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The Snow Garden
An excerpt from The Snow Garden : A Novel by Christopher Rice,
published 2001 by Talk Miramax Books.
Book excerpt reprinted with the permission of the publisher.
Copyright © 2001 Christopher Rice
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Book Excerpt --
Groping at the icy tree trunks and pushing branches from his face, he followed the sound of water flowing against the ice until it brought him to the edge of Inverness Creek. The haggard elms stood in regiments along the sloping banks of ice-slick mud. Veils of snow danced on contrary gusts of wind before vanishing into ice punctuated by sudden black pools of creek water. The music of Fraternity Green was an eerie, distant suggestion far behind him. Bursts of drunken laughter and the delighted squeals of young women, underscored by the bass thud of a stereo, barely filtered through the thicket of trees to where he stood, steadying himself on a branch, staring down at Pamela Milford.
She was lying facedown on a sheet of ice that bobbed in the struggling current, her blonde hair fanned forward from her head. A few strands draped the side of her face where her cheek puffed against the upward press of the ice, the corner of her mouth open slightly as if she was trying to draw breath. One arm was pinned beneath her chest; the other was frozen in mid-reach for the far bank. Her right leg shot outward at an awkward angle from her body. A miniature geyser erupted around the toe of the boot on her left foot, water spilling over the top of the ice, a puncture that revealed the frailty of the sheet she lay on.
From this distance, the red trail extending out from her neck could easily have been mistaken for blood. He knew better.
With a gloved hand he caressed the branch he held for balance, then yanked it hard. The branch broke free.
As he descended the bank, she was trying in vain to lift her head. It was no use. Each attempt brought her cheek smacking back to the ice, and she let out a groan.
He didn't have time to linger on the details of this image, no matter how much the sight of this broken woman chased the sting of betrayal from his veins. With both feet planted on the bank, he focused his attention on the clawlike branch as he gripped it with both hands, extending it over the ice. Pamela gazed drowsily into the ice and erupted into muffled sobs, coughing weakly with each ice-laced breath.
The twig tickled the back of her neck. She went to bat it away and missed.
When it caught the back of her scarf, his heart thumped and he tightened his grip on the branch, pulling and tugging until the scarf came free. The tails of red cashmere tossed in the wind as he lifted the branch high and out of her reach, retracting it slowly so as not to disturb the scarf's delicate balance on the spidery twig.
When it was close enough, he grabbed it and shoved it into his jacket pocket. He was about to toss the branch aside when Pamela heaved a groan of protest. Startled, he lowered the branch to his side and watched as she found some reserve of strength, rolling herself over onto her back and twisting her broken leg. Her mouth opened in a silent scream. The back of her head slammed back on the ice. She reached for her kneecap and failed.
He waited until she lifted her head once more and peered through the swirling snow with narrowed eyes. Her lips curled into her best attempt at a grimace, and the same arm that hadn't made it to her leg lifted itself from her body and extended a finger toward him. Breaths whistling in her nostrils, she stabbed the air with her finger as if trying to convince him that he was really there.
She couldn't hear what he was hearing: voices entered the woods, male. Their words were unintelligible, but their tone lit by obvious urgency. He tossed the branch aside and looked back over his shoulder. The muddy slope rose five feet, almost over his head, concealing their approach.
There was only one way to go. He turned back to the creek.
Keeping his steps light as the ice protested beneath him, he edged his way past Pamela and swiftly hoisted himself up over the opposite bank. His gloved hands grappled with mud for a second before he got a leg up. As he climbed, he heard a sound like a hand gathering tin foil, but he didn't look back.
At the top of the bank, he turned.
Where Pamela had been, shattered ice bobbed on the black current. He scanned the smoky glass of the rest of the creek, searching
for a sign of her passage underneath.
Beyond the shattered ice, flashlight beams stabbed the woods.
He drove the crumpled scarf deeper into his pocket, turned from the creek, and accepted the invitation of the darkness on the other side.
Not slowly wrought, nor treasured for their form In heaven, but by the blind self of the storm Spun off, each driven individual Perfected in the moment of its fall.
-- Howard Nemerov, "Snowflakes"
The neon yellow sign atop the Yankee Savings & Trust Building flickered to life at just pass three in the afternoon, its light-sensitive timer tripped by the tide of gray clouds advancing off the Atlantic, casting downtown into gloomy winter shade. Since the building's completion in 1984, the "townies" who lived at the base of the hill would joke that the tallest and newest addition in Atherton's meager skyline liked to send everyone home early during winter by announcing nightfall several hours prematurely. By five-thirty, the last of the insurance adjusters and bank tellers made the short walk to the railroad stations where they would board commuter trains that would carry them as far as Boston and Connecticut, leaving behind an empty stage set of art deco entrances and sidewalks blown clean of litter by the increasingly ferocious winds off the bay.
As the city below drained of life, Atherton Hill glowed with a corona of light. An early winter had stripped the hill; naked branches spiderwebbed among Gothic spires and Victorian rooftops and the streets snaked up the hillside toward the university campus, laid bare in winding concrete strips. The water of the bay usually warmed any snowfall into dreary sheets of rain.
By seven o'clock on the evening of November 14, fat flakes filled the halos of the streetlights lining the paved banks of the Atherton River, a black vein curving its way around downtown. The snow fell with rare and determined force, clinging to the pavement and refusing to melt. Shouts erupted across the crown of the hill. Dorm room windows flew open and students burst from the library, heading for the nearest cafeteria to commandeer its piles of trays to use as sleds. By less than an hour later, however, the hill had quieted, the continuing snow blanketing the campus with an eerie hush. At the base of the hill, squealing brakes and shattering glass broke the silence.
Headlights bounced across the whitening Colonial Avenue bridge, dancing across guardrail and then black water. A Volvo station wagon tore through the barrier, arced silently through the air for fifteen feet and vanished.
A small car stuttered to a stop and its driver got out, slipping on the snow as he jogged breathlessly to the torn opening in the guardrail.
Below, the black water of the Atherton River embraced the Volvo's upended taillights amid torn metal and ice. After the shriek of brakes and shattering of glass, the only sound now was the disgusting, rhythmic thump of air billowing out of the broken rear window in cartoonishly large eruptions. As the man watched the car withdraw from sight, he went to brace himself against the guardrail, but retracted his hands like someone wary of leaving his fingerprints on a murder weapon.
