It was done.
* * *
An hour later, Marah sat slouched in a chair in Dr. Bloom’s office. She’d been staring at the ficus plant in the corner for at least ten minutes while Dr. Bloom scribbled something on paper.
“What are you writing? A grocery list?” Marah asked, staring at her hands.
“It’s not a grocery list. What do you think I’m writing?”
“I don’t know. But if you aren’t going to say anything, why am I here?”
“Yours is the voice that matters in here, Marah. And you know you’re welcome to leave.”
“Tully and my dad are out there.”
“And you don’t want them to know you aren’t committed to therapy. Why is that?”
“Do you only ask questions?”
“I ask a lot of them. It can help guide your thoughts. You’re depressed, Marah. You’re smart enough to know that, and you’re cutting yourself. I don’t think it’s a bad idea for you to consider why you do it.”
Marah looked up.
Dr. Bloom’s gaze was steady. “I’d really like to help you, if you’ll let me.” She paused. “Do you want to be happy again?”
Marah wanted it so badly she felt sick. She wanted to be the girl she used to be.
“Let me help you.”
Marah thought about the network of scars on her thighs and arms, and the way pain fascinated her, and the beautiful red of her blood.
Don’t give up, baby girl.
“Yeah,” she said. As soon as the word fell from her mouth, she felt a tightening of anxiety in her stomach.
“That’s a start,” Dr. Bloom said. “And now our time is up.”
Marah got to her feet and followed Dr. Bloom out of the office. In the waiting room, she saw her dad first. He was sitting on the sofa by Tully, flipping through a magazine without looking at the printed pages. At her entrance, he got to his feet.
Before he could say anything, Dr. Bloom said: “Can we talk, Mr. Ryan? In my office?”
Tully said, “I’m coming in, too,” and in a blink, they were gone, and Marah was alone in the waiting room. She looked back at the closed door. What was the doctor telling them? Dr. Bloom had promised Marah that their sessions were private. You’re eighteen, she’d said, an adult. Our sessions are ours alone.
“Well, well, well.”
She turned slowly.
Paxton leaned against the wall, with his arms crossed. He was dressed all in black again, and the sleeveless vintage vest hung on his pale chest, its V-neck revealing a tattoo that curled up from his collarbone and around his throat. It read: Won’t you join me in my slow descent into madness? She stared at the scripty black words as he moved toward her.
“I’ve been thinking about you.” He touched the back of her hand, barely, a sweeping little caress. “Do you know how to have fun, suburb girl?”
“Like what, animal sacrifice?”
The smile he gave her was slow and seductive. No one had ever stared at her so intently, as if she were edible. “Meet me tomorrow night at midnight.”
“The witching hour. I bet you’ve only met nice boys for movie dates and pool parties.”
“You don’t know anything about me.”
He smiled slowly, gazing directly at her. She could feel how sure he was of himself, of her. “Meet me.”
“Curfew, huh? Poor little rich girl. Okay, then. But I’ll wait for you at the pergola in Pioneer Square.”
The pergola in Pioneer Square? Where the homeless people slept at night and bummed cigarettes from tourists?
She heard the door opening behind her. Her dad was saying, “Thank you, Dr. Bloom.”
Marah pulled away from Paxton. He laughed quietly, a little cruelly, at her movement, so she stilled.
“Marah,” Dad said sharply. She knew what he was seeing: his once-perfect, once-beautiful daughter talking to a young man wearing makeup and chains. The streaks in Paxton’s hair were almost neon in the office’s strong light.
“This is Paxton,” Marah said to her dad. “He’s in my therapy group.”
Dad barely made eye contact with Paxton. “Let’s go,” Dad said, taking her hand, leading her out of the office.
That night, after a long and trying day in which her father had tried in a dozen subtle ways to change Marah’s mind about staying in Seattle, she lay in bed, staring up at the ceiling. She had finally convinced him to let her stay with Tully for the summer, but he had laid down a matrix of behavioral rules. Just thinking about it gave Marah a headache. She couldn’t help being relieved when he left.
The next day, she and Tully acted like tourists, enjoying the beautiful summer afternoon along the waterfront. But when night fell, and Marah went to bed alone, she found herself thinking about Paxton.
Meet me. Midnight.
Beside her, the digital alarm clock flipped through the minutes with a hushed thwick-thwick-thwick. She glanced sideways.
I’ll be waiting for you by the pergola.
She couldn’t seem to banish that promise from her mind.
She was intrigued by Paxton. Why not admit it? He was unlike any guy she’d ever known. In his presence, she felt challenged somehow, seen; alive.
It was crazy.
He was crazy. And probably dangerous. And God knew she was screwed up enough, she didn’t need to take a walk on the wild side. Mom would hate him.
Who asked you to meet them at midnight? Goths and druggies and maybe rock stars. He was no rock star, although he looked like he could be one.
