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An Illustrated Book About Birds

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Sometimes Violet wakes suddenly in the middle of the night, and the weight of the house suffocates her.

She’ll sit up, gasping and holding her hands at her throat, fighting the urge to dig her fingers into her skin, fighting against the urge to just let the darkness take hold of her and scream and tear into her own flesh. She’s seen enough movies and has snuck into her dad’s office and read his casebooks enough times to know that this is what madness looks like, but in the dark, it doesn’t seem to matter.

Some nights it’s like she’s being watched, like there are shapes in the shadows that she just can’t quite make out. Other nights it’s like being completely alone, like she’s the last person left alive in the whole world, like her every breath echoes in the solitude. She’s not sure which is worse.

She curls back into her bed, arms wrapped tight around her legs, and shoves in her headphones and plays the most alive music she can think of.

It starts out punk; raucous and guttural records from the seventies, the kind with feedback and missed notes and the crackling poor quality that makes it feel like there’s a band right in the room with her telling her to spit and snarl and fight against the world. It isn’t what Violet listens to in the daylight, but at night… at night, it feels like her only defense against how helpless the house makes her feel.

She’s not sure when she started bypassing her punk playlist and going to Nirvana, but when she closes her eyes against the darkness and hears Kurt Cobain’s scratchy, broken voice in her ears… she can almost feel Tate’s arms around her.

She wakes up with a dead ipod and headphones snaked around her throat like a noose, feeling vaguely embarrassed that she’d been afraid of something as simple as the dark.

Violet thinks she isn’t afraid of anything.

*

Violet stares at the computer screen, unsure if she wants to make the search or not. Ever since she saw the article, ever since Constance confirmed what couldn’t be true, she’s been trying to wrap her head around the idea that Tate, her Tate, who is solid and warm and smells faintly of cigarettes, is dead.

(She’s felt his breath against her skin, how can that be.)

The trip to the Westfield library had been a waste, and there is only one more place Violet can think of that might make it sink in that Tate is gone.

She clicks search and a minute later is staring at the image of a gravestone with Tate’s name on it.

It’s more final, somehow, than seeing the headline saying he’d been killed. More personal without all the cold analysis about murder and killing sprees and psychosis. It’s just Tate’s name and two dates, and Violet… she has to go there.

She has to.

She hears a small noise behind her and she rushes to minimize the window before turning around, afraid that Tate might have seen…

It’s just her mother.

“Sweetie?” her mom asks, hovering uncertainly in the doorway. “I was wondering if we could talk.”

“About what?” Violet says warily. She tugs at her sleeves; it’s become a habit when her mother shows up.

Her mother rests a hand on her stomach, and Violet resists the urge to loudly sigh and flop on the bed. There’s no use getting worked up over something that’s probably just going to turn out like the last time, but she’s sensitive enough to not actually say that to her mom.

(She can practically hear the things Tate would say; the harsh, bitter words that would feel like freedom and truth.)

“You haven’t said anything about the twins,” Vivien says. “Sweetie, I know it’s overwhelming, with everything that’s going on…”

“Everything that’s going on?” Violet bursts out with. “Mom, you don’t have to sugar coat things for me. I know why Dad’s gone and I know you want to move, again, but that we’re stuck here because we’re broke. But I don’t want to move. I’m glad you guys fucked things up so much that we’re stuck here.”

“Well, I’m glad you’re sharing your feelings,” Vivien says sharply, then sits on the side of Violet’s bed and softens her voice. “But I just want you to know that I’d appreciate your help when the babies arrive.”

“Isn’t it a little early to be talking about that?” Violet replies. “I mean, didn’t we already go through this?”

Her mother goes pale. Violet feels a sharp stab of what is possibly regret, or maybe just satisfaction.

“I’ve gone some calls to make,” her mother says after a moment. Stands up; pus a hand on her belly. Protectively, Violet thinks, like Violet’s the danger here.

“Yeah,” Violet says, hunching down and picking up her book. “You go do that.”

She doesn’t apologize.