Kathryn Parker couldn't move her feet. She looked down and saw they were wedged under the wooden railroad tie of the tracks she had been standing next to only seconds before. She heard the mournful moan of a locomotive's horn, and then the tracks stretching out on either side of her erupted in a concert of metal against wood. She was blinded by the headlight of an approaching train, roaring toward her out of darkness that had been immaterial only seconds before. Her arms went up to stop the inevitable.
She awoke to the theme from Shaft.
Strange shapes drifted across the far wall and she sat up, groping for the halogen lamp next to her bed. The torchäre sent light to the ceiling, its Styrofoam panels still scarred by the design of the beer bottle caps that she had found embedded in them on the day she moved in three months before. It was just past 8 p.m. Snowflakes were falling past the window, casting their shadows on the cinderblock wall on April's side of the room. Now that the roar of her nightmare had retreated, she was once again aware of the persistent and grating combustion of Stockton Hall, a four-story beehive of disconnected adolescents announcing their new collegiate identities with stereos turned up too loudly, wailing over the difficulty of their first midterm, their conversations ending in punch lines followed by explosions of forced laughter. Next door, the sounds of Shaft gave way to the earnest tones of television actors; it was time for the engineering freaks' weekly Babylon 5 party. April had been the first one to point out that white Jewish boys from outer Boston seemed to have a propensity for all things Superfly. She didn't know how she had managed to sleep through it all.
Randall's story had caused her nightmare. She reached for it on her desk.
The town of Drywater, Texas, exists because a woman named Elena Sanchez was killed by a train.
Randall Stone was her best friend at Atherton -- maybe her only friend here or at home in San Francisco -- and now he had managed to saunter into her dreams thanks to a short story that had chilled her with its detail, and stunned her with its rage.
Elena's only son, Ricky, didn't find this out until he was fifteen.
She dropped the story to her desk, swung her legs to the floor, and padded barefoot across the threadbare rug -- to the poor excuse for a vanity set into the wall between the room's two closets.
Since arriving at Atherton University, she had started remembering her dreams. Maybe it was leaving home and the constant effort she spent whiting out the first half of her youth that had shunted her anxieties from her waking life into her sleep. She raked one hand back through her sandy blonde hair, revealing wide eyes, still brown and not that bloodshot. Her fingers reflexively traced a path down to where her hair hit just above the shoulder, searching for split ends, fighting the urge to split them further. She caught herself, forcing her hand down to her side, and stared dead-on at a pretty-enough girl who had stopped being called mousy once she'd entered high school, whose breasts had exploded at fifteen before refusing to expand another cup size. She found herself unable to turn away from her own image, and the hands she had forced down earlier traveled back to her throat. Even as she told herself to stop, her fingers were prodding the soft flesh at the top of her neck, trying to find the pliable beads of her lymph nodes. Bigger than yesterday? Bigger than the day before that?
She clasped her hands in front of her face, breathing into them.
Was it the nightmare that had left her this shaken, or was it the recognition that this compulsion might never leave her? How many more test results would have to come back before a mild sore throat could be just that, a fucking sore throat?
The door flew open and she backed away from the vanity as if she had been caught fondling herself. She expected Randall -- he had stopped knocking long ago, as if she were a sister whose moods he'd known since birth, and whose nudity could neither frighten nor titillate -- but it was April who shoved her way through the door, bundled in her favorite leather jacket with the faux fur collar, her black braids flecked with white flakes. "It's snowing," she announced flatly, letting her book bag slide off one shoulder to the floor with a thud.
"How was the meeting?" Kathryn asked, standing awkwardly as April got down on all fours and dove headfirst into her closet, which was two feet deep and covered with a tattered curtain instead of a door.
"I need a beer."
She tossed a pair of her Gucci boots out behind her. They landed at Kathryn's feet.
April rose, shoving the curtain aside on its rod. "Did you know there was a black national anthem?" She tore several hangers from the rack before depositing the pile of shirts onto her extra-long twin.
"No, I didn't," Kathryn answered. April had gone to a meeting of the African American Student Alliance, and from the tone of her voice, it was clear that her worst fears had been confirmed.
"It was like the first day of high school. I walked into the center and the only person that would even talk to me was Marcel. And you want to know what he told me after the meeting? It doesn't matter that his mother's Irish and his father's black. But with me, see, being biracial is a problem because all the real black women there think I'm going to steal all the good men. Good black men who would take a half-white woman over them any day. How's that for unity?"
Kathryn gently curved an arm around April's back, and rested her chin on April's shoulder. "So I guess you didn't tell them you were a dyke."
April's laugh was strained. In their first week of being roommates, Kathryn had gone from calling April a "lipstick lesbian" to a "Neiman Marcus lesbian." "Screw them, April," Kathryn said. "You want some reinforcement? Give the GLA a try. Trust me. I went with Randall once. They're hurting for patent leather and side-zip jeans."
"No thanks," April responded. "I don't feel like having a bunch of bull dykes hold me down so they can pierce my nose. It doesn't matter. Politics isn't my calling anyway." April dug into her jacket pocket and handed Kathryn a crumpled pink flyer. Andy Warhol's face stared up at her, superimposed on a wobbly, spiral top that looked like it had been sketched by a third grader.
"Frat parties are your calling?"
"It's Burton House. They don't card. And we're going. So get dressed."
"The literary frat? The losers that march a pledge naked on the green and make him do tequila shots while they dance around in llama costumes, right?"
"Hey, at least they get out of the room! You've been napping since we got here."
Kathryn tossed the invite aside and fell back onto her mattress with a groan. "I've got work."
"Waiting for Randall is not work!" April shot back. "Besides, I think he's going."
"No he isn't," Kathryn responded, sitting up suddenly.
April squinted at her. "Why? Because he didn't clear it with you first?"
