The Deepest Secret
Birthdays are supposed to be happy occasions, so Eve plans a party. There are the usual anxieties. Who would come? Would Tyler like his presents? Then there are the special worries, the ones other people didn't have to think about. She won't focus on those.
She makes a cake, a bigger-than-life-size iPad that takes a day and a half to decorate instead of the six hours the Internet site promised. The problem is getting the paint the right consistency so the lake doesn't bleed into the shoreline. And all those tiny icons. She's tossed dozens in the trash, false starts where the Facebook f was too wobbly and the camera came out looking as though a giant thumb had pressed down hard. She hesitates over balloons. Do they even matter at night? In the end, she decides, why not, and drives home from the party store with so many fat balloons crammed into her backseat that she can't see out her rearview mirror. She imagines being pulled over by the police for driving under the influence of helium.
Melissa's in the kitchen when Eve arrives home, and helps carry in the bags. She reaches for the balloons and frowns at the rainbow of colors. "Pink, Mom, really?"
Melissa's long black hair is pulled back in an untidy topknot Eve knows her daughter has worked for hours to achieve. One of her tank top straps is twisted, revealing the pale strip of skin beneath where the sun hasn't lingered. Eve wants to tug it straight and warn her daughter to be careful, but Melissa has heard it all before. "Pink looks good in moonlight," Eve says.
A knock on the kitchen door. It's Charlotte and Amy, arriving early to help. Dear Charlotte. What would Eve do without her kindness, her humor? Charlotte has pulled her through the dark days. She has kept Eve sane.
"One spicy chili dip, extra sour cream by request," Charlotte says, setting down the dish on the counter. She's wearing a determined smile on her face. Amy looks mutinous. Eve guesses they've been having another mother-daughter battle all the way down the street.
Charlotte's hair is short and dyed dark red. It cups her head and suits her high cheekbones and long neck. The day after Owen served her with divorce papers, Charlotte went out and had her long blond hair chopped off. What do you think? she'd demanded as she stepped into Eve's kitchen. She'd run her fingers through the short wisps, making them stand up. Do I look like someone who knows how to have a good time?
Amy's carrying a package, the electric blue wrapping paper crumpled at the corners and the white ribbon twisted into a crooked bow. "It's Force Field Three," she confides in a whisper, as if Tyler could hear her all the way from his room upstairs. "Do you think he'll like it?" Her brown eyes are wide and her lashes pale gold, a smatter of freckles across the tops of her cheeks. She's a sprite, a funny little elf always dressed in shades of pink, much to Charlotte's private dismay. She thinks it shows no imagination.
"He'll love it," Eve promises, putting a hand on the child's small shoulder. Is it okay that Tyler spends so much time staring at a computer screen?
They go out onto the patio, the air heavy with heat. Amy skips off to help Melissa tie the balloons to the trampoline. The sun's holding itself just above the horizon, sending out greedy shoots of orange light that carves shadows across the patio and grass. Eve used to love the sun, would lounge outside for hours, letting it toast her skin, her face tilted to the warmth. But this is as close as she comes to the sun now.
"Any word from David?" Charlotte asks, and Eve shakes her head. There weren't that many flights between Columbus and Washington, DC. It could be that David had raced to make the last one and hadn't had a chance to call beforehand. I'll try and be there, he'd said. If he could wrap up the project he's working on. If he could catch an earlier flight. She could drown in ifs. "He's bringing Tyler's present. He would have let me know if he wasn't going to be here." She says this, wanting reassurance. She says this, wanting to make it true.
"Maybe he wants to surprise you."
Wouldn't that be wonderful? The gate would creak open and David would step into the yard, his brown hair rumpled over his high forehead, that knowing smile that reached up to his blue eyes. David used to love to surprise her with a note taped to the bathroom mirror, a single flower sent special delivery.
Her parents haven't called, either. But at least they'd sent a card, a blue envelope propped on the kitchen table where Tyler would find it when he came downstairs. Inside would be the usual check, which Tyler would pretend to be thrilled about. Money meant nothing to him. How could it?
At 8:11, the bolt shoots back and Tyler shuffles out of his room, his camera in his hand. "Happy birthday," she says, throwing her arms around him. He ducks his head in embarrassment, lamplight winking across the lenses of his sunglasses.
"Happy birthday, dweeb," Melissa says, lightly cuffing him on the shoulder.
His friends are on the patio, elbowing and jostling. Four of them, when there should be seven, but at least his best friend's there. The boys are all different heights and sizes, caught at that awkward stage where they don't even look like they belong to the same species. They cheer when Tyler steps out to join them. He fits right among them, not too tall, not too short. He smiles when he sees the glowing paper lanterns. "Cool," he says, and holds up his camera.