*

“Don’t you want to listen to something else?” Violet grumbles when Tate takes over her ipod and, predictably, Kurt Cobain soon snarls about teenage angst paying off well.

(It makes the shadows in the room seem deeper.)

Tate rolls his eyes and Violet knows – just knows -- that he’s about to start in on Morrissey, so she cuts him off with a, “Do you ever think about being old?”

It’s cruel, but Violet feels cruel a lot these days. Sometimes she thinks it’s the house creeping spider-like into her thoughts, but most of the time she thinks she’s earned the right to say whatever the fuck she thinks.

“Old? Like, what I want to be when I grow up?” Tate’s smile makes her think of a snarling dog seconds away from ripping out their master’s throat.

“Not like the shit you say to keep guidance councelors off your back,” Violet says. “Just… can you ever imagine yourself old? Older?”

Tate’s sitting on the floor, graphic novels spread out around him, and now he leans back and stares up at the ceiling. Violet’s looked at the crime scene photos online, and he’s… close. Almost exactly lined up with where he…

She blinks rapidly.

“Not really, no,” Tate says quietly. “Growing old is something that happens to other people. Not to people like us.”

Like us echoes through Violet’s mind the rest of the night, tingeing her dreams with a strange, cold haze.

*

There’s this spot in the basement where Violet likes to just sit, resting her head back against the cool brick wall, and close her eyes.

Her mother doesn’t come down here --- “It’s too cold” is what Vivien always says, but Violet thinks she’s afraid – so it’s the one place Violet can be alone without worrying about anyone barging in.

Except for them, but Tate’s right. They leave her alone, if she wants to be left alone.

It’s sunny outside, California perfect, but Violet isn’t in the mood for bright blue skies. She knows what she saw in the car, and she knows that her mother… that her mother is putting the pieces together. The thought terrifies her, like somehow Vivien will know about Tate and will say all the things Violet thinks when no one’s near. All the things about it being wrong and twisted and that Violet is a good person, she shouldn’t be associating with a murderer.

She shouldn’t be in love with a boy who can take away life so callously, whether he remembers it or not.

Violet remembers Tate’s look when he thought she might be leaving forever, how terrified he looked, and she knows he won’t ever hurt her. That he would do anything to keep her safe. He’d said as much after she’d tried to kill herself. That he cared about her feelings more than his own.

That he would go away if she wanted. She still wonders if he knew how deep those words struck her, if he knew what he was saying. If he even could disappear.

It wasn’t until they had raced back in the house, her mother’s eyes lit with fear, that Violet realized that leaving the house – leaving Tate – would tear her soul apart. The very thought of it makes her light-headed and dizzy, and it’s only when she closes the door to her room and curls up in her bed that she feels like Violet again.

She’s turning into a hermit. She only feels safe at home, even though her home is…

Haunted sounds like a cliché.

She remembers the fear she’d felt when she saw them all, the bloody nurses and the empty-eyed would-be killers and the other strange, terrible inhabitants of the house, but it seems muted and distant now. Leah’s words about the terrible beauty of the devil echo hollowly in her head, and she wonders if she did lose it, somehow.

She sits in a room where the dead walk freely, and hopes she still remembers who she is.

*

“It’s better to burn out than fade away,” Tate says. He’s picking at his shoelace, hunched against the leg he’s got pulled up in the chair.

Violet pushes her book to the side. “What?”

“Don’t you think?” Tate says. He looks up through his hair with that intense look that makes Violet feel unnerved, but also like she’s the center of the universe.

“I think,” she starts slowly, “that there are probably other options.” Her throat is still scratchy from Tate forcing those pills up. It’s the only reminder that remains, and Violet thinks it must be psychosomatic. It’s been too long.

“Like what?” Tate says. He stands up and starts to pace, and Violet wonders what he does when she can’t see him. What he thinks happens.

“No fucking clue,” Violet says honestly, “but you obviously think so too.”

“What do you mean?” Fear. Like she’s pushing him towards knowledge he doesn’t want to face.

“You saved me,” she says carefully. “You didn’t think I should... you wanted me to stay alive.”

