Tithe Page 4

A squawk made Kaye look up suddenly. A crow had settled in the tree, black feathers shimmering with color, like gasoline floating on the surface of water. When the crow cocked its head down at her, its eyes were as pale as the stone.

"Never mind that you can't find The thing—he can't even find his ding!"

The crow shifted its claws along the branch, then dropped into the air. A moment later she felt the scrape of claws along her wrist and the bite of its beak on her hand as her doll was pulled into the air.

Kaye screamed with a shrill, childish hysteria and reached down to throw something at the bird. Her hand closed on a stone, and she hurled it without thinking.

The crow spiraled into the cushion of trees, and Kaye ran toward it. The forest around her blurred, and she was suddenly looking down at the black shape. It was still, feathers ruffling slightly in the breeze. Her doll was there too, lying apart from the dead bird, and between them was a smooth white stone. The stone that Gristle had spoken.

And then she woke up.

Kaye's mother was standing in the doorway of the bedroom holding a cordless phone. "I've been calling and calling you from downstairs. Janet's on the phone."

"What?" Kaye blinked through eyes crusty with day-old makeup. She stretched her legs out, and her feet kicked the footboard of the tiny bed.

The sun was alive again, glowing with fury at the night's trickery at the hands of Mistress Moon. Flares of lemony light threatened her with a headache if she opened her eyes.

"Rough night?" Kaye's mother leaned against the doorframe and took a drag on her cigarette.

Kaye rubbed her eyes. Her knuckles came away black and glittery.

"Janet's on the phone." Kaye's mother sounded both annoyed and amused at having to repeat herself. "You want me to tell her you'll call her back?"

Kaye shook her head and took the phone. "Hullo?" Her voice was rough, thick with phlegm.

Ellen left the doorway, and Kaye heard her thump down the stairs.

"What happened last night?" It took Kaye a few moments to understand what Janet was asking.

"Oh. Nothing. Kenny tried to catch me, and my shirt ripped."

"Kaye! How come you ran out like that? I thought he'd done something terrible to you! We were fighting all night about it."

"I didn't think you'd believe me," Kaye said flatly.

That must have sounded enough like best-friend contrition, because Janet's tone softened. "Come on, Kaye. Of course I believe you."

Kaye struggled for what to say to the unexpected reprieve. "Are you okay?" Janet asked.

"I met someone on the way home last night." Kaye sat up in bed, realizing that she'd gone to bed with her bra, skirt, and stockings still on. No wonder she felt uncomfortable.

"You did?" Janet sounded surprised and almost skeptical. "A boy?"

"Yeah," Kaye said. She wanted to say it aloud, to hold on to it. Already her recollection of Roiben was blanched by the sun, the way a dream fades when you don't write it down. "He had gray eyes and long hair."

"Like a metal head?"

"Longer," Kaye said. She wrapped the puke-pink comforter more tightly around her. Like everything else in her bedroom, it was slightly too small.

"Weird. What's his name?"

"Robin," Kaye said, a little smile on her face. She was glad Janet couldn't see her right now—she was sure she looked idiotically happy.

"Like Robin Hood? Are you for real? Did he hit on you?"

"We just talked," Kaye said.

Janet sighed. "You didn't meet anyone, did you? You're making this up."

"He's real," Kaye said. He was real, the most real person she had met in a long time. Hyper real.

"The party sucked anyway," Janet said. "I almost kicked this girl's ass. Dough kept telling me to chill, but I was too wasted and upset. Well, come over and I'll tell you the rest."

"Sure, okay. I've got to get dressed."

"Okay, 'bye." The phone clicked as Janet hung up. Kaye turned it off and dropped it on the comforter.

Kaye looked around her bedroom. Her clothes lay in drifts on the floor, most still in the black garbage bags. All the furniture was the same as it had been when she was four, child-size white furniture, pink walls, and a reproachful, glass-eyed army of dolls arranged in the bookshelves.