Marah sat up.
She was going to meet him. When the decision settled in place, she knew it had been there all along, maybe from the moment he’d asked her to meet him. She eased out of bed and changed back into her clothes. She brushed her teeth and put on makeup for the first time in forever. Then she crept out of her room, turning off the lights and closing the door quietly behind her.
Shadows crouched along the furniture in the dark; beyond them, Seattle at night was a kaleidoscope of colored lights and black night sky. Tully’s bedroom door was closed; there was a light on underneath.
Grabbing her purse and sticking her phone in her back pocket, she started to leave. At the last minute, she stopped and dashed off a quick note—Meeting Paxton in Pioneer Square—and ran back to place it under her pillow. Just in case the police needed somewhere to start looking.
She tiptoed out of the apartment and slipped into the elevator. In the lobby, she tucked her chin into her chest and strode quickly across the marble floor. In no time, she was outside, standing alone on the busy sidewalk. She started walking.
Pioneer Square was full of action even this late. Taverns and bars pulled people in and spit them out. Every now and then music drifted on the night air. This was the original skid row, named back in the days when giant logs slid down Yesler Street toward the water. Now it was a haven for both the homeless and those drawn to nightclubs and jazz bars—life in the dark.
The pergola was a local landmark, a black, ornate ironwork fixture on the corner of First and James. Beneath it, homeless people lay on benches, covered in newspapers, and gathered in pods to smoke and talk.
She saw Paxton before he saw her. He was leaning against one of the stanchions, with a pad of paper in his hand. He was writing something down when she said, “Hey.”
He looked up. “You came,” he said, and something about his voice—or the look in his eyes—made her realize how much he’d wanted her here. He hadn’t been as certain of her as she’d thought.
“I’m not afraid of you,” she said firmly.
“I’m afraid of you,” he answered matter-of-factly.
Marah had no idea what that meant, but she remembered her mom telling her about the first time she’d kissed Dad. He said he was afraid of me, Mom had said. He didn’t know it, but he was already in love with me.
Paxton reached out his hand. “You ready, suburb girl?”
She took his hand. “I am, guyliner boy.”
He led her down the street and onto a dirty, wheezing city bus. The truth—which she’d never tell him—was that she’d never been on a city bus before. In the crowded, brightly lit interior, they stood close together, staring at each other. He mesmerized her, electrified her in a way that had never happened before. She tried to think of something flip to say, but she couldn’t think straight. When they got off the bus, he led her deep into the glittering world of Broadway at night. She’d been born in Seattle and raised on an island you could see from the city, and yet here was a world she knew nothing about, a shiny, neon-glazed fun-house version that crouched in the shadows and cracks of Seattle after dark. In Paxton’s universe, there were black hallways and clubs without windows and drinks that puffed steam when you held them in your hands and kids who lived on the street.
From there, they took another bus, and this time, when they got off, Seattle was in the distance, a glittering diadem set against the night sky, across a body of black water. There were only a few streetlamps to illuminate the landscape.
The land in front of her rolled downhill; at its end, a rusted behemoth lurked by dark shores. Gas Works Park. She recognized it now. The centerpiece of this waterfront park was the old rusted gasification plant from the turn of the century. They’d come here once on a grade school field trip. Paxton held her hand and led her down the grassy lawn to a secret cavelike part of the structure.
“Are we committing a crime?” Marah asked.
“Do you care?” he asked.
“No.” A tiny thrill went through her. She had never done anything wrong. It was time, maybe, to change that.
He led her deep into a hidden place within the rusted metal structure, then pulled a cardboard box out from a hiding place and made them a place to sit.
“Is that always there?” she asked.
“No. I put it here for us.”
“I knew,” he said, staring at her in a way that made her blood turn hot. “Have you ever had absinthe?” He pulled out enough supplies for a science experiment.
She shivered. Fear danced around her, poked and prodded, and she thought, He’s dangerous, and she knew she should leave now, before it was too late. But she couldn’t. “No. What is it?”
“Magic in a bottle.”
He set out glasses and several bottles, then he performed a ritual of sorts, with spoons and sugar cubes and water. As a sugar cube melted into the liquid, the absinthe changed color, becoming a foamy, milky green.
He handed her the glass.
She stared at him.
She shouldn’t. Still, she brought the glass slowly to her lips, took a small sip. “Oh,” she said in surprise. “It tastes like black licorice. Sweet.”
As she drank, the night seemed to waken. Breezes blew the hair across her eyes, waves slapped against the shore, the rusted metal of the abandoned plant creaked and moaned.
She was well into her second glass of absinthe when Paxton took hold of her hand, turned her palm up. Tracing the lines in her palm, he let his fingers move up, along the sensitive flesh of her inner arm, to the first silvery scar.