love that in a girl. I beat the hell out of my speed bag every night when she started going out with Phil Polonius, the son of Mr. Hamlet’s operations manager—but every morning I’d brighten to another day of her boundless trust and arm-punching affection.
To get one mystery out of the way, I’m—well, I know I’m not bad-looking, especially from the waist up. I’m buffed to the max because I need upper-body strength, and I’d be over six feet tall standing up. Everyone in my family has nice features. A vertebral bone fragment that broke off under the pressure of my motorcycle (hurtling down on me from an insane height after I skidded up an embankment) crushed my spinal cord just above my belt the summer before I met Dana. I’ve been in a wheelchair since. My name is Horst.
It was dim at noon as the ocean came into view on the Santa Monica freeway. I had all the company I wanted—no music, no passengers, no trafficandweather, just the
of my wiper blades and the impact of watery arrows on my windshield. As I took the wide turn north onto the Coast Highway, the cloud of solitude and grief was comforting, even sexy.
I was on my way to a wake. The shock of the death was fresh. Dana’s mom had passed away suddenly, just twelve days before we were going to graduate. She hadn’t been sick, or idle, or unhappy. She always argued and laughed with a cool, wicked intensity, she was a thousand steps ahead of you on any brilliant idea you thought was your own, and she was eternally knocking you mute with opinions that seemed contrary to everything she stood for. She worked as a lawyer for the Hamlet Family Foundation—in fact, that was how she and Mr. Hamlet had met. Some people said she took the Foundation to the top by flying straight and inside the radar, and some said she was the craftiest, most opaque operator that an opponent ever despaired of beating. Whichever was true, she was definitely one half of a beautiful power couple: Danielle and Garth Hamlet. It was hard to believe such people could die.
I searched the scrubby roadside for landmarks. On Google maps, Elsinore Canyon is a green polygon north of Malibu, west of the Pacific Coast Highway. The satellite view reveals that it is, in reality, civilized, the furze of treetops seen from overhead covering steep hills where you can pick out one-lane roads that snake among acre-sized rooftops and helipads. I turned off at the tiny exit you have to know about in order to see, and tapped my speed down to a crawl as I maneuvered my car onto a steep uphill road. I flinched as a pair of yellow eyes flew at my windshield—they were gone in the same instant.
The road leveled out as I reached the house, which loomed on a summit overlooking the shore. The graveled field out front was serving as a parking lot today. I joined a line of idling cars that were waiting for valet service. A dull rapping on my window, and I turned to see Marcellus, the Hamlets’ security guy. He looked at me unsmilingly under layers of dripping Gore-Tex and motioned me to roll my window down.
“Good to see you, Horst. Pop your door, I’ll get you inside.”
I drive an ancient Chevy sedan convertible built with a big back seat and equipped with hand controls, easy for me to drive and get my wheelchair in and out of. Today I had the top closed and Marcellus wanted to assist. We made a wheeling dash for the imposing front of the house while he held an umbrella. In the entrance, I lifted a towel off a pile of heated stones and rubbed my head. Thanks to touches like that and the bareness of the service staff, the place always made me think of a medieval castle. The massive rump of the building was anchored in the cliff, with its belly and stilts jutting and creeping down and out over rocky terrain. Lower floors opened endlessly below you, and giant bow windows scanned the Pacific in the saucer-like curve of the western wall. That day they were panes of solid grey.
I wheeled among knots of acquaintances and strangers, keeping my eyes low as I looked for Dana or her father. A patch of floor opened in front of me and I found myself in a forest of smooth saplings—tall girls in short skirts. That’s how it looks when you’re waist-high in the world. Rosie and Gale, two of Dana’s childhood friends, lingered in front of a love seat sizing up the crowd, their legs swaying gently as they shifted from one spike-heeled foot to the other.
“Hey, Horst.” Rosie surprised me by moving towards me with both arms extended. I had no choice but to extend mine, but it turned out she was holding a cigarette away with one hand and offering me a handshake with the other, which caused an awkward nanosecond as I drew my arms back. Even crossing those few steps was oversized for her. Gale gave me a restrained smile-and-nod by way of compensation. They both settled onto the loveseat.
