Tumble & Fall

Alexandra Coutts

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

SIENNA
 
 
The day she gets out, it feels like the end.
It’s funny to think about endings now. Now that all there is to do is wait. Now that the real end is coming, all of the other endings feel like something else completely. All of the goodbyes, and leaving the people she loved. The people she loved leaving her. They felt like endings at the time. But the next day, she had gotten out of bed, and maybe there was a hollow pit where her stomach used to be, maybe she didn’t feel like eating or talking or seeing people for a while, but mostly, things stayed the same.
Sienna’s last day at the House is like that. From the second Valerie knocks on the door, business as usual and passing out morning meds, Sienna is already feeling dramatic. The two plastic cups Val holds out like presents, one half-full of lukewarm water and the other rattling with tiny pink pills—these are the last plastic cups. The congealed, microwave-flavored scrambled eggs Sienna shovels down with a plastic spork, alone in the empty House kitchen—these are the last scrambled eggs.
And when Val walks her out to the porch, and they sit with the sides of their knees pressed together on the slats of the rickety swing, listening to the kind of quiet Val taught her to notice, the kind of quiet that feels full and on purpose and like everything’s going to be okay—
This is the very last quiet.
She knows that there might be other endings, bigger endings, soon. The end of everything. The end of time. But it doesn’t matter. All that matters now is that things are changing again, just when she’d started to hope that they wouldn’t.
*   *   *
“You look fantastic.”
Sienna’s dad is a first-class professional liar.
Lawyer. Not liar. She always does that.
There’s a reason he’s the best at what he does, a reason his office is wallpapered in plaques and awards and framed photographs of thick-haired famous friends. He’s the best because he only lies when he wants something badly enough; and usually, what he wants is to be telling the truth.
The morning he arrives at Sutton House, he’s on debate-club fire. Proposition Number One involves convincing them both that, despite all evidence to the contrary, Sienna does not have “nursing-home hair.” Nursing-home hair: an institution-related phenomenon occurring when a person, usually a patient of some kind, spends much of the day sitting in the same corner of the same couch and/or can’t be bothered to shower. The resulting self-adhesive updo can be described in many ways. Fantastic is not one of them.
“They have mirrors here, Dad,” she reminds him, pulling open the heavy door of his old BMW—“old” in that it’s older than the new one he bought right after she was sent away. “Unless fantastic is legalese for homeless and lacking shampoo, I’d say you’re trying to make me feel better.”
Dad rushes around from the driver’s side to pry the beat-up duffel from her fingers. He tosses it with a flourish onto the backseat, as if ushering her luggage those last few airborne moments deserves applause or a cookie. He settles for a hug. “Thanks for coming to get me,” she says, breathing into the warm, reddish stubble at his neck. She says it like he had a choice.
Val waves from the porch. Dad looks offended that she doesn’t see them off, but Sienna knows how it is. Inside the House, Val’s on her team. She’s everything Sienna needs, whenever she needs it. Outside, it’s different. Parents aren’t really Val’s thing.
And besides, Val and Sienna have had plenty of time for goodbyes. For the past week it’s been just the two of them, roaming the halls of the converted mansion on the corner of Wilson and Rye. Even though the news reports had started out vague, it wasn’t long before parents started showing up. Val said it wasn’t supposed to happen so fast, they were supposed to have time to finish out their programs, however long they had left, but after the “precautions,” people were starting to panic. Sienna’s roommate, Mary Beth, was one of the first to go. She hadn’t even stopped bleeding through the bandages on her forearms when her parents came to take her home. The rest of them weren’t too far behind.
Dad had been away on a tax case in San Francisco. He made it back just before all flights were grounded, landing at the airport the very night it closed. He says it was eerie-calm, untouched, as if crowds of people had been abducted all at once. Newsstands with colorful displays, the food court neon and blinking. He says it was like sneaking into an amusement park after hours, or getting locked inside a museum.
The official release called the suspension of air travel “temporary,” just until the FAA could be sure that satellites and navigation systems wouldn’t be disturbed. But to most people, to Sienna, it felt like the world was shutting down for good. Sienna didn’t mind being stuck in the House while it happened. She was used to the routine, the PG movies, the mindless crafts. And there wasn’t exactly a whole lot to look forward to about going home. If Dad and her little brother, Ryan, could have moved into the House with her and Val, she probably would’ve voted for that option instead.