I have to find Gristle and Spike. She hadn't ever needed to call them before. They'd always been around when she had needed them. But that was when she had been little, when she had believed in everything, before her legs stuck out over the end of the bed and she had to bend over to see her face in the dresser mirror. Kaye sighed. She guessed that she wasn't really unicorn-pure anymore. Maybe that kind of thing mattered.

Kaye stripped out of her clothes and found a worn pair of jeans and a blue G-Force T-shirt. In the bathroom, as she splashed cold water on her face and rubbed off last night's makeup, she inspected herself. The purple dye she'd combed into her hair was already faded. She stared at her upturned eyes and thin cheeks. For the first time, she wondered where they had really come from. She hadn't seen Roiben well in the moonlight, but his upturned eyes could have gotten him mistaken for Asian if he hadn't had such an angular nose.

She sighed again and pulled her hair up into ragged pigtails. Hey, if she looked ten again, maybe kid-loving faeries would come and talk to her.

Her leopard coat was too soggy to wear. Kaye pulled on Lloyd's leather jacket and checked the pockets. A couple of crumpled receipts, a faux-tortoiseshell guitar pick, loose change. Kaye pulled her hand out as though she'd been stung.

There, sticking out of the pad of her finger, was a slim, brown thorn. It just figured that Lloyd would have something annoying in his pocket. She pulled it out and sucked the tiny red dot on her finger. Then, dropping the thorn on her dresser, she went downstairs.

Kaye's mother was sitting at the kitchen table, flipping through a magazine. A fifth of gin was sitting uncapped on the table, and a cigarette had almost burned itself to ash on a plate beside her.

"You going to Janet's?" Ellen asked.


"You want some coffee before you go, honey? You don't look so awake."

"I'm okay. Grandma's gonna freak when she sees that plate." Kaye didn't even bother to mention the gin.

Kaye's mother leaned back in the wooden chair. "Don't try to mommy your mommy."

Ellen said. It was only then that Kaye heard the slur in her voice.

"Heard from asshole Lloyd?"

Ellen shook her head. "Nah. I called a couple of old friends from Sweet Pussy, but they've all gone respectable."

Kaye laughed. She remembered Liz jumping around the stage in her amazing purple plastic catsuit like a glam-rock Julie Newmar. It was hard to picture what respectable would look like on her. "You going to get together?"

"Maybe," Ellen said airily. "Sue and Liz have some little hole-in-the-wall CD store in Red Bank."

"That's great."

Ellen sighed. "Whatever. I wonder when was the last time either one of them picked up a fucking instrument."

Kaye shook her head. It was kind of stupid to think that her mother would just give up on going back to the city, but she couldn't help hoping. "Tell Grandma I won't be home late."

"You come home when you want. I'm your mother."

"Thanks, Mom," Kaye said, and walked out the door.

The wind was blowing gusts of vivid, lipstick-colored leaves across the lawn. Kaye took a deep breath of cold air.

"Lutie-loo," she whispered into the wind. "Spike, Gristle… please come back. I need you."

I'll just walk over to Janet's. I'll just go over to Janet's like I said and then I'll figure out a plan.

Janet lived in a trailer park along the main road in back of the gas station her brother had worked at since Kaye left for Philadelphia in the first place. She waved to him as she cut through the lot.

Corny smiled grudgingly. His hair was a longish brown mop, cut too short in the front and too long in the back. He was wearing a denim jacket and dirty jeans. His skin was red in patches. He was exactly like she remembered him, only taller.

Kaye walked back behind the little office and bathroom area of the gas station and cut through the overgrown shrubs to the trailer park. The trailers were vehicles in name only—none of them had wheels, and most of them had fences and porches anchoring them with steel and cement to the firmament. She walked up a pebble road toward the trailer.

A brown-haired girl about Kaye's age was hanging some wash. Behind her, an opulently fat man lounged in a hammock; flesh oozed through the crisscrossed strings. A trio of dachshunds barked madly as they chased each other along a chain-link fence.

Kaye came to the screen door and banged on it.

"Come on in," Janet called. Kaye could see her feet through the screen, flung over the edge of the grungy blue couch, toes dark with polish. Janet's toes had wads of toilet paper stuffed between them so they couldn't quite touch.

