The refining pot is for silver and the furnace for gold,
but the LORD test hearts.
— October, 2009 —
“Daddy, when’s my camp?”
“What camp, Vanessa?” Gilbertson disliked the intrusion his six-year-old daughter caused in his life, but his constituents loved it: The family man, devoted to his wife and child. They could relate. So Gilbertson cultivated the appearance of an attentive husband and loving father while spending as little time as absolutely necessary with them. That worked well, since his wife Joanne wasn’t wild about him. Well, to be honest, she loathed him, but she maintained their farce because she shared one trait with her husband: Ambition. Being the wife of a powerful US Senator wasn’t such a bad place to be, and each could live his or her separate life, coming together with consummate acting skill to project the image of a perfect family.
That left Vanessa, of course, the mandatory cute daughter. The live-in nanny took care of the child’s needs, made sure she was clothed and fed and socialized appropriately. Gilbertson left the decisions about the child to his wife and the nanny, having as little to do with his dark-haired, dark-eyed, olive-skinned daughter as possible. She looked Greek, taking after her mother, a great multiethnic touch that drew in minority voters who otherwise wouldn’t think twice about Gilbertson. Her huge eyes stared at Gilbertson now, barely peeking above the top of his vast, leather-covered mahogany home office desk, on which he maintained a particular amount of clutter cultivated to imply competent busyness.
In her very serious little-girl voice, Vanessa said, “My nature camp.”
Irritated, Gilbertson replied without looking up from his papers, “How should I know? Check with Nanny. She keeps track of these things.”
“Nanny’s not here.” Vanessa’s tiny fingers peeked above the desk, gripping the edge as if to anchor her near her father.
Finally Gilbertson glanced at the small child standing next to his desk – his offspring. How irritating. Who gave Nanny the day off? “Well, where is she?”
Continue reading.“I don’t know.” Tears filled Vanessa’s eyes. “I want to know when my camp is!”
“OK, OK,” Gilbertson said, turning to his daughter and pulling out his Palm Pilot. “I’ll call Nanny and find out. Will that make you happy? Will you stop crying then?”
Vanessa nodded, still sniffling, and wiped her nose with her cashmere-clad sleeve. Gilbertson had already turned away, gazing at the far wall as Mary Toomey’s phone rang. When she answered, Gilbertson snapped, “Mary, where the hell are you? Why aren’t you watching my daughter? What are we paying you for, anyway?”
“I’m on my half day off, Mr. Gilbertson,” Mary replied with in a reasonable, calm voice. She’d been with the Gilbertsons six months, longer than most previous nannies, and had seen Gilbertson’s moods. “Can I help you with something, sir?”
“You damn well can help me with something. The kid is standing here bawling her eyes out because she wants to know when some nature camp is and I don’t know.”
“It’s October 26 to October 30, up in the Snarfqualmie Lodge,” replied Mary in a competent tone. Gilbertson responded well to competence. “I’ve already begun gathering her belongings. It’s all arranged. Mrs. Gilbertson signed the permission form three weeks ago.”
Gilbertson, still put out by this entire episode, snapped, “And why did nobody consult me about this? Won’t the kid be missing school?” Of course, Mary and Gilbertson both knew that he couldn’t care less about being consulted or Vanessa’s educational progress; assuming she didn’t embarrass the family, she could do nearly anything. He just wanted to assert his authority.
“Mr. Gilbertson, don’t worry. It’s a school event. The entire second grade class from the school is going. Vanessa won’t be missing any class, and Mrs. Gilbertson is fully aware of the situation.”
“Well,” Gilbertson huffed, having run out of things to grouse about, “I suppose that’ll do. But you’d better be back tonight to deal with the kid. I don’t expect to have to put her to bed, you hear?”
“Certainly not, Mr. Gilbertson,” Mary agreed. “I’ll be back by 6:00 to resume caring for Vanessa.”
“Fine. Don’t be late.” Gilbertson hung up without waiting for the nanny’s further reassurance. She’d be there or she’d be out of a job, and she knew it.