The car purrs and Dad clicks through the radio stations. Sarah Vaughan is slinking through a version of “Lullaby of Birdland.” Dad raps his fingers against the steering wheel. “Really missed you, Goose.”
He looks over his shoulder, into the road. There are no cars, but he doesn’t pull out, just stays twisted like that, his thick blond eyebrows low and serious, watching the stoplight as it changes. Red to green to yellow. Red again.
She knows there are things he wants to say but can’t, at least not without his face crumpling like tissue paper, the way it did when he dropped her off. He probably thinks she didn’t see, that she was too far gone back then to notice.
There are things she wants to say to him, too. Things she’s said before and will say again, things like It’s not your fault. You did the best you could. You gave me more than I was worth. Val says it’s good she can talk to him like this. That she’s one of the lucky ones, lucky enough to realize how lucky she is.
But there is one thing. One thing she can’t say, one thing she’ll never be able to hear echoing back at her in the thick silence after she’s said it.
I was trying to leave you. I was trying to leave you behind.
*   *   *
They’re heading south on 95. She doesn’t notice that they’ve been driving too long until the sky gets big and the car smells like ocean.
“Nice nap?” Dad asks, turning off the AC and rolling down the windows.
Sienna stretches her arms and presses the tips of her fingers against the windshield. There was a lot of day-dozing at the House and she’s starting to feel like it might be a tough habit to kick. “Where are we going?”
She should be seeing pine trees and winding suburban roads lined with manicured hedges and boxy McMansions. Instead, as they pull off the highway and onto a narrow street, she recognizes the shingled shacks and souvenir shops near the harbor.
“Thought it might be good for us to be by the water.” Dad winks as they pull down a long, paved road. He stops at the ticket booth, and the boat attendant, a college kid with a farmer’s tan and a spray of freckles on the tops of his hands, checks their name off a list.
“Good for us?” Sienna scoffs. Even Sienna can imagine that being surrounded by water might not be the safest choice.
“You know what I mean.” Dad sighs, and she does. He means in the bonding sense. The nostalgic sense. The senses that might be important if this really is the end.
It isn’t lost on her now, the irony of it all. She had wanted nothing more than to die, to disappear, and now it looks like there’s a good chance that she will. They all will. There were days in the House when somebody would sneak a few minutes of CNN, or hear some new projected date on the radio, days that she’d feel strangely at ease. As if, after months, years, of feeling at odds with the universe, things were finally working out in a way she could understand.
Her hand is on the door before they’ve come to a full stop. She weaves between rows of cars in the standby line, overflowing with mainland supplies. There’s the usual summertime staples, paper bags of groceries, spare pillows, dog beds, mixed in with some more serious-looking emergency gear. A truck packed with gas-powered generators. An entire backseat stocked with plastic jugs of filtered water. Sienna eyes the drivers, most of them riding solo, anxiously waiting to board the ferry. The line of cars is much shorter than usual.
But the harbor itself looks exactly the same. She had no idea how much she’d missed it, all of it: the creaking of the docks, the bustle of steamship employees as they ready the passenger ramps. Val liked to say that depression has blinders, a physical barricade between a person and the things that once made her the most herself.
She half skips out to the end of the dock and shields her eyes from the sun. The ferry is just making the turn, gliding to shore as the big door to the lower deck pulls open. She doesn’t hear Dad until his heavy palm falls on her shoulder.
“Just in time, Goose,” he says, squeezing her into his side. She smiles and leans against him, remembering for the first time in a long time the leg-flailing tantrums she used to throw if they didn’t get to watch the boat pull in. When she was little enough she’d sit on Dad’s shoulders, and Mom would tug at her ankles, pointing at the horizon and racing to catch the first glimpse.
*   *   *
“So.”