The pizza arrives and Charlotte helps her set out the food. Amy flits around, snatching up a piece of fruit, chasing fireflies blinking in the distance. A few neighbors have shown up. It's painful to see Albert without Rosemary. He's aged, moving slowly, holding onto the back of a chair for support. Sophie makes a brief appearance, and so does Neil Cipriano, who stands a careful distance away from everyone. No sign of the new neighbors, the Rylands, but that's no surprise. Charlotte had been the one to sell them the house, and she'd raved about how wonderful they were. You'll love them, she'd assured Eve. They're the sweetest family. But Charlotte knew her reassurances meant nothing until Eve had a chance to talk to them about Tyler. Eve had stopped on her way to the party store to greet them as they stood in their driveway watching the movers unload their furniture. Holly had listened to Eve's request, but it had been Mark who'd reached out to accept the basket of incandescent light bulbs. Sure, he'd said. No problem.
What would she have done, otherwise? Tyler would never have been able to walk out his front door, let alone go into his own backyard. She'd called David to share the news and gotten his voicemail. Guess what, she'd said, leaving her message, not knowing when he'd pick it up.
Tyler seems to be having a good time. He's jumping on the trampoline with his friends, the fabric sagging alarmingly low, burdened as it is by the weight of five adolescent boys. They've rigged the sprinkler to rotate beneath them, and they're howling with laughter as the water sprays back and forth. Eve had offered to rent out a movie theater, or drive everyone to a nearby cave to spelunk, but Tyler had shaken his head at every suggestion. Nothing, he'd told her. I don't want anything.
He's growing up, David said when she worried Tyler might be depressed. It would be reassuring if that was true, but what if it wasn't? Tyler hadn't liked the therapist she'd found. I'll find someone else, she'd offered, but Tyler had scowled. Just stop, Mom, he'd said, and so she has. But she and the other XP moms talk. Fourteen's a dangerous age, old enough to understand, but too young to accept. Fourteen-year-olds chafe against restrictions, defy the rules that have kept them safe. She's heard about the terrible battles the other mothers have waged. Doesn't he know that he has to wear his sunglasses? I caught her sneaking outside! She's listened and commiserated. Tyler's already started to take risks. He won't wear his mask when she takes him to his medical appointments. He hates it, keeps it on the shelf of his closet. It's not like she can force him to put it on. The other mothers listen, murmur reassurances. Even the best kids rebel.
She brings out the cake, candles flickering in the darkness, and they sing happy birthday. She sees her husband's features reflected in their candlelit son, the fullness of his lower lip, the roundness of his eyes. Tyler makes a wish and blows. Charlotte glances at her and immediately picks up the knife and begins serving cake, so that Eve can step back into the shadows and compose herself.
Fourteen birthdays so far. She remembers them all: His fourth, when all the kids ran around barking, wearing floppy Dalmatian ears she'd hot-glued out of black and white felt, and ate birthday cake baked in a big steel bowl like dog food. His fifth, where they fished for prizes with magnets tied to strings. His seventh, when they wore cowboy hats and roasted hot dogs over a bonfire. His ninth, when she wrote HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!! in phosphorescent chalk on the sidewalk all the way down to the park where his friends waited to jump out and surprise him. His eleventh, when she converted the backyard into a moonscape, and everyone ate astronaut ice cream and flung glow-in-the-dark Frisbees that trailed white blurs of false light.
They'd all been wonderful, in that imperfect way birthdays are, but the best had been his very first, before they knew. She'd set up a wading pool and Tyler had splashed in and out all afternoon, clapping his hands, his dimpled knees churning. Her parents and David's father had been there, laden down with presents, so many that she had to set a few aside to open later. Three-year-old Melissa had run around singing her favorite Barney song and fallen asleep in David's lap. It had been the happiest birthday by far. There would never be another like it.
TYLER IN THE NIGHT
The balloons tied to the trampoline hover above the grass like small animals on leashes, restless. Their smooth sides are shades of gray. The kitchen light behind him falls on the patio stones, bleaching them pale yellow. Everything else is shadowed. Tyler doesn't remember what it's like to see the world in full color.
It's cooled off. Earlier, it had been steamy, but his mom wouldn't even think about moving the party inside. The earth would have had to roll off its axis for her to do that. The radio's playing and she's humming along. It's that stupid song about walking like Egyptians. What does that even mean? he'd asked her once, and she'd laughed. Who knows? We were starved for music in the eighties.
