We had to creep past that corner of the hallway where it made its turn and then make a beeline for the stairs because we were being watched. Or so we thought. Or so Gemma thought. That was her story, and I became her friend because I believed it. Or so I said. I didn’t ask awkward questions, and I wouldn’t let minor details impair my imagination. I only nodded, wide-eyed, and peered more closely at the walls.
“See the holes?” she asked, pointing. “Just there. And there. And there.”
Miss K’s door was closed, but surely she was inside. The Formidable K, Gemma called her. Eyeball to peephole. How, otherwise, could she so clearly know what we were up to all the time?
We crept past, our own eyes lowered. Smirks in shadow, chins against chests.
At the end of the hall, you had a choice: upstairs or down. Down led to the mailroom and the door beyond. Up led to the second floor landing with that gloomy portrait of the school’s founder—Stern-Faced Mr. Stanley. We whooped and clambered up, hearts pounding, ears ringing, fire at our backs. One flight, two, all the way to the attic at the top and Gemma’s single room, third door down on the left, with its sweeping view of sky and field and woods and creek beyond.
We sat on her bed and lit the cigarettes she’d swiped from the pocket of her mother’s purse. We blew smoke out of the window, through the screen. We sprayed rosewater to hide the smell from Miss D the Deluded, who smelled like roses herself and was supposed to check on us, but who could barely manage the stairs because her breath was short. Or from that Miss Priss Ellen Foster, who was a senior and a monitor and would pass out demerits and say it was only her duty and she was sorry, but really, she had no choice. She was always after me, but she left Gemma alone. Gemma scared her. Gemma was fearless. Gemma broke all the rules and didn’t care. I did my best to keep up. We were fifteen years old. Girls. Stupid girls. Rich girls. We didn’t deserve even half of what we had.
Gemma sat up and pointed out of the window as, in the falling dark, the Ever-Frowning Miss G’s car flew up the long drive to Miss K’s. Headlights smeared the trees against the background of the sky. The Formidable K and the Frown, friends forever with their own cigarettes, their own lights out, their own sloppy kisses, their own clumsy hugs. This happened every night, almost. They must have been in love.
* * *
Gemma had been expelled from many other schools by the time she ended up at Stanley Hall with me. The School of the Last Resort, she called it. Iowa. Nowhere. Her father was a state senator somewhere back east. His name was famous there, and she was his youngest child, lost at the tail end of a brood of older siblings. Catholics, probably, though I didn’t know enough to think that then. Her mother doted on her, or so she said. It was hard to tell what was true and what was not among the lies Gemma told, the stories she made up, for no good reason except maybe her own comfort and relief. She wasn’t much older than her oldest brother’s oldest child, if you can do the math on that.
In loco parentis was what the school was supposed to be. “Loco!” Gemma laughed. Screamed. Threw back her head, bared her teeth, shook her hair. A face full of freckles and wide green eyes. She wasn’t pretty. “Not like you,” she said with a touch to the tip of my nose.
My own parents weren’t so far away. And not so loco either. My mother had gone to Stanley Hall, and that’s what I was doing there. And her mother. My sister too. I was a part of a legacy. The apple doesn’t fall far and all that. They called us Twigs.
I shared a room in another dorm with a girl so vague I can’t even remember her face, much less her name.
It was Gemma who was my true friend. It’s Gemma’s face I won’t forget. Gemma who filled the world with light. Dancing in her room, laughing so hard we cried. Blowing smoke in our eyes and our ears and through the screen into the frozen night, while Miss K waited at the window for Miss G to come on up the hill for coffee and kisses and cake.
* * *
You could take a path through the woods behind Miss K’s house and end up on the road that led to town. This was not allowed, but we didn’t care. We broke rules. That was who we were and what we did, the two of us. Gemma was more daring, but I strove to keep up with her as she tramped along the trail, to the fence, and over. I got stuck; she gave me a hand. We wore long coats over our uniforms. What made us think that anyone who saw us wouldn’t know we were from the school? We didn’t consider it, that’s all. We didn’t know how to step into someone else’s eyes and see the world from there. Such a feat was far beyond us. We were too young. We were too much of ourselves to be able to regard each other with any clarity. Anyway, no one noticed us. No one looked twice. Or if they did, they didn’t get bothered enough to do anything about it, or they assumed we had our reasons for being there in town on our own. On a mission of some kind, an assignment maybe. They assumed we had permission, that we were within the rules, whatever those might be.
Dark Oak wasn’t much of a town; a walk from one end to the other didn’t take any time at all. It was just one small main street with a few shops set up in old buildings of brick and stone. There was a diner on the corner where you could stop to buy a soda and a slice of pie, and a general store—family business, not a chain—that was dark and dusty inside, with nothing you would want to buy, plenty you could decide to lift. We threw what we took into the creek when we crossed the bridge to get back to campus before the dinner bell rang.
