What You Know

Long Short Story by Mary Vensel White

What You Know

Jasper wasn’t the sort of man who liked to share his food, never had been. This did not sit well with women. They always wanted “just a bite” of this and “a taste” of that and sometimes, he knew, they wanted to share an entrée to stay on their diets even though afterwards, they’d order a rich dessert and he would go home hungry. But these are lessons you learn, especially over the course of a sixteen-year marriage. Maybe it wasn’t, actually, all women who did this but only his wife. He’d forgotten most of the particulars of anyone who’d come before.

He watched as Pamela excavated a gooey slab of Brie from what was becoming a deflated, whitish husk. A tendril of cheese hung from the sesame cracker as it made its way to her open mouth. The bistro had opened in a nearby strip mall earlier in the year. There was a section that sold foreign cheeses and a curated selection of wine, and a small stage where two- or three-piece bands played on weekend nights. Usually folk music or acoustic, slowed-down rock, always with a husky-voiced, middle-aged singer who seemed resigned to be there. Tables were scattered around the rest of the place—some high and round with tall stools, some low and rectangular with benches—adding to the feeling that the place was unsure of what it wanted to be.

This night was a Wednesday. Jasper plucked a black grape from the corner of the wooden board on which their food had been served. Pamela was drinking a Meritage and her brown eyes had become soft and glossy. She was making short work of the cheese plate, leaving only the prosciutto and smoked Gouda for him, both of which she said left a bad taste. He reached out and grasped her hand. God help him, he loved this woman.

“Tim’s trainer was out again this week,” she said, arching one eyebrow. “That young guy subbed again.”

Tim was their fourteen-year-old son, who played tennis on his high school team and took expensive, private lessons twice a week. The lessons, Jasper thought. The mortgage, the car payments, the insurance. Jenny in braces still. Jenny was their daughter, twelve years old.

“He likes him, though,” he said.

Pamela shrugged. She put a walnut into her mouth and looked over at the stage.

He followed her gaze. Two men were untangling the black cords scattered around. One held a guitar on his lap and the other sat before a keyboard. It seemed there would be a rare, mid-week performance.

“I dragged Jenny into the Goodwill today,” Pamela said. “She needs a skirt for Colonial Day at school. She wanted me to get a pattern and sew one for her, because that’s what Emma’s mom is doing.”

“Emma’s mom doesn’t have a job,” he said.

“Exactly.” She leaned back, holding her wine glass against her chest.

They’d chosen one of the high tables; they were both tall and long-legged. Jasper glanced at the shadowed triangle under his wife’s business skirt as she leaned back and crossed her legs. Pamela had just started classes at the local university to get her MBA. She’d quit her job in sales when the kids were born but had gone back to work once they were in school all day. Her recent promotion to regional supervisor had ignited further aspirations, all of which required the advanced degree. They’d had long talks about how they’d manage with her away three evenings a week. The kids were old enough to get themselves home from school and stay alone until Jasper finished work. If he ran late, they had a neighbor who could check in on them and keep an eye on the house. A few times (such as this Wednesday), Jasper was still at work when Pamela’s class ended at eight o’clock, and they’d meet at the bistro for a quick glass of wine if things seemed under control at home. Ironically, these occasional, brief date nights were an unexpected perk during a time they'd imagined they would see less of each other.

The MBA, Jasper thought. And again: the mortgage. The college funds that hadn’t grown as much as they’d hoped, Tim’s upcoming tennis trip to New York, the cars, the taxes. I’ll tell her, he thought. And then, just as quickly: No, nothing will come of it.

Steve and Jasper had been friends since college and their accounting firm had grown from a partnership handling mostly individual returns to the corporation they had today: six accountants and two secretaries in an office space they rented on the fourth floor of a new building. For years, they’d been in a smaller office but had upgraded to the larger space sixteen months before. Livia was a new secretary, having replaced an older woman who’d retired after years with the company. A dark-haired beauty with tawny skin and the brightest white teeth Jasper had ever seen, Livia kept a group of miniature plastic horses on her desk and she was industrious and punctual. At least, she had been until recently, when she’d turned in her termination and filed a sexual harassment complaint against him.

On the small stage, a woman in a long, patterned skirt perched on a wooden stool. She put her hands, studded with rings, around the microphone. The first guitar strums caused an instant hush; heads turned.

Pamela set down her empty glass and leaned across the table. “’Bridge over Troubled Water,’” she said.

Jasper glanced again at the woman in her multiple, beaded necklaces and long skirt that was, actually, rather colonial-looking. “Fleetwood Mac,” he said.

His wife leaned back, shaking her head. “You have to say what song,” she said.

As it turned out, they were both wrong. It was “Do Right Woman,” a rather nice version, Jasper noticed, but by then they were already on their way out.