He shakes open the plastic trash bag and his mom drops in forks and crumpled napkins, paper plates smeared with frosting. "I think everyone had a nice time," she says.
It had been weird when Dr. Cipriano showed up that evening, stepping through the gate holding a gift. How many kids had their dentist come to their birthday party? Zach hadn't kidded Tyler about it, but he could've.
"I can't believe how tall Mitch has gotten. I almost didn't recognize him." She crouches to retrieve a cup lying on its side beneath the table.
The sharp peak of the house next door cuts into the night sky. All day he'd heard the shouts of the men coming up through the air vents in the floor of his bedroom. His mom texted him to say she'd gone over to talk to them and the new neighbors had agreed to use regular light bulbs. She'd typed five smiley faces, one after another. The lights are on upstairs, and shadows move across the windows. A ceiling fan rotates in the blue-painted room. A tall bookcase stands against the wall, empty. "Where do you want this?" a man says, startling Tyler, he sounds so close.
A woman's voice answers him.
They could have come to his party, but they hadn't. They had just moved in, his mom said. She'd invited them, along with almost everyone else on the street, as though they were One Big Happy, which was lame. The people he'd wished had come, hadn't. His dad had gotten stuck in DC; Rosemary was gone, and of course Yoshi couldn't make it all the way from Japan. Yoshi's not his best friend, but she's something. She told him she was planning a special surprise for his birthday, and he'd waited all day but he never heard from her. "Zach says he's playing football this year." His mom plucks a long curl of ribbon tangled among the rosebushes.
Zach's been freaking out about high school starting. He and Tyler had downloaded the school map from the website and plotted out Zach's schedule, tracing the route he has to take from building to building. Turns out Zach only has five minutes to get from one end of the school to the other in order to make it to gym on time.
Dude. It's not like middle school.
For Tyler, high school will be exactly like middle school. He'll turn on his computer, click the mouse, and nod to the teacher standing in front of the classroom. His mom's told him that there will be a lot more kids in his classes, which is supposed to be a good thing. You'll have the chance to make new friends. But her voice had that forced cheer to it that tells him she's worried, too. And all he can think about is that he won't be in any of the same classes as his friends. "What about you, sweetheart?" She picks up a ball of wrapping paper. He and the guys had taken turns kicking it across the grass.
"Did you have fun?"
"Sure." He knows how much she wants to hear it. She'd spent ages planning, making the food, decorating. But how could he have had fun? It's not like when he was little and thought birthday parties were cool. Yay, birthday cake. Yay, presents. But now he gets it. Yay, fucking nothing. He twists the top of the bag closed, carries it over to the garbage can. He looks down into the deep darkness. He wishes he could crawl inside, too, and pull the lid on over him.
Something zaps him on his cheek. Surprised, he touches his face and finds it's wet. Is it raining? Puzzled, he looks up to the sky, sees the stars there, twinkling. Another splash, this time on his hand, and he looks across the yard to where his mom stands, holding the Super Soaker Mitch had given him.
The only thing that can beat that is the garden hose, turned on full blast, and he's aiming it across the lawn as his mom ducks behind the fort when the French door opens.
"What are you two doing?" Melissa demands.
He turns and the spray of water dashes across his sister. She squeals and jumps back. "Seriously?"
"Oh, honey. We're sorry." But his mom's laughing, and he can't help it. He starts laughing, too.
"I hate you both." Melissa tosses her hair and goes inside.
His mom puts her arm around him. They're both wet, and the smell of grass is all around them. The small, tight things inside him loosen. "It's late," she says against his hair. "You go to bed. I'll clean the rest of this up tomorrow."
He pauses in the doorway. "Thanks," he says. "You know. For everything."
"Happy birthday, sweetheart."
He taps his nose with his forefinger, then his cheeks—first the right one, then the left. His forehead, chin, and the nape of his neck. His hair gets in the way, so he starts over. Nose, cheeks, forehead, chin, neck. This time it feels right. He tugs his earlobes, right, then left. He takes a deep breath. Okay. He's ready.
He pulls on his gloves and takes a flashlight from the junk drawer. His mom keeps flashlights in every room. His dad jokes they're the only family in the neighborhood prepared for the apocalypse.
Unlocking the door's the tricky part. His mom has superpowers when it comes to hearing the latch click. One, two, three. The snick of metal is a whisper, barely audible. Still, he waits to make sure his mom doesn't appear behind him, yawning and tying her bathrobe around her. You okay, Ty? He doesn't have to worry about Melissa. She always sleeps with her iPod playing.
The backyard's dark except for where the moon shines down and picks out the stones of the patio, the metal arms of the chairs. He inhales, filling his lungs. What is it about the air that's so much cleaner when no one else is breathing it?