Dad’s back in the boat’s lounge from the snack bar, a Coke for Sienna and a plastic cup of foamy Sam Adams for him. He stretches his arms out wide behind him, his long, skinny fingers rolling over the edge of the booth. As much as a sixteen-year-old girl and her father can inhabit the same physical frame, Sienna and her father do. Same light, straight hair and low, furrowed brow, same long, sloping neck and thin, ropy arms. Same wide, knotted knuckles on bony, witchlike hands. Mom used to say if she hadn’t pushed through twenty-three hours of agonizing labor, she would have believed that Sienna had sprung directly from one of Dad’s shoulder blades, like some winged mythological creature.
It’s one of the new boats they’re on, imposing and spotless, with elevated loading decks and shiny new fiberglass tables. High above Dad’s sand-colored cowlick, a Red Sox rerun plays on the flat-screen TV. He swivels around to catch the third and final pitch of an inning, guffaws like it matters, and turns back to steady his elbows on the table.
“So,” he says again. Sienna looks out at the water. It’s choppier than she would have imagined, sharp little whitecaps rolling over the glassy blue-gray.
“I have some news.” His voice cracks, but she’s still staring at the ocean, waiting to see the first shadows of land. This was the other game they played. Dad would claim to see the contours of the island first, long before the route they were traveling made such spotting humanly possible.
“It’s pretty exciting, and I’ve been really looking forward to telling you, but I wanted to do it in person, so…” Dad shifts closer to the window so that she has no choice but to look him in the eyes.
“What’s up?” Sienna asks. He turns back to the water, and behind the sharp profile of his nose, her nose on his face, she sees it: the snaking line of the harbor town, the scattered rooftops, the bridge, and the boats. “There it is!” she calls out, even though it’s clear she’s the only one playing.
“Sienna,” Dad says quietly. Her stomach flips and wrenches. She can count on one hand the number of times he’s called her by her real name.
Sienna, your mom’s going back into the hospital.
She’s gone, Sienna, I’m sorry.
She half expects to see tears when she looks back at his face, the tears that, when she was younger, seemed to be constantly pooling at the corners of his light blue eyes, rarely spilling over but always there, a watery threat. But all she sees is the same shaky smile.
“I’m getting married.” His eyes are staring into her face like she’s one of those 3-D pictures, like he’s waiting for the real Sienna to pop off the page. The TV blurs behind him, everything blurs, until his face looms, distorted and unsteady, like a giant parade float. “Nobody you know, I don’t think. Her name is Denise. I was doing some work pro bono for the Boys and Girls Club. She’s on the board of directors. It hasn’t been long, but … well, with all that’s going on…”
He lowers his voice and gestures outside, which is, she’s noticed, what people do when they talk about what’s happening. As if Persephone—the mile-wide asteroid poised to collide with some unlucky part of the planet, strong enough perhaps to knock them all off of rotation and into some eternal darkness they can’t begin to understand—is nothing but an oblivious child, just out of earshot.
“We’re going to do a ceremony, and a big party afterward. Next week at the house. Denny’s never been to the island before—”
“Denny?” Sienna spits before she can help it. Her voice trembles from the racing of her pulse and she watches her fingers shake. She tries to freeze them with a sharp, steady gaze.
Dad coughs, a stalling clear of his throat. “I thought it would be nice for us all to spend some time together,” he says. He reaches across the table and covers her trembling wrists with his hands. She tries to swallow but her throat is scratchy and dry. She wants to rip her hands away. Instead, she tenses the muscles of her forearms, pressing her fingers deeper into the table.
She feels tricked. He knows she won’t put up a fight. She’s done her fighting. Sienna was the one who had always fought to keep them together. And when it wasn’t enough, when nothing got better, when things inside of her only got darker, she fought against the darkness. She fought until it was too much, and then she gave up.
And now she’s back, with new meds, new “coping strategies.” Just in time to wait for an asteroid, and a wedding. She isn’t sure which is worse.
Sienna carefully frees one hand and takes a long sip of soda, realizing after she’s swallowed, after the cool, bitter foam has coated her tongue, that she’s grabbed his beer instead. Dad raises one eyebrow high above the other. “Something you picked up in rehab?”
She draws the back of one hand slowly across her mouth, refusing to let him see her smile. The boat shudders and shakes, the doors folding open as they pull into the dock. A hurried voice on the PA directs all passengers back to their cars. Sienna stands first and Dad touches her shoulder, pulling her in for an awkward sideways hug. “It’s a good thing,” he whispers into her hair. “I promise.”
She follows him down to the car, where they sit and they wait in a new kind of quiet.


 
Copyright © 2013 by Alloy Entertainment and Alexandra Bullen Coutts