Kathryn rolled her eyes, even though she had to admit she didn't know where Randall was going that evening. And she hated the nights he slipped away and left her on her own, unsure of how to negotiate Atherton without her partner in crime. She had dropped by his room earlier, daring to knock even though it might result in a face-to-face encounter with Randall's roommate, Jesse, and whatever completely načve freshman female he had bagged for the evening. But both Randall and the walking penis he lived with had been out, and their closed door bore an inane sign announcing the names of the room's occupants in bright letters cut out of yellow, neon-colored construction paper. The resident advisor had taped one to the door of every room on the first day of Orientation, to propagate the homey notions that no nervous freshman would be anonymous at Atherton, but most students had removed or disfigured them. Randall and Jesse's sign remained intact, as if to highlight the odd pairing that lived on the other side, the gay Prada fashion plate who went on long walks with his finger in a novel and his Discman pumping synthesized dance music into his ears, and the aloof stud who rarely left his room because he was usually fucking someone in it.
She realized April had been talking for the last minute.
".... guy looked like Paul Bunyan on crack, but we both took a flyer and Randall said he might be going if they didn't charge for shitty beer." April turned to face her suddenly. Kathryn hoped she didn't look caught, but April must have seen something in her eyes, because she crossed to Kathryn's bed and sank down next to her. "If you don't snap out of this, I'm going to buy those special light bulbs I read about. The ones that simulate sunlight for little West Coast girls like you who turn suicidal during winter."
"I'm from San Francisco. But nice try."
April smiled slightly, pleased that Kathryn was sparring with her again. "April, don't you remember my rule about frat parties?"
"Oh please. It's a literary frat, Kathryn!"
"A literary frat -- yeah, right. What's next? A triathlon for smokers?"
April rose, shaking her head. Her gaze landed on Kathryn's desk. She picked up Randall's story. "What's this?" she asked. Feeling a strange stab of panic, Kathryn got up from the bed too. "I didn't know Randall wrote stories," April said distantly, scanning the first page. No sooner had she flipped the page than Kathryn tugged the story out of her hands gently. April looked to her with a surprised, slightly offended smirk.
"Sorry. I just don't know how many people he wants reading it."
"So he's a writer now? In addition to being the prince of Park Avenue?" Kathryn met the sound of her disapproval with an icy stare. April softened. "Can you tell me what it's about?" She could sense Kathryn's protectiveness of Randall's short story.
Kathryn managed a slight laugh. The story was so peculiar it defied easy description. "It's about this kid who grows up in this small town in Texas -- "
"And Randall's from New York."
"That's why it's a story. Should I finish?"
April rolled her eyes as if she couldn't care less.
"When he's a little kid, his mom gets killed in this car accident. Her car stalls out at this railroad crossing and she gets hit and dies instantly. Then the county finally decides to put up gates and warning lights because she's like the ninth person to get killed in that spot. So then ...." April was holding up a collared shirt that looked like it was made out of aluminum to her chest and examining herself in the full-length mirror. "April, are you listening?"
"All right, so when the boy turns fifteen he finds out that this entire town he grew up in exists only because the county put up the gates and people finally thought it was safe to live near the tracks. Basically, his mother had to get killed before anyone would build his hometown. So the kid just .... snaps. And one night, he derails the train."
Startled, April turned. "How?" she asked, her sense of logic offended.
"He saws through some of the railroad ties."
April's eyebrows arched. "If it was that easy to derail a train, wouldn't more fifteen-year-olds be doing it?"
"It's a story, April. And I don't think you're supposed to believe the boy really means to do it."
But even Kathryn wasn't sure. The descriptions of propane tanks lying in the smoldering cavities of tract homes and overturned trailers had been too emphatic, demonstrating a love of fire even as it consumed humans, and more than that a kind of rage she had never seen Randall exhibit in daily life. Or had she just missed it? Was there something darker lurking behind his warm-but-knowing smiles and his dreamy silences? In the retelling, the five-page story now had a dizzying effect, and she slid open her desk drawer and deposited it inside. When she turned, April was studying her, as if she understood the strange spell the story had cast over her.
"What's a Warhol party, anyway?" Kathryn asked.
"I don't know." April brightened at Kathryn's first sign of surrender. "Drugs?"
Kathryn winced. "One condition."
"Here we go!"
"If Jesse Lowry shows up, then I'm out of there."
April lifted both hands in a gesture of defeat. "Fine."
Dr. Eric Eberman wasn't sure what had awakened him, the mournful wail of the siren carried by the wind buffeting the walls of the house, or the feel of Randall Stone's teeth gently closing around one of his nipples. The bedroom window was rattling in its frame, and outside, the tree branches jerked in the streetlight's wan halo, their shadows latticing Randall's face, hiding and then revealing his pale blue eyes and slight, electric smile.
"I have to go," Randall whispered.
He bent down as if to give Eric a formal kiss on the cheek, and in response Eric curved an arm around his shoulders and brought the young man's body on top of his. Randall let out a gentle, almost placating laugh before his head came to rest on Eric's chest. As if he had needed only Eric's reticence to release him to reignite their passion, Randall slid one bent knee up between Eric's thighs, applying gentle pressure with his kneecap to Eric's crotch while his tongue traced a path up Eric's sternum, and then up one side of his neck before he withdrew, face level with Eric's. Eric allowed his lids to roll shut, giving Randall silent permission to lean in for a genuine good-bye kiss.
As their mouths met, Eric allowed his eyes to wander down Randall's naked back, fingers traveling leisurely over taut muscle beneath boyishly smooth skin, wondering how long before the first stab of guilt would come, that sudden weight that yanked him down from the delirious high of touching what had previously been prohibited to him.
Randall withdrew, lips lingering slightly, before he cupped Eric's face in his hands, gazing down at him with a sudden, penetrating stare. Randall's full lips and baby fat-padded cheeks could transform from a pout to a smile in a second, but a rigid jawline added years to his face when it tensed in anger, as Eric had seen whenever he came close to denying Randall what he wanted. Which, to Eric's silent delight, was usually himself.
As Randall rested his head against his chest, Eric's fingers touched the first puckered scar on the back of Randall's thigh, and he felt the young man tense, and then think twice, before letting himself go lax.
"Do they hurt?"
"Never," Randall answered.
"They must've at the time."
Randall grunted slightly as if to say he couldn't remember.
"Remind me how ...."
"My mother was preparing for this big dinner party. I was three and she put me up on the counter so I could watch her cook. Or not get out of her sight. I barely remember.... ." Randall paused, as if trying to summon the recollection. "I just remember this entire pan going up in flames. It was like this big curtain of fire. I fell and just started running. My mom caught me and put me out before I set the whole apartment on fire."