He lets himself out the back gate and onto the dark street. There aren't any streetlights. Back when he was little, his mom went to court and asked that the lights be turned off just on their cul-de-sac. There's a newspaper article with a photograph of her, leaning against a streetlamp with her arms crossed. They'd wanted to take a photograph of him, too, but his mom had said no.
It's almost midnight—is he too late?
Sophie's porch light is on, lighting up an apron of front lawn. Her V W bug sits in her driveway. Melissa's told him it's pale blue, a pretty color, but beneath the white-yellow glow of the porch light, it just looks dirty. Sophie uses a regular light bulb, not halogen, so it's safe. He could dance in front of her porch and it wouldn't hurt him a bit. All her other windows are dark, which makes it seem like she's upstairs asleep, but Tyler knows better.
He hurries around the corner, but just as he reaches the edge of her deck, the downstairs light flares on. He fumbles with his camera, opening the lens, and glances up to see her coming forward to the glass and reaching up for the blinds pull. Tonight she's in that black leather dress again, the one that bares her shoulders and laces tightly up the front. It's nothing like what she'd worn to his party earlier, long pants and a loose top buttoned all the way to her chin. He presses the shutter just in time to capture her before the blinds tilt shut, the light shining behind her and showing every curve of her body. Then the bright light goes dim, and he knows she's turned on her computer. He wonders what video game she's playing, and whether he's ever played against her online, but he doesn't know her gamer tag.
Narrow cypress trees stand all around Dr. Cipriano's house. Tyler pushes his way through the stiff branches and crouches to peer through the ground-level windows that look down into the basement. He's gotten some interesting shots of Dr. Cipriano working away at that thing he's building, his shadow leaping against the far wall as he hammers. But tonight the windows are all dark.
A yellow glow shines out Albert's window, falling on the grass and lighting up the piles of oak leaves, making them look pointy and sharp. Soon all the leaves will be dropping. Deciduous trees produce an enzyme that cuts off food to the leaves, so they die. He's never heard of one that didn't, but maybe there's a tree somewhere that doesn't have that enzyme—a tree that stays green all year long. There are almost sixty thousand different enzymes in people, and he's missing only one.
He crunches across Albert's yard and looks into the kitchen, which is exactly the way Rosemary kept it when she was alive—the framed pictures of cartoon chefs wearing funny hats hanging at a diagonal across one wall, the four blue-and-white canisters on the kitchen counter, the rooster-shaped salt and pepper shakers sitting beak to beak, like they're talking to each other. What do you think they're saying? he'd asked Rosemary, and she had looked thoughtful. Talk is cheep? Albert's nowhere in sight, but a flame flickers beneath a pot on the stove.
Albert used to be a pilot. His basement had maps taped to the wall, with long red lines showing the routes he flew. Bangkok, Paris, Sydney. Albert's been everywhere. But I always came home, he used to say with a smile. After Rosemary died, Tyler had helped Albert take down the maps. Can I have them? he'd asked, and Albert had set one surprisingly light hand on his shoulder. Sure, he'd said. They're all yours.
Next door is the Farnhams' brick house with its big patio and bay windows covered by drapes. It's the one place he can't go anywhere near. He holds up his middle finger as he turns onto the bike path.
The playground's empty, the swings hanging straight, the slide looming dark and silent. It was right there, by the basketball court, where he and Rosemary saw The Beast. Actually, Rosemary's the one who saw it. He turned his head too late to see anything but a distant pale smudge disappearing into the woods. Rosemary told him it might have been a wolf or even a mountain lion. He's been looking for The Beast ever since, but so far, he hasn't even come across a paw print.
He steps off the path and into the woods. He moves carefully, not wanting to startle anything. He stops to check the nest where baby bunnies had curled up, nose to tail, but it's still empty. The babies must be big enough to be on their own now. Voices sound nearby and he freezes, craning his neck to see where they're coming from. A few more yards and the trees part to reveal the small bridge that spans the creek. Two people are there, their heads and shoulders just visible in the dim moonlight.
He sets his camera on a low-hanging branch and fits the remote to it. He bends to peer through the viewfinder. The rest of the world disappears and it's just these two people looking at each other, a man and a woman. He can see the bumps on their noses, the curves of their chins. They're holding hands, their fingers twined on the wooden railing. He presses the button and captures this moment, fixes it forever. These two people will never stand exactly this way again, with the exact same leaves hanging overhead, the exact same starlight gleaming all around.
He's tried to explain to Zach why this is so cool. It's like running a touchdown, he'd said, and Zach had nodded. I get it, he'd said, though Tyler's not sure he does.