He thought about telling Pamela in the parking lot, before she remembered she’d left her sweater back at the classroom. He thought about the important thing, that he had never cheated on her, had never really considered the possibility, which should be good for something. He thought about Livia, who it seemed was, to some extent, unstable and delusional. He thought about the flirting, which had seemed harmless. The close passes in the hallway, her excuses to find him alone in his office, the eventual, overt gesture he’d rebuffed. He’d encouraged her; he could see that now. He’d enjoyed the attention, young and eager as she was and if she took his arm that time at a conference, or accepted a ride home when she’d had too much Chardonnay at happy hour, well, those were his mistakes. He thought she needed someone to talk to.

The firm’s attorney had insisted it wouldn’t be a problem. Livia had a history of leaving jobs, other court cases filed along the way. And yet Jasper couldn’t think of any possible way to keep it from his wife. Everything was at risk: his company, his marriage, his conflict-free life.

“Ride with me,” Pamela said. The university was two miles away. “It’s still early. I can show you my classroom, then we’ll come back and get your car.”

He sat next to her in the new Corolla, purchased to celebrate her promotion. The car payments, he thought. The mortgage. His life with Pamela. She filled the space next to him, smelling of flowers and linen. When she smiled, her teeth appeared faintly red under the amber parking lot lights. Jasper looked at her capable hands, evenly spaced on the leather steering wheel. She was strong, always had been. They left the strip mall parking lot, turned into a steady stream of traffic. Pamela pulled the car to the yellow line of an intersection, hesitated, then moved forward to make a left turn.

I’ll tell her, he thought. He put his hand on her thigh, let the tips of his fingers drift underneath the creased hem of her skirt. And at that crucial moment, he leaned his head against the headrest and closed his eyes. It had been a long day.

Pamela was in the process of rotating the steering wheel with her left hand, bringing her right up and over while keeping her eyes on the concrete island she’d maneuver around, when the late-model Mercedes came through the intersection at seventy miles per hour. She never saw it and neither did her husband, who, behind closed eyelids, was thinking about their daughter’s orthodontic bill and wondering how much they still owed.

***

Daniel stacked the pages on the lectern and looked out over the classroom. The silence extended, weighty and sharp.

Mr. Brooks cleared his throat. “What was the title?”

He looked at the front page, where it was typed. “Wednesday Wine,” he said.

The professor rose from the back of the classroom and came forward. “Why don’t you take a seat while we wait for comments?”

Daniel walked around the desks, which extended in a wide half-circle, until he found his. The seat creaked in protest when he sat down.

“So what did we think?” Mr. Brooks tilted his body to retrieve the plastic cup of water he kept on the lower shelf of the lectern. The cup had a plastic straw and Daniel thought he looked like a pale, bearded baby as he took a long sip.

Alyssa sat four desks down on his left. She wore cheetah-print glasses and had three kids at home she was always glad to escape, as she’d told them many times. She reminded Daniel of his aunt, Lisa, who was also in her mid-to-late thirties and harried by children. “The details here are spot on,” Alyssa said. “I mean, really, I felt like I was sitting in that wine bar, or bistro, or whatever it was.”

A few heads nodded in agreement.

“And I felt a true energy between the couple, a zing.”

Mr. Brooks looked up. “A what?”

“You know,” she said, wiggling her fingers in the air. “Zing.”

Laughter, in spurts, thin.

“In fact,” she continued, emboldened. “I wanted to see what happened with them.” She leaned forward, pushed her funky glasses up. “That whole sexual harassment thing was introduced, so I was expecting something to develop there—" Her voice trailed off.

Brandon, a tall, chubby guy who wrote explicit sex scenes into every story, spoke. “I agree with you. Why introduce something only to leave it hanging like that?” He shrugged. “Or is this a first chapter?”

Daniel looked at Mr. Brooks. Technically, when someone’s story was being workshopped, they weren’t supposed to speak.

“You can answer that,” the professor said.

“It’s a story,” Daniel said. His face was burning. It was too warm for the sweater he’d worn, the classroom being small and crowded and aflame with fluorescent light. “Nothing happened with the other stuff because, well, because of the accident. I thought that was obvious.”

More nods, less enthusiastic.

“I think what they’re getting at, Daniel,” Mr. Brooks said, “is that maybe you could—and we’re not writing by committee here, not at all—but maybe you could consider moving the story beyond the Wednesday night and maybe not have the accident.”

“Because they're great characters,” Alyssa said. She gave him a self-satisfied, pitying smile.

Lorna, a thin, mousy woman who didn't speak up much, leaned forward. "I liked the evoking of the colonial skirts, both the daughter and the folk singer." She held an old-fashioned pencil—wooden, green—in her hand, tapping the eraser silently on her desk. "It's as if everyone's moving to a new, scary place. Like pioneers."