The first time Eric had asked about the burns covering Randall's legs, his description had been more vivid. The pan had tipped. His mother had screamed when she knocked it over. Three-year-old Randall had fainted the moment he saw his legs on fire.
"I thought you blacked out the second it happened."
Randall lifted himself off Eric's chest.
"I must have." He kissed Eric's forehead firmly. "Because I don't remember any pain. Maybe when you're that young the mind protects you from pain more than it does later in life."
Outside, the first siren was joined by a second.
Randall slid out from Eric's arms and swung his legs to the floor. He reached for his pack of Dunhill Lights on the nightstand and extended one to Eric. Eric didn't need to shake his head. Randall knew he wouldn't smoke. They shared their silent joke -- that the man who had just cheated on his wife with one of his male students wouldn't be caught dead with a cigarette in his mouth. Randall lit it and crossed to the bedroom window. Eric saw the snow for the first time, framing Randall as he stood naked in front of the glass, one arm braced against the panes over his head, where a curl of smoke crept from his fingers through the streetlight's frail glow.
It was ironic, Eric thought, the way Randall's sudden departure from the bed constricted his breath, while the young man's pressure on top of him seemed to push blood and oxygen at a vital clip through his veins. Only several feet away, Randall seemed strangely and quickly withdrawn.
"Where are you going?" Eric asked, suddenly aware that the idea of Randall leaving him alone again twisted something tight in his stomach.
"So I was just a pit stop?"
Randall turned from the window. "Are you asking me to spend the night?"
"She's not coming back."
"I know." Randall returned his attention to the flakes falling with determined force past the window.
"Sometimes I think she might never come back," Eric added, unnerved by Randall's silence.
"That would be easy, wouldn't it?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean it would be easier than leaving her."
A bolt of silence struck. Eric fought the urge to ask Randall if that was what he truly wanted -- for Eric to leave his wife of almost twenty years. But that question brought on a cascade of others and Randall wouldn't be able to tolerate the answers, despite his adult composure. The result would be the destruction of the private world they had created in this darkened bedroom, a world that allowed Eric to satisfy a thirst that had gone unquenched for two decades.
"You made the rule yourself, Eric. Can't spend the night, remember?"
"We have rules?"
Randall's amused exhalation of breath couldn't qualify as a laugh. "Rules are good," he said. "Rules make me think that this is more real than what it is."
"What do you mean?" Eric asked.
"Something that both of us are too afraid to give a name. A bunch of stolen moments lined up in a row. When this ends, whatever this is, both of us will spend the rest of our lives trying to figure out the kindest way to call it a mistake. It's not fair to me, when you think about it."
"Why is that?"
"Because I'll live longer than you."
"What makes you think that?"
Randall turned from the window. He seemed startled, and Eric realized that in his attempt to keep his tone neutral he had put the dark undertone of a threat in his words. "Because you're younger, you mean? That's why you'll live longer."
"I guess," Randall said, sounding distracted.
His shadow moved to the chair draped with his clothes. By the time he heard the rattle of Randall's belt buckle sliding to his waist, Eric was speaking again. "Randall." He could see Randall's head turn. "I'm asking you to stay."
Randall paused, then moved to the foot of the bed and crawled across it on all fours until his mouth was inches from Eric's. Randall was still shirtless, his jeans unbuttoned. His typically gelled and spiked hair was slightly mussed and matted from being twisted against the pillow. He stared at Eric, eyes bright, teeth sinking slowly into his lower lip, and Eric felt his stomach tighten in anticipation. Randall's mischievous grin drew out Eric's original, burning attraction to the preternaturally assured young man. A no-longer-buried desire to have him, shape him, and conquer him; a desire that to his consternation had not gone away after simply taking the boy to bed.
"No," Randall said. "I like you better when you don't get everything you want."
Randall's kiss was brief but firm. His weight left the mattress, and Eric slouched back onto the pillows, rolling over onto one side and listening to the mournful sirens that no longer seemed to be approaching or departing, but had joined together in a consistent, off-key wail, its direction distorted by the wind.
"Want to cut through the Elms?"
"Shut up, April."
"They're a good shortcut if you're not loaded. Or you don't have an overactive imagination."
The snow was driving now, cutting into their bare faces, and they were forced to walk with their shoulders hunched. April had brought her jacket up over her neck. Kathryn could hear sirens coming from the city below the hill. Kathryn shot a glance leftward at the expanse of suggestive shadows. To bypass it, they had to walk through residential streets.
"I don't get it," Kathryn said.
"How much money did they spend to build the Tech Center?"
"And they still haven't managed to build on the Elms?"
Up ahead, the four houses fringing Fraternity Green were fishbowls of light. Strobe lights from inside Burton House cut stained-glass shapes across the snowy lawn. "You think they should put a dorm there just because it gives you the creeps?" April asked.
"No. It's just weird that Michael Price can't get his hands on a piece of prime real estate."
"Please. Be grateful. If someone doesn't stop that jerk, he's going to coat the entire campus in chrome!"
Michael Price was one of Atherton's most prominent alumni, featured, it seemed, in every issue of the alumni magazine as well as spreads in everything from Architectural Digest to The New York Times. Kathryn had studied a photo of him in Paper during a Psychology Intro lecture. Swollen and strong boned, he exhibited a brutal, sexualized assurance that repelled her. Captured in freeze frame, he seemed like the kind of man who swaggered, who believed that little was out of his reach. It was that rare quality that might have led him to import cold and sterile modern architecture to his alma mater. From the blinding, plate-glass Technology Center to the massive refurbishment of the fifteen-story Sciences Library, students and faculty alike found Price's additions glaringly inappropriate for a predominantly Gothic campus.
"You know the Pamela Milford story, right?" April asked. Kathryn shook her head. They were steps from Burton House and the bass pounding of disco was already throbbing in their gums. "I think it was the eighties. She wandered out of some party here, drunk off her ass, stumbled into the Elms, and drowned."
"How did she drown?"
"There's some kind of creek, I think."
"All the more reason to raze it."
Kathryn shivered. On the front porch of the house, she looked back to the green. "He might be inside. Can we just go in?"