“You’re looking good,” Rosie said. She made that cigarette look tasty. “Want one?” She reached into her purse.
I was about to say “Yes.” Two Real Housewives types, Rosie and Gale’s mothers, appeared at that moment bearing between them a weeping beauty, Dr. Claudia Black. Everyone knew her, and not just because she was Mrs. Hamlet’s sister. She was seldom seen in Elsinore Canyon but she had a high profile elsewhere in town. They lowered her onto a chair and sandwiched themselves against her with tissues and water. “Gale, go make a plate of food,” Gale’s mother instructed softly. I couldn’t help thinking Dr. Claudia looked sweet and a bit alluring with her pale, tight dress and sad eyes. Her eyes were always sad, but today, sadder. They got her a lot of television. Her plummy warble got her the radio.
Her head came up slowly. “I know you,” she said to me in a wandering voice.
“Horst von Wittenberg,” I said. “Dana’s friend. Sorry for your loss.”
“Of course. I remember you. I’m so glad you’re here.” Her gaze drifted. “Dana needs her friends’ support.”
“We’re here to support all of you,” said one of the mothers. “But don’t forget
“Has anyone seen Dana today?” I asked.
“She was in the receiving line but she disappeared,” said one mother.
“Are we talking about Dana?” said Gale, who was back with a plate of food. “She mentioned you, Horst.”
“Maybe I should go look for her.” I hadn’t seen or heard from her since it had happened.
“Try to comfort her,” Dr. Claudia whispered.
I excused myself and rolled off, at a maddeningly steady pace. My arms were primed with oxygen, ready to sprint. People stood in solemn packs, forcing me to pause and acknowledge them as I steered through. Hello. Am I in your way. How are you. Isn’t it sad. (For Christ’s sake, Dana was suffering alone somewhere.) While I inched through the human obstacle course, the receiving line unraveled. I glimpsed Mr. Hamlet in a wing chair, all GQ perfection and helpless, sodden grief. I’d talk to him later. I couldn’t see Dana anywhere—she must have gone off alone. I finally reached the edge of the crowd, steered wide around a buffet, and aimed for the mouth of a narrow hallway. I knew the house: the long hall led to an outdoor viewing platform. Around a tight corner, a free stretch ahead of me at last. I gave my rims a massive push and coasted. A turn around the last bend, to the top of a short tunnel, and down at the end, on the other side of a thick glass door—there she was.
Staring out at the misty air through wide eyes, biting her knuckles, the wind lifting her hair in pale wisps. With her non-bitten hand she gathered a dark cloak around herself. She looked like a tall black candle with a white flame.
I had known nothing of her grief. I had selfishly fallen to remembering my own. Her mom was dead. My eyes stung and my breath came short.
I took a second to exhale, rolled forward. And stopped. My eyes and mouth dried up as I watched Phil Polonius step onto the platform next to her. He cupped her elbows, and she turned and folded herself into his arms. They were one. I stared at them like a freeway wreck.
Get out of sight, get back to the crowd. He was holding her—
her, one of the few things I could straight-up do as well as any other guy. I whipped a U-turn and wheeled back up the tunnel, through the hallway and towards the crowd. I had never told a soul, but what I really wanted to do—and this was before the fact that I couldn’t thrust—was fall asleep with Dana at night and wake up with her in the morning. Hold her in my arms in the dark and whisper, “Good night, princess.” Guys don’t tell each other things like that. “I want to sink my dick into that dopey white ass of hers” was fine, but anything tender, anything lasting would get you laughed into the ground. Okay, yes, I also wanted to do a few of those dopey girls in the crudest way imaginable, but it’s that guys can’t
about anything else. That’s why guys need girls. We can say those things to them. That’s also why girls need guys who know they need girls. We’re the ones who’ll protect them.
I hung around a while, but I never got to speak to Dana or her dad that day. Near sunset, I joined the crowd on a terrace to watch far below as Mr. Hamlet, Dr. Claudia, and Dana were rowed a short way out from the rocky shore at the foot of the summit, to scatter Mrs. Hamlet’s ashes into the sea. Before I left, I heard that Dana was going to finish out the semester at home and skip the graduation ceremony.