COSTLY THY HABIT
To my surprise Chloe pulled the car into the garage only a few minutes after my arrival. I heard her walk into the kitchen from the garage so I called her into the living room where I still sat in darkness. Chloe turned on the light when she entered.
“Turn it off,” I said, and she obliged.
“You like sittin’ in the dark?” I ignored her and told her to sit, which she did, down the sofa from me.
“You’re home early.”
“I came right home after the game. I could feel you. You’re not happy.”
“So you didn’t have time to fuck James after the great victory?” Chloe was silent for moment before answering.
“I’m here. I’m home because you need me.”
“I was at the game. Under the bleachers.”
“I was worried about the game. I thought those three that we brought back might be like James and kill someone.”
“But nobody told them to send anyone to Hell, remember? And anyway, I talked to them before the game. I told them no killing. I told them to just win but don’t seriously hurt anyone. They must have listened.”
“So you’re in charge now?”
“No, I’m just doin’ what you want. You didn’t want them to kill people, right? That was one of the rules, right? Geez!” I felt whatever advantage I had in the conversation slipping away. I sat quiet for a moment, then Chloe changed the mood, smiling. “Did you see how awesome the team was?” she cooed. “People were saying it was the greatest football game in school history! James was amazing, he scored like a dozen touchdowns, he just like pushed everyone away every time he touched the ball! Pretty soon the other team was so scared of him that they just got out of the way themselves! And those other three, they were on defense, so there was no way they were ever gonna score!”
“I saw you cheerleading. Or I guess I should say, I saw me cheerleading.”
“Yeah,” Chloe laughed, “you were pretty good!”
“And nobody thought that Anna Appleby suddenly going all cheerleader wasn’t the weirdest thing that ever happened in the history of things?”
“I dunno, I didn’t exactly take a poll. But I think people got into it after awhile. Maybe they’ll change their minds about you. You are dating James now, after all. That gives you instant cred.”
“How’d everyone learn those cheers so fast?” I asked, changing the subject.
“Oh that? I just drilled ‘em for like an hour before the game. They picked it up pretty good. Maybe I shouldn’t have been so hard on them back in the beginning. You know, back when I was alive.”
“You’re alive now.”
“I guess I am. All thanks to you, sis.”
“I still feel ill.”
“I felt bad for a few minutes, but then I was okay.”
“‘Because I could not stop for Death, He kindly stopped for me.’”
“‘Because I could not stop for Death, He kindly stopped for me.’”
“Is that some kinda new voodoo shit? Are you trying to put a new moxie on me or something? Ooooooooo! I’m scared!”
“‘He kindly stopped for me.’” I closed my eyes. “I’m going to lie down in your lap. I’m going to sleep there for a long time. But before I do, you have to promise me one thing.”
“Promise to never act on my thoughts ever again. They’re just thoughts. Just because I think them doesn’t mean I want them to happen.” Chloe was silent. I will never know what she was thinking at that moment. I extended myself along the couch and rested my head in Chloe’s lap. I would sleep soon. That’s what Chloe told me to do. Those were the words I remember her saying before I slept. “Sleep, my love” she said and so I did.
I awoke in a dream, eyes closed, lights dancing across my eyelids. A gentle hum cradled me in a soft vibration. I allowed the tiniest sliver of the outside to enter my recognition, but closed it fast in a game with myself. I drew a deep breath to feel my chest rise, lying on my back as I was. Soon I discovered a rhythm in my movement, and for a moment felt as if flying. Then I found a barrier to my left, and precipice to my right, and I allowed the sliver once again, and realized that in this dream, it was morning, and I was in a speeding car, lying in the back seat, with the trees making the light from the windows sparkle on my face, as the sun exchanged glances with shadows in the delicate balance of day. I tilted my head to one side and saw Chloe at the wheel, driving us both fast someplace I did not know. I spoke to her.
“We’re having the same dream again, aren’t we?” Chloe smiled a little but that was all. “I fell asleep in your lap, and we’re having the same dream.”
“This is no dream, sister,” she said.
“Then what is it?”
“I’m taking you to where you want to go.”
“How do you know?”
“You told me.” It was then I realized that Chloe had done precisely what I had told her not to do — she had acted upon my thoughts. I suddenly had that sinking feeling one gets when you have had a very important dream but you can’t remember any of it. You feel it slip away from you just like time, like a breath, like an accumulation of unknown experience that can only equal Death. Her words also ended any presupposition I had that I was awake inside a dream, for now I knew I was simply in our mother’s car, going somewhere. I rested my head back on the seat, not wanting any visual reference, just wanting to hear it from Chloe.
“And what did I tell you?” I asked.
“You want to go shopping.” A skewed look unconsciously came over my face. I never wanted to go shopping, but according to Chloe, I did.
“Chloe,” I said, “you know I asked you not to act upon my thoughts any more. You know that, right?”
“Yes,” she said, “I know. But it’s not that simple. It’s not like I’m receiving your thoughts anymore. It’s like I’m just having them myself. It’s like we’re thinking the same thing, all the time. So there’s not two of us anymore. There’s just one.”
“But you know I don’t like shopping. I seriously doubt I would ever want to go shopping.”