April tugged on her shoulder.
Inside, they were instantly swallowed by the shoulder-to-shoulder throng clogging the front hallway. The frat's living room had been transformed into a poor man's Studio 54. Half the dancers were wearing neon-colored wigs and a Warhol film was being projected onto the ceiling, shaggy-headed sylphs staggering and jerking across the frame. Kathryn scanned the crowd for Randall.
A rail-thin boy done up in drag shoved a tray of Jell-O shots in their faces. April took one, shot it, and then handed one to Kathryn. "I told you they didn't card!"
"What's in this?" Kathryn asked the drag queen.
"X," he shouted back, before vanishing onto the adjacent dance floor.
April brought one hand to her mouth. "Oh God!"
"He was probably kidding," Kathryn said, as she placed her shot on the stair above her head.
"Whatever. If I'm still awake in four hours, cuddling up against you in bed and stroking your hair, then these freaks are going in front of the Disciplinary Council!"
Kathryn hooked her by the arm. "Let's find Randall!"
The kitchen was as crowded as the rest of the house. What counter space was not covered in empty beer cases and liquor bottles was blocked by drunken couples holding on to each for support as they were rocked onto the balls of their feet by a steady procession toward the open back door. A hand slapped Kathryn's ass. When she turned, she saw April several steps behind her, and whirled to face her offender. Tim Mathis grinned back at her. His dimpled cheeks had the blush of too many drinks. A stranger might have thought the short, stocky, peroxide blond with the bicycle chain around his neck was making an ill-advised pass. Kathryn knew better. Tim threw both arms skyward with a squeal before enfolding Kathryn in a sloppy embrace.
"Have you seen Randall?" Kathryn asked as she pried herself free.
"Nope. No sign of the Ice Queen. But his roommate is certainly here, though!" Tim said, exaggerating the words with a sexual suggestiveness that turned Kathryn's stomach. "He's out on the dance floor bumping and grinding with some twelve-year-old girl."
"Who?" Kathryn asked, before she could stop herself.
"Someone who doesn't know any better," April cut in, grabbing at Kathryn's shoulders.
"What's the guy's deal, anyway?" Tim squinted at her. "Randall wouldn't give me any of the dirt. Is he a member of the spur posse or something?" Kathryn was being pressed up against Tim's spandexed chest. April's hand gripped her shoulder, ready to pull Kathryn away from a conversation she knew Kathryn wanted to avoid. "I mean, don't get me wrong. Jesse Lowry is a Bruce Weber photo waiting to be snapped, but forgive me for thinking that a man who sleeps with that many women doesn't have something to prove!"
"Have you quit smoking yet?" April asked in her ear.
"Let's go have one. I can't breathe in here."
"No, I wasn't talking. Really," Tim cut in. "And aren't you a med student?"
"Nice try," April replied. "Biomedical ethics. And aren't you a music major?"
"Then why don't you try talking without sing-ing!"
"You're just pissed at everyone because you're a dyke."
"I'm also black. Which fills me with rage. Kathryn, cigarette!"
"No, no. Not so fast!" Tim grabbed Kathryn's other shoulder. "Seriously, Kathryn, I know how you and Randall are. You two probably did the whole finger-pricking, blood-sharing thing. He picks out your clothes, you set him up on dates with all your non-threatening male friends. It's a strong bond, I know. And I hate to be the first one to tell you, but I think there might be more going down behind that door than you ever -- "
"No offense to you or your kind, Tim, but Jesse Lowry is as heterosexual as they come," April cut in.
"Bullshit. He's sexual. When are you girls ever going to learn the difference?"
"Maybe you can interview Jesse for your column," Kathryn managed. "A man, his penis, and the doormats he rubs it on."
"I'm sure he does more than rub."
"All right," April growled behind her, patience gone.
"But screw that," Tim continued, unfazed. "I'm about to quit anyway. They think if they make me a news editor then I'll stop trying to rile things up. I mean, do you guys even read the Atherton Herald? It's, like, three pages long and the major headline is always something real scintillating like 'Sophomore Plants Tree.' "
"I am claustrophobic!" April barked.
"Jesus, April. All right. Tim, if you see Randall, tell him I'm looking for him."
"Yeah, right. Like I ever see Randall anymore," Tim muttered, raising his plastic cup in a sarcastic toast.
On the patio, smokers shivered in huddles. Trash cans lined the clapboard fence, spilling flattened beer cases. "That was rude," Kathryn finally said.
"Me? No, he was rude. The guy's got to know what you think of Jesse, and he was throwing out all the shit just to milk you for info on Randall. He needs to move on. Randall's too intense for that guy anyway. But just in case you were wondering -- " April paused for effect, pulling a cigarette free from the pack Kathryn had just removed from her jacket pocket " -- Jesse obviously isn't the only guy on this campus who goes through people like a Ginsu knife."
"Tim and Randall dated, April."
April rolled her eyes.
"How's that shot treating you?" Kathryn finally asked. "Are you rolling?"
"Shit. It's Sig."
"God bless you."
"Sigrid," April hissed.
Kathryn followed her roommate's spooked stare to where one of April's previous girlfriends of the moment stood smoking in a corner of the patio, shooting slant-eyed glances at the surrounding crowd, as if any number of the other guests were going to slap an apron on her and force her to cook dinner.
"Is that Abba?"
"I told you not to call her that. You and Randall need to start learning people's real names. You're both sociopaths."
The girl had claimed to be Swedish royalty, so rather than risk embarrassment in attempting to pronounce her name, Kathryn and Randall had nicknamed her after the famous Swedish pop group. "How royal is she, exactly?"
"I have to talk to her."
"Why? You dumped her last month."
"That's why I have to talk to her. It's like noblesse oblige. Wait here."
But April was already crossing the patio. Kathryn turned, scanning the other guests to see if anyone had begun staring at the girl who had just been left standing awkwardly by herself.
Where the hell was Randall?
She shoved her way back inside. There was no sign of Tim in the kitchen, so she edged into the front hallway and stopped in the doorway to the living room, narrowing her eyes against the flashing strobe lights to make out the wild forms on the dance floor. There were plenty of blonde heads, but none of them belonged to Randall.
When her eyes met Jesse Lowry's, her breath came out in a startled hiss.