Dean, an aspiring science fiction writer with no patience for symbolism or metaphor, shook his head. "They didn't go anywhere," he said, "except the grave. Again."

"Daniel, just keep at it," Mr. Brooks said. "That's the important thing. Don’t worry about where it’s going."

As the class filed out, the professor called him over. Daniel went and stood next to the white board, which held the graffiti of the night's lesson: context, imagery, falling action. He'd taken careful notes and would transcribe them later into a computer file. He was in his third year of college but had only recently declared a Creative Writing major, having switched from Accounting and before that, Art History. Aunt Mathilde did not enthusiastically approve of the new course of study, but she had no choice because the college fund was under his direct control.

After the final student had exited, Mr. Brooks stroked his beard and leaned on the lectern. "I want you to know, there is no question of whether you can write. Everyone in here can write, and you are among the most talented."

Daniel cleared his throat, his skin prickling along his neck. "Thank you."

"All writers get fixated from time to time. Things happen. We have to work them out. Isn't that right?"

He shrugged.

"Hell, look at Proust. Thousands of pages about his childhood—the house guests, every detail of the sights and smells around him, both in the house and outside in nature. That damn madeleine. But when a theme interferes with the arc of a story, we have to ask ourselves if we're making sense of it. Autobiography can stifle if you let it. Much more liberating, sometimes, to write outside of our experience. Does that make some sort of sense to you, Daniel?"

He was suffocating in the goddamn sweater; the waistline of his jeans was damp with sweat. "I don't believe I'm fixated," he said.

Mr. Brooks nodded, rubbing his lips together. "Let's try something, just for argument's sake. You've submitted three stories this semester. Choose one, and write a different ending. Merely for the exercise of it. See if you can find your way to a different conclusion."

Daniel looked over Mr. Brooks's head to where one of the fluorescent lights was flickering and buzzing softly. "Maybe I could rewrite 'Heavenly Mountain,'" he said, quietly.

"The one with the ski accident?"

"Yes, about the couple who had grown apart, and didn’t know how to get back—“

"You see, that was interesting, the dynamic between them. Continue with those characters. See what happens next."

"Without the accident?"

"Yes. Can you try that?"

Daniel agreed and promised to have the new draft before the next class. As he left the building and walked the sidewalks, however, the pungent night air pressed in from all sides, lush green and blooms and bark, overwhelming all else, and his mind wandered to abstract feelings and places and when he surfaced, back on the sidewalk, he realized he had no idea how to proceed.

***

"How was class?" Jane stretched out on the bed, her long legs in a V, her feet hanging over the edges. She looked at him over her shoulder.

"Mr. Brooks talked to me afterwards."

"That's good?"

"Not really."

She closed her book and sat up.

"He wants me to rewrite the ending of one of the stories," Daniel said.

"You can do that."

"I'm not sure how to end it." He ran his fingers through his hair. "They don't tell you what to write, only to make it different. This is how I wanted it in the first place."

"But he's a writer, with all those books published. The whole purpose of the class is to learn from him."

"I know.

She patted the mattress next to her and he sat down. She started rubbing his shoulders.

He could do it, he had to do it. He leaned into her. Jane. Blonde, tall, unbelievably smart. She'd be a surgeon someday, the head of a prestigious hospital. Or she'd lead a team of researchers, discover a cure for something. What in the world was she was doing with him?

"Do you want to go out tomorrow night?" she asked.

He stood up. Her last night, before twelve weeks in Boston for an internship.

"We could see a movie, or just have a nice dinner. I liked that wine bistro. Do you want to go there again?"

"It'll be crowded on the weekend," he said.

Jane patted his back and reclined on her side, propping her head with her hand. "Your aunt called earlier," she said. "Said to tell you your room is always available. She's so nice. She's been working on her tennis game to compete with you, and the association redecorated the clubhouse. Ping pong and foosball. You love foosball!"

"Great."

"You have this summer course, all those parties off campus. Weekends with home cooking and recreational activities, if you want." She smiled broadly, gamely.

He made a noise, something between a snicker and a sob.

She touched his leg. "It's not quite three months, and you'll visit for five days in the middle. Right?"

He felt childish, standing with his arms crossed while she was the one who had to do everything hard—work long hours in a hospital all summer, leave the perfect weather of southern California, put up with him—and yet, he couldn't help himself. Who knew if she'd ever come back?

"Danny," she said, and she opened her arms as he fell into her.

***

The snow was blinding on Heavenly Mountain, great streaks of white in varying hues. In the distance, the ski lift broke through the haze like a lifeline, thin, gray cables transporting the barest of vehicles, mere outlines against the white.

Jess waited for his wife near the resort exit. Mists of icy water coated his face, and he pulled his beanie down over his ears. The cap was reggae-colored—orange, green, black—and hand-crocheted by his daughter, Jenny, in camp the summer before.