“The shopping is just a part of it,” she said. “What we really want is much bigger than that.” Chloe stopped there and I realized she was toying with me. I twisted my line of sight back toward her, and caught her forcing back a smile. I finally sat up in the back seat. Chloe was guiding the car fast down the interstate highway through moderately heavy traffic. We were clearly well free of our small town, and fast approaching the large city, which meant we were at least three hours from home. Suburbs and billboards and industrial parks flew by in rapid succession. “Can you guess?” said Chloe, clearly enjoying her game. I figured I could play along, for a minute, so I pondered the answer.
“Are we shopping for me or you?” I asked.
“Well, you could say it’s for both of us, or you could say it’s for you.” I sat in silence for a moment. I was drawing a blank, and Chloe knew it. But I also knew she would guide me along. “Close back your eyes,” she said, “and think about everything you’ve ever wanted since we moved to our little dumpy town. What do you see?” I did as Chloe suggested, and it didn’t take long for me to answer her. She knew what I was going to say.
“I see him. I see James.”
“We’re going to make you beautiful for him, get you a whole new look. New hair, new dress, new shoes, jewelry, really glam you out. Because you’re going to the dance tonight with him. You, the real Anna, the one and only. Because you love him, and you always have.”
I sat back in the seat and felt my breath get short. “But I…”
“No buts,” said Chloe, “because I know this is what you want. Oh sure, you went all hermit for awhile, all ‘put me in my cloistered tower’ or whatever. ‘Look at me, I’m Emily fuckin’ Dickinson.’ But that’s over, for at least one night. Cuz you need this, sis. Even if you’re just sayin’ goodbye to that world, you need at least one night where you can score the boy and be cool and parade it in front of others and say, ‘fuck you, I’m here and I deserve it.’ Because you do, Anna. With all you’ve been through this past week, whether you did it to yourself or not, it doesn’t matter, you deserve something good, something better than good, something great, a bright shining moment before you kiss that sorry fuckin’ high school goodbye forever. No regrets, right sis?”
“No,” I said.
“That’s fuckin’ right,” said Chloe, “and you’re gonna go out in style. We’re gonna max out mom’s credit card, get you lookin’ so fuckin’ hot that James will lose his shit when he sees you. It’s gonna take every cell in that poor boy’s hot body just to keep from rippin’ off your clothes and layin’ you down and takin’ you from the first moment he sees you, that’s how hot you’re gonna look! You feel me? You feel me?”
“You still got your eyes closed?” I lied and re-closed my eyes.
“Can you see yourself as the hottest chick in the world? Can you see yourself with James?”
“How could I not?”
“Good! Let’s do this!”
I surrendered to Chloe. She knew me. Everything could be distilled down into the single origin of the universe which was my James. He was my big bang, my theory of everything.
If I had never laid my eyes upon him, none of the events of the past week would have ever happened.
Needles shook my spine.
Chloe was right.
I had to get beautiful.
I had to have my night with James.
Had I thought this? I honestly asked myself, because I honestly didn’t know. But did it matter?
Chloe parked the car at the large city mall, but before she exited the car, she did something I found quite extraordinary. She had brought the mom disguise with her, but not for me. She donned it herself with gusto and even threw in a Doris impersonation to boot. “Now remember, we’re on a budget, and don’t forget curfew as well!” I laughed. I loved her.
What followed was a veritable whirlwind of activity that I will find difficult to describe. I was pampered, fawned over. Hair in a bob, plucked eyebrows, edgy makeup just a tiny bit goth, mani/pedi. Chloe even suggested a bikini wax, which I declined for any number of reasons, but still, she made me laugh. I told her that if things progressed to that stage (and I was becoming increasingly convinced that they would), then James would just have to accept me as the natural woman that I am. Chloe shook her head, laughed, and admitted that if James and I did indeed make it to that stage, then he surely wouldn’t care.
We went from store to store, trying on dress after dress. Chloe would ask me which one I liked and I told her to choose one for me. I teased her and said that she knew what I was thinking anyway. She laughed and said I was right. A couple times we thought we saw other girls from our school. We giggled and laughed and hid. Finally Chloe choose a dress. It was all flowing rose red. When I put it on, I didn’t recognize myself. Chloe wanted to keep shopping for shoes and jewelry but I stopped her. I told her I was happy with what we had, and that I could wear shoes and jewelry and anything else we had from home. Chloe laughed and said okay. We sauntered back to the car. In the parking garage I slung the large department store bag around and around till I made myself a little dizzy. Chloe drove home and I thought the world was okay.
By the time we pulled into our drive, night was beginning to fall. Chloe had phoned James to arrange a time to be picked up, and we only had about an hour to get ready. Never mind, my look had already been done, so all I really needed to do was put on the dress and pick out the accessories. Chloe brought her floor-length mirror from her bedroom into mine, as well as an array of shoe choices from her wardrobe (we had the same size feet, of course). I slipped the dress on and it cascaded perfectly over me like it belonged there forever. It made Chloe gasp even though she had seen it before.
“That looks even better on you here than it did in the store,” she said.
“I know,” I said. “How is that possible?”
“You’re in your element now. The dress isn’t wearing you, you’re wearing the dress.” I smiled in the mirror, knowing that Chloe could see me. “I brought some necklaces, too,” she added. “These should look good on that neckline. Turn around.”
I turned around as Chloe asked and that’s the last thing I remember because Chloe punched me in the face so hard that I hit the floor in an instant unconscious.