The door squeaked hideously as she opened it. Rust had stiffened the hinges where the white enamel was chipped off. The main room of the trailer was dark, the windows covered in drapes. Light flickered from three sources: the door, the dim amber kitchen light, and the television. On the screen, two women were screaming at one another in front of a studio audience. One of the women had rhinestone eyebrows.

"Want to do your nails?" Janet asked. "I have a cool blue."

Kaye shook her head, although Janet probably didn't see her do it. "Can I make some coffee?"

"Sure, make me some too." Janet stretched, pointing her shiny maroon toes as she arched her back. She was wearing a boy's sleeveless undershirt and daisy-print cotton panties. "I am totally hungover."

"Where's everybody?"

"Ma and The Husband are at the flea market. Corny'll be back from work anytime now. You'll never believe what she got me the last time she was out—a half shirt with rhinestone cats on it! I mean—where would you even find something like that?"

Kaye laughed. Janet's mother collected all kinds of kitschy stuff, but especially all things Star Trek. The trailer walls were covered with collectable plates, framed fan art, and shadow-boxed phasers and tricorders. A collection of Spock-related needlepoint throw pillows competed with Janet for couch space. "I saw Corny when I walked over. I don't think he recognized me."

"He's an asshole. All he does is sit in his room and jerk off. He's probably gone nearsighted."

Kaye took two mugs down from the shelf and filled them with water from the tap. "Maybe I just don't look the way I used to." Kaye punched the keypad of the microwave and put the cups in. They spun on the greasy glass tray.

"I guess." Janet flipped through the channels and stopped on VH1.

"So what happened last night?" Kaye knew that it would please Janet if she asked.

Janet did, in fact, pull herself into a sitting position, and she turned down the sound on the TV. "Well, when we got to Fatima's place, Aimee was, like, playing with Kenny's hair, rubbing her hands all over it and saying how soft it was. She must have known we were fighting."

"I'm sorry."

"It's cool." Janet pressed a Live-Long-and-Prosper pillow to her chest. "So anyway I go up to her and start rubbing my hands through her hair and telling her how nice it felt, really going to town, and Marcus starts laughing. You know that weird, rumbling Buddha-belly laugh he has. So fucking loud."

"What did Kenny do?" Kaye wondered if Kenny hit on every girl he met. She was embarrassed that she'd let him touch her—sometimes she wondered if there wasn't some sick part of her that actually wanted popular boys to like her. He had surprisingly gentle hands.

"Nothing; he loves girls to fight over him." Janet shook her head as if she were talking about an incorrigible child. "So she starts calling me psycho and dyke, not backing down at all, saying that she was just talking."

Kaye nodded. "Did you hit her?" The microwave beeped, and Kaye stirred instant-coffee "crystals" into both cups. A thin white foam formed on the surface.

Janet nodded. "I totally went after her, but Dough stopped me and Kenny stopped her and Fatima came over and started saying how it was a big misunderstanding and all that, even though she didn't see what happened. She just didn't want her house to get fucked up."

Looking down into the cup, she saw the dark, still water of the stream. Her heart was suddenly beating triple-time even though nothing at all was happening. Roiben—the most cool, amazing, dangerous storybook guy ever—said he was going to see her again. Glee made Kaye's chest hurt.

"Are you listening to me?" Janet asked.

"Here's your coffee," Kaye said, stirring sugar and powdered cream into Janet's before handing it to her. "I'm listening."

"Well, have you ever seen an uncircumcised dick?"

Kaye shook her head.

"Me neither. So I say sure, we'll give you a dollar apiece if you show us. And he says, 'That's only ten bucks.'"

Kaye smiled and nodded as Janet spoke, but she still saw Roiben in her mind's eye, drenched with rain and blood, shot nearly through the heart with a gnarled arrow.

The hinges screamed their protest as Corny opened the door and stomped into the trailer. He glared at both of them, stalked to the refrigerator, opened it, and then swigged Mountain Dew out of the bottle.

"What's up your ass?" Janet said.

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