* * *
The boy was on the bridge when we came by. He smiled at me, and Gemma gave him some sass before turning up her nose and walking on. I followed her and didn’t look back.
The man was sitting on a bench in the park. He stood and walked behind us until Gemma wheeled around to confront him, then he was all grace and apology, putting up his hands, no harm done. “Who could resist such a pair of pretty girls like you?” Gemma looked at me and I turned away, went back to the bridge, and left her there with him.
The man had a ball that he bounced against the concrete and caught, one-handed. A dog ran up and he threw the ball for it, then Gemma did the same. Later she wanted to go back, and so I saw the boy again. He had black hair and blue eyes.
This was a game, that’s all it was. For her especially. She had no plan. She had no intentions. It was my idea to go back and do it again the next week after that too. For me to meet the boy on the bridge, and then follow him into the woods.
* * *
He was waiting for me at a spot down the hill from where the dark oak stood, just past the old stone wall that enclosed the campus. It was low, mossy, and broken in places. It belonged to the town, not the school. To keep the girls away, we joked. Once there had been iron spikes along the top, but these had all fallen down by the time we got there, and then it was just a long, soft wall that looked like it had been there for a thousand years.
We stood by the tree, and he kissed me. His hands were on my hips, holding me in place, just so. His hair kept falling in his eyes, and he’d throw his head back, then pull me close again. To a girl cooped up in a school with a bunch of other girls, the hands of a boy, the scrape of his cheek, the curve of his jaw, and his eyes looking into mine seemed like the end of the world. I would have stayed. I would go back for more.
But then there was Gemma again, galloping toward us in her gawky way. Slipping on the dead leaves, calling my name. And the man, a shadow beyond, waiting.
He had a car, Gemma said. He’d take us for a ride. She wanted us to come along, the boy and me both. It was a romp. An adventure. The man was watching us as we argued this out. He lit a cigarette, blew smoke, and smiled at me because he knew I would say no, that I’d let her go off with him alone. A drive somewhere, what harm in that, was all she said. He has a car. He’ll take us away. Come with me, please. But I said no and backed away and leaned against the boy and turned to him, turned away from her and turned to him, and closed my eyes so when I looked again, Gemma was gone.
* * *
My fear was mixed with pride for her, and it seeped into a sort of pride for myself, as if her accomplishment—she had done it, really done it!—could somehow wear off on me. I was her best friend, maybe her only friend, and she had chosen me, we were the two of us together a pair, two of a kind, and so when she didn’t come back, when she was gone, then somehow the notoriety, the renown, was partly mine too. As well as the blame.
Miss K hauled me in straight away, and she hammered me with questions. I was looking for the peepholes but I couldn’t find them. Partly she was truly concerned and worried for Gemma’s safety, but even then I knew that was a small angle on it, so very narrow because there was so much more having to do with Miss K’s reputation, of course. And the school, and how did it look that they’d let one of us get away like that? And how did it look that one of our girls—meant to be special, better, in some way that wasn’t clear, than the town trash (as we called them, even as I pressed my lips against his and let him suck a bruise onto my throat)—how did it look that one of us would have allowed herself to be taken. By a man. On purpose.
And there was her father too, all rich and famous as he was, and angry and walking around in his dark suit and his sunglasses and the wool coat with the fur collar and the shiny black shoes. He’d flown all the way there, to talk to the police, who were doing their best, but they didn’t have the resources, of course. This was a small town; nothing happened in Dark Oak, especially nothing like this. Not to do with the school. And not to do with the girls. Never the girls.
I was brought in to answer questions, and I told them all I knew, which wasn’t much. I had a description, but I lied about that and laughed at the sketch, which looked nothing like him, nothing at all, though it did look mean, menacing, a pervert first class. And I did not know what kind of car. I never saw the car. And I couldn’t remember what she’d been wearing. Her uniform, I guess. And she had not told me where they were going. Miss K was at her most formidable then, just before my own father showed up and brought a lawyer with him and then got them all to leave me alone because I was just a girl, I was too young, and my name was never revealed.
Gemma’s room was locked up and shut tight. They’d ransacked it, I heard. I don’t know what they found, if anything. Miss K blamed me. She came to me and right there in front of my roommate, she said it out loud: “This is your fault.”
Maybe she was right. I didn’t disagree. I knew what Gemma had chosen. I went to meet the boy again, and we made plans to run off too. If Gemma could do it, then why couldn’t I?
* * *
He said he’d be there. It was a promise, sealed with a kiss, and I believed him. Of course I did. But he was just a boy, the same as I was just a girl. He didn’t have a car. I thought he would be able to get one somehow. That he’d steal his father’s truck maybe. We could be outlaws and it would take some time for them to catch up to us, or maybe we would get away and live a life unlike anyone else’s. Our own. Together. Just the two of us, him and me.