He was dancing halfway across the living room, and his partner was a stick figure of a brunette who clung to Jesse's broad frame as if she were in a drunken swoon. Their slow, swaying embrace was completely out of synch with the urgent disco. Jesse wore his usual UCLA baseball cap, with the bill shading his eyes from the flashing strobe lights, but Kathryn could make out his slight, suggestive smile, directed now at her. It was a smile that implied Kathryn had been watching Jesse for hours. He wore a tight, cable-knit sweater that accented the swells of his chest. Most girls went weak in the knees -- not unlike his current dancing partner and next victim -- when Jesse bothered to look their way. Kathryn had trained herself to react to him with a mixture of disgust and suspicion.
They stared icily at each other for several seconds. Kathryn saw that Jesse's other arm was plastered between his body and the girl's, and she realized it wasn't alcohol that had turned the girl into a limp noodle in Jesse's embrace. One of Jesse's hands disappeared into the unbuttoned, distended waistline of the girl's jeans. She was rocking up onto her toes, trying to bring her mouth to Jesse's, before her intended kiss became a defeated gasp against his cheek.
Jesse withdrew his hands from the girl's pants. His eyes locked on Kathryn's, he slid his middle finger between his lips. Kathryn left the doorway.
When he returned home from getting Chinese takeout that evening, it had still been light out. Eric lingered in the dark on the first floor, where the snowy windows glowed brighter than anything inside the house. The parked cars along Victoria Street sat beneath layers of white, and the snowfall had thinned to frail flakes that danced on their descent; the evening's storm had turned into a dusting.
Wearing only his bathrobe, he padded across the living room without hitting a single switch. He turned on the gas fireplace with a flick of his wrist and lit it with the fireplace lighter. The flames caught with a sudden whoosh as they punched through the fake charred coals. Weak firelight played across The Garden of Earthly Delights and Eric was struck by the flickering image of Hieronymus Bosch's altarpiece. Above the bookcase, Eden, Earth, and Hell were dancing in the frame. He had launched his academic career with a controversial book that claimed that the medieval painter wasn't truly a member of the established church, but a mitigated Cathar who held the heretical belief that the earth was Satan's terrain, and the body a trap from which one must spiritually escape, and whose vile desires must be denied.
Eric stared up at the painting that had once so shaped his worldview. The cluster of wild academic theories it opened up had seemed to speak directly to his own inhibitions and fears. Still fresh with Randall's sweat, he couldn't fight the feeling that the Cathars were wrong. The body wasn't a trap, but a door to sensations he had denied himself for far too long.
Halfway to the kitchen, something hard banged his knee and he stepped back. He had walked into the liquor cabinet door, which Lisa had left standing open. Angrily, he kicked it shut, then had to admit to himself that he was hardly in any position to curse his wife's forgetfulness. Never mind that Lisa had spent the last three years of her life establishing scotch and painkillers as staples of her diet; he could still taste Randall in his mouth.
In the kitchen, he flicked on the overhead light, glancing at the phone. Lisa had left one of her usual notes, cursory and by now unnecessary. "Went to Paula's," they usually said. Or, "Paula had a bad week. Be back Mon. Prob Late." They were as terse and bloodless as their marriage had been almost since its beginning. What more could be expected of a bond Eric had sought as if it were a Ph.D., another credential meant to tether him to a world with established rules? But in the beginning, Lisa hadn't seemed to want much more either. Only too late had Eric realized that his wife required more than a companion, or a weight beside her in the bed. Now, Eric was sure that a part of Lisa was relieved by her sister's cancer, for she could escape Eric every weekend for someone who truly needed her.
When the phone rang, he was propping open the refrigerator with one hip. Startled, he turned and crossed to the phone, the fridge door making a soft thud as it glided shut behind him. His hand almost to the receiver, his eyes landed on the note written on the banana-shaped stationery usually reserved for grocery lists.
I SAW. I KNOW.
His breath didn't catch; it simply stopped, and then a painful stab in his chest reminded him to breathe. He realized the phone still summoned him.
"Is this Eric Eberman?" An unfamiliar female voice, its tone clipped and professional. "Sir, is this ...."
"Who is this?"
"My name is Pat Kellerman, sir. I'm afraid I have some bad news."
"Your wife's been in an accident."
He looked down at the note he held in one hand. The urge to tear it in two struck him with such sudden force that he almost dropped the phone. Instead, he opened the nearest drawer with one hand and slid it inside, shutting it slowly so as not to be heard on the other end. By the time the woman was explaining that a patrol car was on its way to pick him up, Eric remembered the wail of sirens that had stopped only twenty minutes earlier.
Behind them, Burton House still shook. Tim rested his head in both open palms as Kathryn fished a cigarette for him out of her jacket pocket. Guests were beginning to depart, their shadows vanishing into the darkness of Fraternity Green. Some of them bravely turned left into the Elms, Kathryn noticed, as she handed Tim the cigarette and he took it with a weak smile.
"What was in those goddamn Jell-O shots anyway?" Tim asked with a groan.
"You don't want to know."
Tim exhaled his first drag. "Smoking kills, you know."
"Shit. Why didn't anyone tell me?"
"Sorry about earlier," Tim muttered.
Kathryn feigned ignorance by staying quiet.
"I just wanted to know what's going on with him."
"Jesse?" Kathryn asked.
So April was right, and there was someone else at Atherton who had Randall on the brain. The realization made her feel at once less alone and less privileged. She had assumed that Randall's fling with the guy he had referred to as Bob Woodward in spandex was doomed from the start. The guy rarely shut up, and she knew from experience that you had to allow Randall his silences. And he seemed run through by that journalistic belief that a right to privacy was only a cover for a dire secret that required exposure. Randall had many secrets. The only thing that made that truth tolerable was her faith that she would learn most of them in due time.
"I don't know," Kathryn lied. She knew they were loaded.
"Only child, right?" Tim pressed.
"Yeah. I guess that explains a lot," Kathryn said with a note of finality.
"No, the 'rich parents' thing explains a lot more. Makes sense. I kind of have this image of him browsing the racks at Saks, or power lunching with the Kennedys back when the rest of us were hitting the mall on weekends."
"He's never mentioned the Kennedys."