He takes another picture. At the soft click, the woman looks around. He holds his breath, heart pounding. But she doesn't spot him standing there motionless in his dark clothes and she turns her attention back to the man, and after a few minutes, they walk away, still talking softly.
He goes over to the bridge and shines his flashlight down into the water. Minnows dart in every direction, shivery brown shapes. Rosemary had once told him that fish stayed awake all night, just like him. That had comforted him, knowing that someone else was awake besides him and the crickets.
Rosemary had liked crawling around in the mucky creek with him, never freaking if something crawly touched her or plopped into the water beside them. His mom worried because Rosemary was old, and might fall and hurt herself, but Rosemary had laughed and said she'd lose it if she didn't use it. So his mom had stopped telling him he couldn't go and instead had gotten him his first cell phone. If anything happens, she told him, push this button and I'll come right away. But Rosemary never did fall. She fell asleep one day and never woke up.
He reaches the stand of red cedars, their long gnarled branches poking up and their wrinkly mess of leaves hanging low. Squeezing between them, he shrugs down his hood and yanks off his gloves. The air is cool against his palms and he flexes his fingers, scooping up the freshness. He sets his tripod on the dirt and screws on his camera. He plugs in the remote switch and checks the f-stop and shutter speed. Pulling out his cell phone, he sits down to wait.
Facebook's quiet. Everyone's asleep, probably. They have to get up early for Orientation. It's all Zach talked about at the party, him and the other guys. Everyone's meeting at Timmy Ho's beforehand for doughnuts. They've got one mom driving them to school, and another one picking them up. Then everyone's going to the North Pool for one last swim before the season's over. Tyler's studied pictures online of the North Pool, the sparkling water and bright red tubes curving up to the sky. It seems like a pretty good place to have a party.
Leaves rustle. He sucks in his breath, leans forward to peer through the branches.
Something tall and ghostlike drifts into the clearing. It's that doe. He's glimpsed her before, nibbling on Charlotte's tomato plants. Two smaller shapes meander after her. A one-year-old and the brand-new one, speckled and small. They float across the ground, pausing to eat the plants growing here and there. His blog followers will love this. They're always complaining that his images are too far away. So he waits, finger hovering above the button, then presses down. The shutter clicks as loud as a firecracker. The three deer crash away through the trees, and a moment later, it's as if they were never there. He feels bad that he interrupted their meal and hopes he got a picture to show for it. He stands, stretches. He's got twenty more minutes until his sunscreen starts to wear off. He's already had three lesions carved out of him. The scars form a triangle on his right calf. No recurrence yet, but he's seen the tightness on his mom's face when her gaze rests on it. She hasn't noticed the burn on his arm. He wishes it would hurry up and go away before she does.
Across the street, light flickers in the living room window at Amy's house. Someone's watching TV. Curious, he crosses the street and goes up to the window. An opened bag of chips sits on the coffee table, and a can of soda sits tilted on the arm of the couch. Charlotte would be really pissed if she saw that, but she's not there. No one is.
The stove light's on, a comforting circle of light in the darkness. His mom leaves theirs on when he's feverish and sleeping on the living room couch. He'll lift his head from the cushions, see the glow tunneling out from the kitchen beyond, and know his mom's nearby. He goes closer to the glass and there's Amy, hauling a kitchen chair across the floor. She rocks it into place in front of the pantry and climbs up. Reaching high to the top shelf, she brings down a package of cookies. When she jumps to the floor, her short nightgown flies up.
Amy had insisted he open her present first and she'd pushed in to stand beside him when he blew out the candles. When Charlotte told her it was time to go, Amy had climbed onto the trampoline instead. Everyone's jumping had bounced her against him. I hate Robbie, she'd said, and when Tyler said Robbie wasn't so bad, she'd narrowed her eyes and leaned closer with chocolate cake breath. He just pretends to be nice, she'd hissed. He calls me a little bitch and he calls you vampire boy.
It's time to go home. Dante may be online and wanting to game. Too bad Tyler caught Alex cheating. It used to be fun to play with him, too.
The houses all around him are dark. There's only the quiet tapping of his shoes on the sidewalk. The wind shivers through the cul-de-sac, loosing a blizzard of small leaves that rain down on him. He stops, delighted, and holds out his hands, lifts up his face to let the leaves gently pelt him. They swirl around him like he imagines butterflies might. They tickle his skin. They dance along the ground.
This is me, he thinks. I am here, a part of all of this.
Excerpted from The Darkest Secret by Carla Buckley. Copyright © 2014 by Carla Buckley. Excerpted by permission of Bantam. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.