I didn’t think it through because I didn’t know how. I thought we could figure it out as we went along, and even if it didn’t last forever, even if it ended badly, at least it would have been something, and for me that was enough.
I packed a suitcase, and then ended up leaving it behind because it was too heavy. I was to meet him in the woods, by the tree, but I couldn’t drag the bag there. I couldn’t even get it down the stairs. Besides, I realized, I would be seen, and how would I explain? It would be all over before it even began.
Maybe we could come back and get it. At night. In the dark. Steal in. He’d have his truck. He’d help me.
But when I got to the spot beside the dark oak, he wasn’t there. I worried he was watching me, that he’d seen I was empty-handed and thought I’d come to tell him I couldn’t do it.
I waited. The sun was a warm caress, but the silence of the woods was like an accusation of some kind. I craned to hear his footsteps coming. But no, he wasn’t there.
So I went to find him. I followed the trail to its other end, where he’d told me he lived. Across the field to the brick-and-stone farmhouse and the trailer out back and the horses in the corral and a dog tied to a post, just as he’d described it to me and just as I’d pictured it too.
Even the rusted green truck out front, which I’d imagined would be our getaway car.
He must have seen me coming, because he was out there on the porch and down into the yard so fast I thought he was coming after me, and I turned to run, but he had me by the arm, and he spun me around and pushed me back into the shadows. No one was at the window. I couldn’t see that anyone was watching us. The dog didn’t even bother to bark. There was a sadness to the place. A lethargy. And his hair was a mess, as if he’d just gotten out of bed. His breath wasn’t sweet and his eyes seemed dull. Either he was sick or he’d been crying. I had not expected this.
He kicked at the ground. Punched a tree with his fist. Turned to me, his face sharp with anger. I didn’t recognize him. Maybe this was the wrong boy, I thought. Did he have a twin? It was all a mistake. That cold farmhouse. That broken-down truck. A crow, calling from the tall tree.
“My father’s sick,” he said. “I can’t go. Not now. I can’t leave him. Not yet. Maybe later.”
He reached for me, pulled me to him, tried to kiss me, but his breath was bad, and I spun away and stepped back.
“It’s his lungs,” he said. “They’re no good to him. He’s suffocating.”
It was terrible, the look on his face. He begged me, please, don’t go. But I turned anyway and I ran and I was glad. I was free.
* * *
Back at the school, no one had missed me. No one even knew I’d been gone, not even my vague roommate. I unpacked the suitcase and put everything back where it belonged. As for Gemma, she showed up eventually, we heard. The man had left her in a hotel in some small town in the mountains, I think, and she waited for him for three days, or maybe it was five, or maybe it was weeks, I don’t remember. Or I never knew. I didn’t care by then. Miss K kept on blaming me, and that was fine. There was nothing she could do about it anyway.
I stayed close after that. I moved into a single room and lived in it alone. I followed the rules. I did my work, and I kept to myself as much as possible. I carried on and I graduated with honors.
I never saw the boy again. I suppose his father finally died.
* * *
Now, all these years later, a lifetime later, I think about that boy. I’m here on campus again, at a reunion. Thirty-five years. A lifetime, yes. No sign of Gemma. I wasn’t really expecting to see her, though when I first got here, I looked. She hadn’t graduated, after all.
I leave the luncheon and wander off on my own. No one notices. No one tries to stop me. I’m no longer a student, of course, and there are no rules, not really. Only proprieties. Manners. A smile will take you a long way, and it works well enough. No one asks questions. They may have forgotten about what happened back then, or they may have never known.
The woods are as I remember them. It’s spring and the old leaves on the trail are soggy. I have mud on my shoes. This is still off-limits to the girls, I think, except when accompanied by an adult or on an official outing.
I could follow the trail all the way across to the soft wall at the far side, and then the field beyond. His farm will be right there on the other side. The boy. I call him that and always think of him as just that, a boy. Though he was sixteen then and older than me and I can’t remember his name. It’s a blank, so empty, there’s no hint of it in my mind at all, which makes me wonder whether I ever knew it in the first place. If he ever even told me what it was. Andy or Sam or Earl or James, none is exactly right. Paul or Tom or Richard or Ron…
I can’t climb the wall. I won’t cross the field. Probably he’s not there anymore anyway. His father died. They sold the farm and moved to town. He got a job and went to school and left here for something better and bigger elsewhere. He’s got a wife and kids, maybe even grandchildren. He never thinks of me.
Miss K is gone too. Lung cancer. Serves her right. The holes in her office wall aren’t there either. I checked. I ran my fingers over it and imagined I felt the outline of something there, where the plaster had been patched.
I’ve looked for Gemma’s name online. I Googled her but found nothing. No mention of anyone, but her father, the Famous Dad, long dead and gone.
I can only hope she got away somehow. And is living with a man somewhere. In Paradise. Or Paris. Or on the moon.