They reached home in the late afternoon. Steve retired to the basement, and once he’d unpacked, he spent a full hour just lying on his bed, thinking. He got up and wrote Tess a letter:
It sucks the trip was cut short. Of course, I think my mom and dad were wrong. I don’t know where they’re coming from. My dad, at least, seems not to know what to make of you, but he thinks you’re probably a bad influence on me. My mom seems not sure. Something she and Tina said to each other just before we left seemed to have turned her around or something.
I’m all stirred up. We were having a good time. It got off to a rough start (though I don’t regret everything that happened at the river), but then it was casual, I thought. You’re very cool. I think I told you this before, but I feel that just being your friend and spending time with you has made me a little cooler too.
You’ve probably guessed a lot about Limax. It’s not the kind of thing that Tolkien would make up. Limax loathes himself for what he is, but he’s also a hero. I don’t know why I invented the world’s most disgusting hero. I’m not a psycho or anything who likes thinking up incredibly gross stuff. I tried to push the idea out of my head early on, but then it stuck, and you know, like you said about vampires that time I first saw your locker, things that disturb you can fascinate you (or I think you said that). I hope you don’t mind me saying I miss the hell out of you right now.
Steve (Sunday, June 22, 1980; 5:24pm)
The frustration brought tears to his eyes. He’d wanted to write “Love,” but he didn’t dare. He knew one thing, though: if love described how he felt about anyone, it was Tess.
* * *
He called Rei later that evening. His dad didn’t say he had to go to the fields the next day, but he decided he wanted to, just to talk with Rei, if nothing else. And if Liz the Row Nazi gave either of them any shit, he didn’t care. He’d get right in her face, even if he got kicked out.
“It’s Steve. We’re back already.”
“Already? I thought you’d be gone till the end of the month.”
“Yeah, my folks cut it short. I’ll tell you all about it tomorrow if I can still come along.”
As it happened, Liz was absent the next day. The berries were noticeably skimpier, and there were fewer workers in the fields. This time, the Hayatsus didn’t comment on the slow pace they set. Rei kept plowing the same conversational ground all morning, getting the broad overview of events, and then asking questions to sift details. Steve told him almost everything, only omitting that first aggressive kiss — and the more affectionate one later at the end.
“Man, that was cool she got you beers,” Rei said, about midmorning, when he’d heard the anecdote the second time. He wiped the back of a berry-stained hand across his forehead, leaving a streak. The sun already lay hot on the fields. “It’s too bad her foster dad broke up your party. Drinking under the stars by the river. I’ll bet you were this close with her.” He stared at his thumb and forefinger to gauge just the right spacing and closed the gap a little.
“I don’t care. It was nice while it lasted.”
“So the hag’s already dead? Crap, that was the main villain. I wish you hadn’t gotten that far without us. Are we gonna play this week?”
“No, we’ll wait for Tess.”
* * *
That night, the phone rang, and his mom announced he had a call. He expected Rei, or maybe Curt.
The voice on the other end of the phone was shy. “It’s me.”
“You’ve forgotten me already, huh?” It was Tess, but he’d never heard this tone before.
“Where are you?”
“Back. Jake came down with the flu just after you left.”
“Wow, I’m sorry. Are you okay.”
“Yeah, I’m fine, why?”
“You just sound different.”
“Do I? Well, we got a message. Mom’s not doing so well. I’m going to visit her tomorrow, maybe for a couple days. You know what?”
“It’s really good to hear your voice, Steve.”
* * *
The week dragged slowly. They had planned to check in when she got back, and she finally called Thursday night. Tess wanted to play as badly as he did, but she felt too awkward about coming to his house. They made plans to meet at the Harrisons’ the next night. His mom agreed to take him.
* * *
The Harrisons lived six miles north in a dark cul-de-sac pillared with firs. Thickets of sword fern bordered a patchy lawn, weed-shot, with drifts of fir cones. The roof shingles foamed with moss, as if the beige rambler were hatching a slow green monster. Steve found it introspective and cozy.
A tiled walk curved around the front. Tina answered the door. “Hello, Gale. Good to see you.”
His mom gave her a shallow but affectionate hug, and Tina led them into the kitchen. She offered his mom tea. Alex was giving the boys a bath, she said. “Would you like a Coke or anything, Steve?” He shrugged, impatient. “You know, forget it: I’ll bring one for each of you. Tess is in her room, at the end of the hall.”
He tried not to race. The door was ajar, a bright glow at the end of a dark tunnel. When he finally got there, she opened it and dragged him inside. Her face was intent. “I heard your mom. Is she staying?”
“Nah, I don’t think so. She’s just gonna talk a little and then go and come get me later.” He glanced up. A poster of an all-woman rock band watched from the rear wall, a pair of guitarists singing with their hair wild under colored stage lights. Around it hung Tess’s own drawings and paintings — of landscapes, city streets, and people. “I’m so glad you’re back,” he said.
“Yeah, me too. Did you tell Rei you were coming over?”
“I told him in the field that you and I had to get the adventure a little further before Megaera could get back to Dirk and Arslan. Anyway, he’s going to the Eastgate, to watch Empire Strikes Back with his dad again.”
“Oh, yeah. I’d like to see that again, too.”
“Maybe we can go together.”
She smiled. The silence became a little awkward.
“How’s your mom?” he said finally, and felt a warm prickly rush up the back of his neck, worried he’d asked the wrong thing.
She shrugged, and held herself close. When she didn’t answer, he looked away, to relieve the pressure of his attention.
Tess’s room seemed to more fully realize the space she’d arranged in her tent. She had only a mattress on the floor, made up cozily with a quilted forest-green comforter. Tess followed his gaze. “They offered me a bed, but I like being close to the ground.” She had cassettes mounded to one side. In the corner stood a five-foot oak book case, completely filled. Beside it hung a couple of her more striking illustrations. She’d drawn a family portrait of the Harrisons, and a woman in a recliner brooding under slanting light. His gaze drifted to one painting closer to the bed: a doorway that framed two silhouettes, a man and woman, passionately kissing.
Tess saw him notice the pictures and looked askance, frowning, as if self-conscious of her living space. “Let’s start,” she said, going to the mattress and sitting crosslegged. She occupied the same spot she had back at the tent. “Even if it’s bad, I want to know what’s happening to Megaera. I’ve gotta get out of this world for a while.”
He sat and extracted his books, along with the letter he’d written. He handed it over.
“What’s this?” she said.
“Just something. I wrote you when we got back last weekend. I was feeling shitty, and I missed you.”
The paper was folded in half. She opened and scanned it, then folded it back up. She set it aside, giving it a pat. “I’ll read it tonight.” She reached over and squeezed his hand. “Thanks.”
He thought of prefacing the next part of the story. He felt nervous about it. It needed explanation. But she straightened up, attentive, and impatient to begin.