What would they do next summer, he wondered, if they no longer lived all together? Would the kids visit him for two weeks at a time? Would they be able to afford the summer camp?

Mati pushed through the revolving glass door in her purple ski jacket, goggles dangling from her hand, brown hair pushed back from her face by the wind. The intensity of the weather surprised her but it was a delighted surprise, and she smiled and leaned into the cold vapor.

What was he thinking? They had to work it out. He couldn't lose her, couldn't imagine one night in a place without her.

"Did you get your coffee?" she asked. She pulled puffy, white gloves from her pocket.

The coffee maker in their room had sputtered and died that morning, emitting a final blast of coffee-scented steam. "I stopped by the restaurant," he told her.

"Where do you want to go first?" Mati zipped her jacket up to her neck and with gloved fingers, awkwardly pulled the fur-lined hood over her hair. Her cheeks were pink from the cold, her lips and dark eyes glistening. She was beautiful, as beautiful as the day he'd met her at a crowded party on a rooftop in downtown Los Angeles. They had both started working at the law firm earlier that year but hadn't met until the holiday fete under the hazy stars, each of them clutching a wineglass and shivering in the night air.

Now, standing on the cold mountain, Jess felt a rush of affection and reached for her. His own gloved hands slipped over her shoulders as he tried to catch hold. He had caught her off guard, and she took a lunging step with her right foot to get her balance, stumbling, and as he tried to grab her elbow, her waist, anywhere to right her, he pushed her, accidentally and too roughly, and she fell to her knees on the damp snow.

"Goddamn it, Jess." Her face clouded with anger. "You're so clumsy."

He reached down and helped to right her. She pulled on his arm, looking away as she stood up.

"Since when am I clumsy?" he said. "Is that another fault I’ve missed?"

She rolled her eyes. "You just knocked me over, for no reason!"

"Oh, right, I wanted to push you into the snow."

"I'm going inside," she said. "I need to use the bathroom."

"Again?" he asked, somehow outside of himself as he said it. What he wanted to say was Please, let's stop. I love you. You look beautiful.

She pushed the revolving door so hard she had to wait a few rotations until she could safely walk through.

They had argued the night before about the temperature of the heater in their room. Mati had been "sweltering," whereas Jess claimed he’d been the most comfortable he'd been in possibly any hotel room, at any point in his life, and that he couldn't see any reason to change the setting. They had argued over breakfast about him reading the paper while she had nothing to do but stare at the people around them, all of whom were having conversations "like normal people." The long drive to the resort had been interminable, between listening to Mati's folk music or her phone calls to the office, while he drove the whole time, angry to be driving the whole time but unable to let her drive for even a short while, for God-knows-what reason.

His mother was staying with the kids. It was Friday, Jess remembered. She would have to get them to school and back. For one year, both kids were at the same middle school, Ben in seventh grade and Jenny in eighth. Ben would have football practice from five to seven and Jenny had a free night. Her piano had been rescheduled to Saturday morning. These long weekends away were more difficult to schedule, now that the kids were older. When they were younger, he and Mati would often slip away for three or four days. The kids loved staying with Mati's parents in the valley, or at home with Jess's mom, who said it was easier to watch them there than at her small apartment.

It was a partnership at home, with both of them working and the coordination it took to get Jenny and Ben to their activities, lessons, games. Mati kept a family calendar in the kitchen, marked up with weekly events and reminders.

Yesterday, on the mountain, they'd almost died. It was like something from a dream and Jess had to force himself to think about it. They had arrived after lunch, hoping to have Thursday afternoon and part of Friday before the weekend crowd arrived. They’d dropped their suitcases in the room and had hurried to hit the slopes.

To their surprise, the mountain was teeming with skiers. Even so, they were both relaxed and happy to be in the open, frosty air, grinning as they sped down the first run, he in front and she some distance back. On their second run, Jess made it to the clearing at the bottom of the trail and turned back to watch for his wife. And the scene suddenly before him was like something from a cartoon: a rolling, rowdy cloud of white lumbered down the mountain, peppered here and there with bodies, with legs and skis and ski poles. Items of clothing—a glove, a hat—shot from the small avalanche as it gained speed and girth. Jess had only a series of moments; he dug his poles into the slushy ground and catapulted himself over a stacked embankment, landing at the base of a pine tree. He heard the avalanche pass overhead, a curious, almost soft sound that eventually fizzled out. He felt a light, cold spray and heard someone yelling from the top of the slope. Unlatching his skis, he peered over the embankment. Three bodies lay scattered and motionless, some distance away. He strained his eyes for Mati's purple jacket. Struggling to crawl back onto the slope, he slipped again and again on the icy ground. His eyes stung; he had lost one glove and his hand burned from the cold. Finally, he stood on shaky legs and began to walk towards the dark figures in the snow.