He sits down next to her, fear fading as he says with only the slightest waver, “Well, yeah. You’re Violet.” He grins suddenly and sings quietly, “And it was all violet…”

He brushes a strand of her hair away from her face, and she hopes that this house won’t take everything from her.

*

Knowing Tate’s dead should change everything.

She’s terrified to press her hand against his chest, to find whether there’s a phantom heart pumping imaginary blood under the skin that feels so real. She worries that when he disappears, when he goes wherever it is that he goes when he’s not with her, that he won’t…

That he won’t come back.

The most solid, the most real she’s felt since leaving Boston was with his arms around her in that bathtub. It’s one of the only things she can remember through the haze the pills cast over her, but it’s enough.

Tate is her safety net, no matter what he might be to other people.

(She tries to forget.)

*

“I like this one.”

Violet doesn’t jump; she doesn’t let Tate know he’s startled her. She doesn’t want to ruin the illusion that he’s normal. She turns in her desk chair and looks at Tate, who is comfortably lounging on her bed, his long-overdue book of birds on his lap. He holds it up to show her some sort of bird of prey, beak sharp and talons extended.

“It looks mean,” she says. She drops her own book – she’s rereading Kerouac, soon she’s going to have to make a book store run for something new -- and comes closer, sitting beside Tate, close enough to lean her head on his shoulder.

“It’s a hunter. It has to survive,” Tate offers. His finger traces the graceful line of the bird – a golden eagle, the caption says. “Sometimes mean is what it takes. It’s a bad world out there, Violet.”

He’s looking at her in that peculiar way he has, like he’s trying to convince her of something. Like he’s trying to show her how safe she is here.

“It’s not exactly Disney in here, you know,” she points out. “But it’s okay. I like it. I like this house.”

“It’s pretty neat,” Tate says mildly.

“It feels like it’s real,” Violet says. “Like it’s got a personality. Its own agenda. I like that. The house we lived in before was one of those awful sterile new houses made for showing off. Not a home. No history.”

“What were you like?” Tate asks. “Back in Boston. Were you still Violet there?”

“This wasn’t my fresh start,” Violet replies. “That’s my parents’ bullshit reason for moving. I’ve always been Violet.”

Tate takes her hand, pushes up her sleeve and kisses one of the scars slashed across her wrist. “Bullshit reason or not, I’m glad your parents dragged you here.”

Violet smiles and looks back at the book. She flips the through the pages and stops on a delicate-looking bird surrounded by watercolor violets. Its stare is somehow blank, like it knows it’s imprisoned forever on its perch which fades into nothingness.

“Me too, “she agrees quietly.

*

She wakes with a start.

The room is pitch-black, and it takes her a moment to realize she’s not in her bed. She’s laying on the parlor floor, hair fanned around her head like a halo and arms twisted up against her chest.

She climbs unsteadily to her feet, trying to remember how she ended up down here. She remembers Tate and his kisses and his hands sliding up under her skirt. She remembers pressing herself against him and doing her own explorations, and finally settling against him drowsily.

And then… nothing.

She looks around, eyes slowly adjusting to the darkness, but she’s alone. Appears to be alone. There isn’t anywhere in this house that she could truly be alone, she knows. But right now is as close as she’s going to get, the room silent except for the teeny buzz of a fly trapped somewhere.

She creeps up the stairs, down the hall, pausing momentarily outside her mother’s room. Thinking about going inside and letting her mother hum soft sweet songs and stroke her hair until she falls asleep. She never did that as a child, was too independent, but suddenly the urge overwhelms her.

But she doesn’t push open the door. She continues to her room, where Tate is sleeping on her bed, body curled into a spoon, like she’d disappeared from his embrace without him waking.

“I woke up downstairs,” she mumbles as she curls back into bed. “I don’t know how.”

“It’s okay,” Tate says, stroking her head. His fingers tangle into her hair, tugging slightly against a snarl. She wonders how much pressure it takes to pull a trigger. “It’s okay.”

She wants to believe.