Tim heard the sharpness in her tone and responded with a weak laugh. "Sorry, I just realized we've been out on a few dates and I don't know anything about him."
"I didn't think you guys actually went out on dates."
Tim smiled wryly. "He tells you everything, doesn't he?"
"I don't ask for all the details."
"Aren't you guys best friends?"
Kathryn felt her eyebrows arch and her mouth curl. When she saw Tim's reaction to her evident anger, she wished she had thought twice before letting it get the best of her. The guy was just still smarting from the sting of rejection, but he'd just crossed a line she didn't know she had. However, Randall had moved on because of a lack of interest -- unlike Jesse, whose pathological promiscuity left behind a constant string of the confused and spurned.
Behind them, the door to the house popped open and April emerged, tailed by Sigrid and three other lesbians who looked like they were about to go logging. "We're going to the Hole!"
"Gross. Be sure to shower," Tim commented.
"You coming?" April asked her, eyes on Kathryn as she punched her fists into her gloves.
"Some of us don't have fake IDs."
"I can get you in," one of the lesbians offered. Kathryn attempted a grateful smile and shook her head.
"No sign of the Ice Queen?" April asked.
"Looks like my nickname stuck!" Tim said proudly.
April shot Kathryn one last disapproving look before turning to her entourage. "Let's head out, girls!"
They shuffled down the steps past Kathryn.
"We might meet you!" Kathryn called after them, and April waved at her over one shoulder.
She stared after them before noticing a shadow striding down the path toward Burton House, its gait familiar. Kathryn rose and descended the front steps of the house. When Randall's eyes left the walkway before his feet, they lit up and met hers. She had almost closed the distance between them, grinning. Lifting her slightly off her feet, he pulled her body into his. They did a half spin and almost lost their footing, but he didn't relinquish his hold on her. His long limbs didn't suggest strength, but they enfolded her tightly.
"You were waiting. I'm an asshole," he whispered into her ear before he kissed her cheek gently.
"No. It's cool."
She heard Tim rise to his feet behind them and turned to see him brushing off the seat of his pants. He gave Randall an acidic smile and Kathryn felt a current of tension pass between both men before Randall returned the smile with a stiff and formal one of his own. "Tim," he said.
"Randall," Tim responded mockingly, descending the steps. "All right, Bobbsey Twins. I'll see you guys later." He passed them and Kathryn heard him add, "Maybe," under his breath.
Once he was gone, Randall gave her a sheepish look. "He bugged you, didn't he?"
"You're a heartbreaker."
"I should tell him to leave you alone."
"I think when it comes to him, you've done quite enough. Or nothing at all."
"He'll live. And the only reason he'd say otherwise is to try to get me to sleep with him again." He glanced at the path Tim had taken into the shadows, then returned his attention to her. "What did I miss?"
"Tainted Jell-O shots. A Swedish princess. But you still be might able to watch Jesse reel in tonight's catch."
"I'm sure I'll run into her later."
Randall tugged his silver flask from his inside jacket pocket, un-capped it, and handed it to Kathryn. She took a slug and winced. "Christ, Randall, can't you add soda or something?"
"Lightweight. Come on." He took one of her hands and began leading her off the sidewalk and onto the lawn.
His hand was warm, as if he had been inside all night, but his body was hot, as if he ran on high octane. "Mind if I ask where we're going?" she ventured.
Kathryn yanked her hand free. "No, Randall. I hate that place."
"I'll let you change. They'll only card you if you're dressed like you are right now."
His grin told her he was only half serious, but when she hung back he stuck out his lower lip. "Don't even start," Kathryn said, already starting to giggle. Randall furrowed his brow, jutting his lip out farther. His expression had transformed from baby-faced pleading into a monkey scowl; when he went to push his ears forward to complete the effect, Kathryn grabbed one of his wrists. "Fine!" she barked, to choke off her laughter. "Stupid of me to think you could hang out with anyone who doesn't wear Prada."
"I'm wearing Gucci," Randall said in a small voice.
"Don't push it!" Kathryn made a sharp turn, leading them back toward the sidewalk.
"Where are you going?" Randall called after her. She turned and saw Randall gesture toward the Elms. "Oh, you're kidding," she moaned.
"Come on. I'll protect you." He put an arm around her shoulders. Kathryn let out a defeated groan and allowed herself to be led into the dark woods.
To her surprise, the Elms were easily navigated. There was no underbrush and the only obstructions were shoulder-height branches that were hard to make out in the darkness. Randall kept tight against the left side of her chest, pressing her head down and pushing branches out of their way as they went.
"You don't even want to know what I saw your roommate doing tonight."
"Now I do."
Randall came to a sudden halt. Kathryn thudded into him and saw they were standing at the edge of a five-foot drop down into a stream swollen with melting snow.
"Pamela Milford," she muttered.
"What?" Randall asked.
She looked up and saw she had his full attention. "Nothing. April was telling me the story earlier. The woman who drowned."
Randall nodded and his eyes returned to the flow of water below.
"Maybe she drowned," he whispered.
"You know something else?"
"No one really knows what happened. Why do you think everyone here still talks about it like it's some urban legend?"
"Well, she was real, wasn't she? That means it's not an urban legend."
His eyes still on the five-foot drop, he curled his mouth into a weak smile, then took her hand and held it tight. "I didn't know it was so wide down here. Come on."
As they traveled up the bank, the trees thinned out, revealing houses beyond. "So? What happened?" Randall asked, seeming to have recovered from the fact that they had come within inches of falling five feet into near-freezing water.
"Your roommate and this girl were on the dance floor. You would have thought he was her ob-gyn."
"Is there any reason you can't refer to him by his first name? He's always 'your roommate' or 'that asshole.' "
"He's both," Kathryn said. They came to a sidewalk with a stone banister, which crossed over the top of a large drainage pipe emitting crystalline black water amid ice extending from the bottom lip of the opening like white teeth. Kathryn's breaths were more steady now that they were on the solid ground of the sidewalk. The halos of Brookline Avenue's streetlights beckoned them.
"I think it's interesting how some people make concessions for the beautiful, but you hold them to a higher standard," Randall remarked.