Then, through the charged air, he heard his name, and turned back the other way to see Mati gliding effortlessly down the hill. She slid to a perfect, snow plough stop right next to him, her eyes gleaming, unaware of what had preceded her. Relief flooded through him, warm as water.

That night, they had dinner at the resort restaurant, shrimp for her and steak for him, and fortified themselves with a bottle of Zinfandel. They talked about the accident, which had claimed the life of one man, a father like Jess, vacationing like they were, and about the other victim, a teenager with two broken ribs and a dislocated shoulder. He'd be fine, they agreed. A tourist from Denmark had escaped without injury. It took about two hours for the shock to wear off and they’d begun arguing about Jenny, whether she should take two honors classes in high school the following year or maybe just one to see how much she could handle (his idea), along with her piano and soccer. Mati thought he was underestimating their daughter's talents; Jess thought his wife was expecting the kids to have the same drive she had. Later, they bickered about the heater in the room, he counted from one to one hundred as she took an eternity in the bathroom, and they went to sleep in the separate double beds she thought he had reserved rather than a king to avoid being near her.

So when Mati rejoined her husband at the front of the resort on that second day of their getaway, Jess kept his distance. They spent the day skiing separate slopes. Mati wanted to take it easy after the drama the day before; Jess wanted to challenge himself. In the evening, they ordered room service and he watched a movie on television while she read a mystery novel.

When the fire started, both were buried under identical mounds, the thick, down comforters of their respective double beds. The room was cold, colder than it had been the night before, because Jess had lowered the thermostat, out of spite, and when the flames traversed the hallway and licked the door to their room, he sleepily thought perhaps she had turned the heat up after all. He had a few, half-formed thoughts about her stubbornness as he kicked the comforter from his legs and fell back asleep.

It was the worst tragedy in recent Tahoe history; in all, thirteen resort guests succumbed to the fire, which started in someone's room with a forgotten hookah and devoured an entire wing. Some guests broke windows and jumped to safety. One man alerted the travelers in at least a dozen rooms, garnering himself an interview on a local news station and a lifetime of gratis ski fees at Heavenly. Others, such as Jess and Mati, died, most likely from smoke inhalation, which social workers assured the victims' families was a fast and merciful way to go.

***

Daniel looked up at the class. Most eyes were pointed downward, but Alyssa gave him an encouraging half-smile.

Someone coughed, then coughed again. Then it turned to what sounded, unbelievably, like a chuckle. All eyes moved to Brandon, who leaned over his desk. He took a sip from his Starbucks cup then coughed again. Only it wasn't exactly a cough, more like a stifled laugh.

"Which of you brave souls will start?" Mr. Brooks said.

A flash, something his mother used to sing: I have heard of a land on a faraway strand, tis a beautiful home of the soul.

Daniel scanned the room of faces, waiting.

Brandon wiggled in his seat, took another sip and cleared his throat.

"Great detail," Alyssa said. "I really liked the interactions between them. It seemed to be a true representation of a struggling marriage. Believe me, I can relate!"

No one laughed.

A flash, his mother sitting on the back stoop after an argument with his father. You have more creativity in your little finger, Daniel, than I’ve ever had. It’s a tool and a strength, remember that.

"I appreciate your effort with the rewrite," Dean said. "But, just so I have this straight—you saved them from the avalanche so they could die in a fire caused by a hookah? I'm sorry, but I don't get the point of that. I think I preferred the avalanche."

A flash, his parents laughing about something on television. His mother’s face buried in his father’s chest, her hair falling all around, her shoulders shaking.

A smothered burst came from Brandon. His tee shirt was bunched up over his belly and his face was bright red. "I'm sorry," he said, squirming in his seat until he finally stood up. His chair scraped loudly against the floor and they watched as he hurried from the room. As the door closed, they heard muffled coughing in the hall.

A flash, the back seat of a black car as they followed another, larger black car. Smeared windows, a mercilessly sunny day. The radio turned to local news.

Slowly, Daniel gathered his papers and trudged back to his desk.

***

In his teenage bedroom, a framed Nirvana poster hung over the bed. A baby, underwater and framed in blue, reaches for a dollar bill on a fishing line. His aunt never appreciated the poster, because the baby's privates were in full view, and yet she'd kept it on the wall for the three years he'd been in a dorm at UC Santa Cruz. When Daniel discovered the band as a teenager, the lead singer had already been dead for twenty years. His friends thought it very retro of him when he started listening to the grunge bands of the ‘90s, and they indulged his purchase of a turntable and LPs. Around this time, Aunt Mathilde had lugged two boxes of folk records into his room—his mother's collection—but Daniel had never taken the time to listen to any of them. They were probably still stacked in his closet.

He went to the kitchen for breakfast and as he hunched over a bowl of shredded wheat, he looked for a message from Jane. Nothing. He had called at eleven o'clock the night before, and again at twelve-fifteen. Now it was late morning and she still hadn't answered. He sent her a text: "You up?"