"He's not beautiful, Randall. He's hot. There's a big difference," Kathryn said, thinking of the magazine ads of shirtless, buff male models Randall used to bridge the gaps between posters on the cinderblock wall of his room. Did all gay men worship perfectly proportioned men who wore inscrutable, distant, facial expressions that suggested they were not just inaccessible but physically indestructible? Men who bore a striking resemblance to Jesse Lowry? She didn't know enough homosexuals to be sure.
"You might want to sleep with him. Just once," Randall said.
"I'm going to pretend you didn't say that."
"Why, Kathryn? It might take away his mystique."
"He doesn't have any mystique."
"That must be why we're talking about him, then."
They had arrived at the stoplight across the street from Madeline's. Brookline Avenue's only hip restaurant had already accomplished its ten o'clock transformation into a nightclub. Its front door trailed a long and impatient line of the university's best dressed, shivering in the cold as they waited to pretend they were in Manhattan.
Randall had turned to face her, still holding one of her hands in his.
"What's next?" he asked gently. "Campuswide outreaches for one-night stands gone wrong? Are you going to go around campus handing out pamphlets listing the names of guys who don't call back?" He lifted his hands and fluttered his fingers at the mock horror of it all.
"You've played me his voice mail, Randall."
"For fun, Kathryn. I didn't know you were going to run to the Women's Center with it."
"Every time it's a different one. Half of them end up begging. And maybe it wouldn't bother me so much if I didn't think that Jesse probably gets off on those messages more than sleeping with them."
"Let me guess. Someone didn't call you back once. And you were scared for life." He had lowered his voice to a dramatic bass, leaning toward her until their foreheads almost touched. When he saw her glare, he shrank back, abashed. "Kathryn ...."
She went to step off the curb. "Forget I brought it up."
"Come on, Kathryn. I was kidding." He reached for her shoulder and missed. Her feet hit the street and suddenly a pair of headlights sliced toward her and she was forced back up onto the curb.
"I'm sick of you and April making me out to be this Puritan."
"I didn't say that."
"When?" Randall asked, sounding slightly indignant. He was right, she knew; he had never called her that. But it was too late to relent; silence fell and she stuffed her hands inside her pockets.
"It's not about me, all right?" she managed. When she turned to face him, she saw his rapt stare, which was as confused as it was eager for her to continue. "I know better. But there was a time when I didn't. And that's why I don't like it when I see a guy who does nothing but use people."
Randall narrowed his eyes and nodded. "I know better too," he said gently.
It was this knack for cutting straight to a truth they shared, and doing it with care, that had allowed Randall and Kathryn to form such a deep and all-inclusive friendship so quickly. Kathryn only had to do half the work because Randall could intuit the rest. Did this make her lazy? No. There existed between them a suggestion that something that had shaped them before they met had primed them to become something close to soul mates. It was one of those assurances that hinted there was a little more order to the world than you thought, and made it a less lonely place to live in.
She returned his embrace before giving him a surprise slap on the ass. He jerked. They were both startled by a high-pitched whistle.
"Break it up, you two!"
Kathryn steeled herself at the sound of Jesse's too-familiar voice. His date clung to his shoulder like a barnacle and let out a short, barking laugh as they approached down the sidewalk. Kathryn's eyes immediately shot to the girl's crotch to see if her jeans were buttoned.
The Snow Garden : A Novel by Christopher Rice,
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Book Descriptions from the Publisher
Christopher Rice's new novel, The Snow Garden, is a story of murder and sexual menace on a snowbound university campus. When a respected professor's wife drives to her death in an icy river, an illicit relationship between a student and his teacher threatens to come to light, and within days Atherton University is the scene of escalating speculation and intrigue. Another death emerges from the shadows, and the connections between the two accidents begin to look uncomfortably close. As in Density of Souls, Christopher Rice explores the dynamic within a tightly knit group of young people haunted by sexual memories and fears and driven by obscure desires. The Snow Garden casts this web of friendship and passion against the backdrop of a threat that grows darker as the novel proceeds. The result is a stunning new novel from an arresting talent.
-- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- --
An electrifying new novel of murder and menace from the New York Times best-selling author of A Density of Souls.
Atherton University, freshman year. Kathryn, Randall, and Jesse come from different worlds, but find themselves unexpectedly drawn together. For each of them, college promises a bright future and a way to disconnect from a dark, haunted past. But as winter sets in, their secret histories threaten to disrupt the layers of deceit that protect their fragile new lives.
One dark night a professor's wife is found drowned in an icy river, and rumors of murder threaten the safe haven of Atherton. Within days, Randall's illicit affair with the professor is about to be revealed in the local press. Then, an old mystery emerges from the shadows as people recall the discovery of a co-ed's corpse in a frozen creek twenty years before. Gradually, the three friends find themselves snared in a web of lies, a web spun long before their days at Atherton. Snowbound on the university campus, they are unwitting captives of a malevolent force that drives them inexorably toward the "snow garden" of the title -- a place of nightmares that is all too real, and all too near.
Electrifying in its intensity, with a plot that accelerates with every page, The Snow Garden is an unforgettable read -- a psychological thriller and a modern horror story that probes the terrible weight of the past on the present and the corrosive power of secrets. Christopher Rice proved himself to be a remarkable talent with the best-selling A Density of Souls. His stunning new novel will establish him as a master of his craft.
The Snow Garden : A Novel by Christopher Rice,
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About the Author --
Christopher Rice is the son of Anne Rice, the novelist, and Stan Rice, the poet. He lives in Los Angeles. The Snow Garden is his second novel.
The Snow Garden : A Novel by Christopher Rice,
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Book Reviews --
"In his second novel, the author .... expertly builds suspense. An enthralling narrative that is certain to be as popular as his first book, A Density of Souls"
"Rice creates rich, enigmatic characters along with his plot reversals. Like a yarn by Stephen King crossed with a tale by Edmund White, The Snow Garden offers finely nuanced character studies as its pages whiz by to its chilling conclusion."
-- The Advocate
"A dark, moody thriller .... is revealed in layers, moves at full speed, and starts twisting from page 1 .... This is an engaging, chilling tale that shows that Rice's literary garden is far from fallow."
-- Out Magazine
"The author follows his first novel .... with a second that is just as rife with murder, fear, madness, and homoeroticism."
-- Library Journal
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The Snow Garden