She answered right away. "Yes, you?" Followed by a wink emoji.

It wasn't like her to be flirty via text. Was she overcompensating for something? He decided to call her.

She sounded groggy when she answered and he pictured her, half-dressed, amidst a mountain range of blankets and sheets. "Where are you?" she asked.

"Fremont," he said.

"Oh, good. I'm glad you went home for the weekend." She stretched, making little cat-like noises. "How is everyone there?"

"I think my aunt had her tennis group this morning. Uncle Leo's golfing."

"What a life," she said. "You and your country club."

"It's their country club."

"Yes, but you and Jessica are members too. Lucky."

He wanted to respond, but didn't. Usually Jane was very sensitive about the facts of his life, maybe even overly so. How anyone could think it "lucky" to lose your parents at age fourteen and go live with your aunt and uncle, no matter how well off they were, was beyond him. True, they were kind and gracious people, and they welcomed Jessica and him into their family without hesitation. True, he had enjoyed hanging out with his cousins, both boys around his age and yes, true, they had a country club membership and spent summers golfing and playing tennis, and lounging by the clubhouse pool in their neighborhood. Maybe it was lucky after all, he thought, although it had never felt that way.

"How did it go last night?" he asked. "Did you end up working late?"

"Pretty late," she said. "All of the interns went out for drinks after."

"Who?"

"Everyone. Lisa, Amal, Michiko, Gary, Aaron."

Aaron was the one he'd heard too many stories about. Aaron, the muscle-bound rower and lover of vintage cars. Aaron, the amazing, improvisational chef. Daniel listened while Jane talked about the exciting neighborhoods of Boston, her interesting fellow interns, and the stimulating work they were doing.

Aunt Mathilde came through the back door, wearing an orange tennis dress and holding a grocery bag. She was tall like his dad had been but lacked his dark, striking features. His other aunt, Lisa, had brown hair and eyes but wasn’t particularly tall. Each had just enough resemblance to pluck a chord in Daniel.

"I should get going," he said to Jane. "I need to do a little work on that new story. This is the last week of class."

"He's having everyone rewrite something this time?"

"Yeah."

"Did you decide what to do?"

"No," he said. "Not really."

Aunt Mathilde started unpacking groceries.

"I'll call you later," he said.

"Okay,” Jane said. “I should be home early tonight. Maybe text me first because I’ve been turning off the sound and then I forget and miss everything.”

“I miss you,” he said.

Her voice softened. “I know. Me too. It won’t be—"

Too late, he realized he had cut her off. He looked over and his aunt was busily unloading things from her bags, pretending not to listen. "Did you get Cheerios?" he asked her.

"Sorry," she said. "I forgot. You found the shredded wheat, I see, and there’s the granola Jessica likes."

"You got Jess's cereal and not mine?"

She patted his head on her way to a cupboard. "Poor Danny."

He stared out the window at the green expanse of the backyard. In the distance was a cobblestone path that led to the community pool and clubhouse. Beyond that, an idyllic man-made lake was stocked with koi and ducks, and a white gazebo jutted out, where people took pictures for weddings, proms, and family reunions. Three miles away was the country club with its groomed links and mahogany-accented rooms. "Can I ask you a question?" he said.

"That sounds serious." She sat on the bar stool across from him and folded her hands on the polished granite island.

"Do you think I grieved for my parents in a normal way? I mean, do you think I'm repressed or avoiding it, or the other extreme, do you think I'm fixated in some way?"

Her eyes narrowed. "I'm not sure anyone ever really gets over something like that. Speaking from my experience, I think about my brother every single day. Some days it's a dull pain but others, I forget the time passed and it's fresh and sharp." She shook her head. "Where’s this coming from?"

He shrugged. "Every story I write seems to include some terrible accident. I never thought about it, not really, but the professor pointed it out and asked me to try something different." He swirled his spoon around the milk remaining in his bowl. “I think maybe it's just a theme I'm working through, you know, interrupted life."

She propped her chin on your hand. "I thought you were supposed to take from your experiences. Isn't that what they say, 'Write what you know?'"

"And that's why I don't think I'm writing about my parents at all. Because I don't really know anything."

"What do you mean? You know about the train trip to Napa and what happened."

"Yes, yes." He dropped his spoon into the bowl loudly. "But I don't know anything about them, not really. I know they took care of me and got me what I needed. I know my mom used to be a singer, until she had me and Jess and later, she started working as a secretary at the law firm. I know my dad was an accountant and he had recently gone back to school to get some degree. But the rest, what kind of people they were—"

Aunt Mathilde nodded. She reached up and smoothed a few stray strands away from her face. "You were a teenager when they died. It isn't until you get older, much older, that you begin to understand some things about your parents, begin to know them as people. I'm sorry you and Jessica won't get that opportunity. You can always ask me any questions you have about them."

Daniel leaned back, crossing his arms over his chest. "I'm not sure I was meant to be a writer.”

"Have you ever tried to write about what happened?"

"According to my writing class, that's all I'm writing about."

She reached over and put her hand on his forearm. "I mean, write about what you remember, from start to finish. To get it out of your system."

"Maybe," he said.

She stood up and stretched.

He watched as she straightened up the kitchen. After that, he knew, she'd take a shower, put on one of her long, patchwork skirts and start to think about what to make for lunch, before his uncle got home. Then she'd water the plants on the back porch, fold some laundry, bring in the mail. At some point, she would swoop in and make his bed without him seeing, like some bed-making ninja. She may pour herself a glass of iced tea and sit on the porch with a book. She liked mysteries and recently, they’d started talking about the authors she enjoyed. He knew she had grown up in the Bay Area with her two siblings, his father and their much younger sister, Lisa, who lived in Idaho now; Mathilde rode horses as a girl until she broke her leg in a bad fall and their father forbade her to continue. Even now, she talked about horseback riding wistfully. She liked deep-dish pizza and English comedies on cable. His aunt was the most efficient person he knew.

Daniel took his bowl over to the sink and stood for a moment looking out at the idyllic, green expanse. He thought about Jane and soothed himself. She’d either come back or she wouldn’t and either way, he’d still be here. He couldn’t bear thinking about the alternative. He grabbed his backpack from a hook near the back door. It was where his aunt hung her jackets and keys, and plastic bags filled with things that needed to go out or come in. Slinging it over his shoulder, he headed into his uncle’s home office to work.

***

“Hey, loser.” Jessica poked her head into the room.

“Hey,” Daniel said.

She wore a dusty pink sweatshirt with Stanford written across the chest in big, block letters. Her hair was pulled back into a loose ponytail, but even from his position at their uncle’s desk, he could see that it was the same, dark blonde that sparked red in the sun. This, and the way she carried herself, or maybe the smile teasing the corners of her mouth, this sudden, intense familiarity—something caused a pang deep within him.

“When did you get here?” she asked.

“Thursday,” he said.

Jessica perched on the edge of the couch next to the desk and crossed her arms. There was always a purposefulness about her, an intent. She’d been student body president in high school, popular and well liked. At her graduation, Daniel had watched, along with his aunt and uncle, as she approached the podium time and again for awards. He’d always thought she’d be a lawyer or a teacher, someone who would thrive on convincing people of something. She was in her second year as a Public Policy major and although he wasn’t entirely sure what that meant, Daniel knew his sister meant to change the world.

“Did you visit Grandma?” she asked now.

He shook his head. “Not this time.”

“She’s doing well.” She pushed the sleeves of the sweatshirt up to her elbows. “Still doing her game night on Wednesdays, and church stuff. I wish you’d go over there and get those baseball cards. She brings it up every time I’m there.”

“Hmm,” he said.

His sister’s college was a quick thirty-minute drive home, while it could take him up to an hour and a half from Santa Cruz, depending on traffic. This made Jessica’s visits much more frequent, and she never failed to find a way to remind him of this fact.

“How did she end up with those cards, anyway?” she asked.

“I don’t know.”

“Well, you should get them, at least bring them over here.” She brought one leg up and propped her ankle on her lap. “Have you been to any Giants games this year?”

He lifted his hands from the computer keyboard, where they’d been hovering since she walked in. “No, I’ve had this summer course.” He still watched baseball, occasionally, and kept track of statistics online, as he’d done as a kid by poring over the sports section of the newspaper. Once in a while, he thought about getting a ticket, asking Jane if she’d like to go. For some reason, he just never did.

She leaned over and tried to get a look at the computer display. “What’re you working on?”

“A story.” He sat up straighter. “It’s a writing class. How’s the summer job?”

“You know,” she said, shrugging. “Lots of filing.” She looked towards the window, where a lone oak provided relief against the green span of lawn. “Do you want to go swimming in a while?”

“I didn’t bring a suit,” he said.

“Borrow one of Uncle Roy’s.” She raised her eyebrows and they both chuckled. Their uncle was a tall, portly man with a fondness for bright patterns.

She stood up. “I’ll let you get back to work then.”

“Wait,” he said. “Can I ask you something?”

“Sure.”

“What do you remember, you know, about them?”

Quietly, she took a long breath and rested against the couch again. “It’s funny you should bring that up. Today, when I was with Grandma, I had this thought and I can’t seem to shake it. When she came to stay with us, before we came here, do you remember how she cooked and cleaned and took care of everything? I mean, you were a wreck and I was sort of numb, both of us stumbling around in our own worlds. She brought dinner to your room and didn’t say a word about it.”

He nodded, remembering.

“I was thinking,” Jessica said, her eyes widening. “He was her son.” She shook her head slightly. “We were having a hard time, sure, but can you imagine? And she just came and helped and never once did I think about what she must have been feeling.”

Daniel closed his laptop with a loud snap.

“I remember you let me sleep in your room,” she said. “You were barely speaking but you let me come in and maybe that would seem weird to someone else—what were we, thirteen and fourteen?—but it wasn’t. I’ll never forget that. It reminded me I wasn’t alone.”

He cleared his throat. “But you’re talking about after,” he said. “I guess what I meant was, and maybe it wasn’t clear, but what do you remember from before?”

“Oh.” Something flashed across her face. She stood up, pulled down the sleeves of her oversized sweatshirt. “Can we talk more later? I was hoping to get to the pool before dinner.”

He glanced at the clock. It was one o’clock in the afternoon. “Okay,” he said.

She walked towards the door and there it was again, something in the straight but soft line of her shoulders, the unique tinge of her hair. At the door, she turned back. “See you later, loser.” She tried for a mean smirk, but there was a kindness in her eyes.

Daniel scooted his chair towards the desk, opened his laptop, and waited for it to come back to life. He wrote.

***

What happened:

Daniel was playing tennis after school. He was a freshman and fought daily for his spot on the team, which was filled with boys who'd been playing for a decade or more. He'd picked up the sport two years before, after a week spent at his aunt and uncle’s house in Fremont. They had a clubhouse where they lived, with a pool and tennis courts. When she saw his interest, his aunt bought him a racket and his parents agreed to weekly lessons. He loved the pace of it, the intensity. He could escape himself during the game, forget about his failing math grade and the often tense atmosphere at home. He felt competent and in control on the court. His life, at that point, was mostly about tennis.

His sister was a year younger and he was glad to be in a different school, if only for a year. Jessica was outgoing and popular, loved school and socializing; she was his opposite in many ways. When they’d been in middle school together, she’d always make a big scene when she passed him in the hall, and her friends would giggle and call out his name.

He had just returned a difficult serve when he looked up and saw his grandmother talking to the coach. She’d been staying with them while their parents took a long weekend trip. They were going to look at some mansion and drink wine, which he thought sounded like a pretty lame vacation. He wondered what his grandmother was doing there. Practice had only just started; he had told her it ended at five.

The two adults walked towards him onto the court. His doubles partner let the ball sail past them, and all four players turned to watch. And it wasn't until they came very close that Daniel noticed the stricken look on his grandmother's face, her strained, wet eyes.

What he found out:

His parents had been on a wine-tasting train in Napa when the conductor, who had possibly been sampling wine himself, had somehow diverted the train onto the wrong track, on which an express passenger train was traveling in the opposite direction. His parents, who had splurged on first class seats to celebrate their sixteenth wedding anniversary, were among the thirteen people pronounced dead at the scene.

What he knew:

They had been fighting, off and on, for some time. He and Jessica had learned to turn up the radio or television when they argued. Usually, it was about money, or the state of the house, or about him and Jess and their failures (grades, messy rooms, attitude), or his mom's coworkers, who went out for drinks sometimes after work, especially one called Keith whom their dad believed was a "harasser." Also, his dad was unhappy with his job and stressed out with his additional classes, and he stomped and grumbled around the house most of the time. But sometimes, their parents could still be goofy and funny. Sometimes, his mom would sing one of her favorite songs—“Prairie Lullaby,” “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” “Both Sides Now,” or something else—and his dad would stop what he was doing to listen. His dad liked baseball, especially the Giants, and at least twice a year, he'd take Daniel to a game. His dad was tall and strong and liked to cook breakfast on Sundays. His mom smelled good, all the time, like flowers, and fresh clothes. He didn't know them as much as he would have liked to, didn't appreciate them as much as he should have, didn't tell them or thank them or love them nearly enough. And everything stopped for them, with a stupid accident on a stupid train, during a stupid trip that in a strange way Daniel was glad they took, because it meant they still wanted to try, and love, and continue. And he felt sure his mom, kindred soul that she was, would want him to write about it however goddamn much he wanted to, for as long as he wanted to, until he couldn't or didn't want to write about it anymore. And that is how this story ends, how it will always end. Two people were on the earth and then they weren't. Two kids had parents and then they didn't. Life interrupted, and then it went on.

About the Author

Mary Vensel White

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Mary Vensel White is the author of The Qualities of Wood (2014), a novel, and Bellflower (2019), a novel-in-moments. Her work has appeared in december magazine, Catapult, The Wisconsin Review, The Rumpus, The Madison Review, Author Magazine, and other places. She is an adjunct professor of English and writing at Concordia University, Irvine, and owner of Type Eighteen Editing. She lives in southern California with her four children.