Vanessa had silently watched this exchange with bright, birdlike eyes fixed on her father’s face. As he turned back to her, her entire body expressed anticipation and yearning for attention.
“It’s October 26 to 30,” Gilbertson said. “Now go away and let me get this work done.” He addressed himself to the desk, mind already returning to politicking and what he’d have to do to stay in office next term. Elections were coming up very soon; he had already started grooming high rolling supporters like George Benson. Corporations. He made a note to have an aide begin contacting the usual—
“When’s that?” Gilbertson’s daughter’s squeaky voice intruded again, and he had to restrain himself from shouting her out of the room.
“When’s what?” His tone of voice should have been cue enough to tell her to leave, but she stood her ground.
“October 26 to 30. How long until then?”
Without looking up from his notes, Gilbertson growled, “Look at a calendar.”
Still she remained. “I need help.”
“Look, it’s…” Gilbertson flipped quickly through his paper day planner. Math had never been his strong point. “It’s 19 days. Now go play so I can get some work done.”
“I feel sorry for the poor kid,” Mary Toomey remarked her best friend, closing her phone and resuming the conversation Snarly Steve had so rudely interrupted. Mary and Bernice sat in the vegetarian restaurant enjoying one of Mary’s few days off. “I mean, neither of her parents like her at all; her father’s hardly around, and honestly, that’s really a mercy.”
“So what’s it like, working for a Senator? It seems like he’s not really the down home family guy they always say.” Bernice carefully picked up a piece of teriyaki tofu with her chopsticks and popped it into her mouth.
“Ha!” Mary let out a cynical bark. “He didn’t even know his daughter is going to a nature camp at Snarfqualmie Lodge starting October 26, and it’s all she’s talked about for the last month. Let’s just say I’d never vote for him.”
“Me neither,” Bernice said emphatically. “You won’t believe what I heard him and some other tycoon talking about a while ago at a restaurant.”
“Oh, do tell.” A little gossip about her employer, Mary felt, was helpful to keep things in perspective. Stephen Gilbertson wasn’t God, no matter how he acted.
“So the tycoon was some muckety-muck from…Dang, what was the place called?” Bernice tilted her head in concentration for a moment. “Oh, something about rodents. Rats Incorporated or something. Anyway, they were talking about this new bill that’s coming up in the Senate – tax breaks for pet owners. I love the idea! I mean, I can barely afford to pay for Sammy some months, and he’s not even that big of a dog. But it would break my heart to lose him. He’s the only real family I have, you know; I’ve had him since he was a puppy, and it’s like he really knows me.”
Mary, ever practical, returned the conversation to the topic at hand. “So
a tax break for pet owners would be pretty helpful, huh?”
“Oh, yeah. I’d never have to worry about losing Sammy if I don’t get enough tips one month or something. It’s amazing how stingy some of those rich people are.” Bernice shook her head. “Anyway, what do they do? Turns out the tax break is bad for Mr. Muckety-Muck, who convinces Mr. Big Shot Senator Gilbertson to kill the bill before it even gets voted on!” Towards the end of this speech, Bernice’s voice had risen to a shriek that drew stares from other diners. Mary made calming motions to quiet down. It worked with Vanessa and, lo and behold, it worked with Bernice, too.
“I just couldn’t believe it!” Bernice continued, her voice low and passionate. “I’m standing there, earning barely above minimum wage, the exact kind of constituent this jerk should be thinking about, and instead what happens? He’s talking with some big rich guy who probably donates $50,000 a year to his campaign. It pissed me off so much, I almost spilled the coffee.”
Trying to lighten the mood, Mary joked, “I bet that would’ve been bad for tips.”
“I’m being serious here, Mary,” Bernice insisted. “This is really serious stuff. I mean, don’t parents get tax breaks for having kids? Why should I be any different? Sammy is my kid. Just because he’s a dog doesn’t make it any different, really.”
“You know I agree with you,” Mary said soothingly. “But we’re just two people. What’re a couple of nobodies like us going to do to get Snarly Steve to change his mind? Nothing. We don’t have a ton of money to buy him off like that rich guy you saw with him. We can’t do anything.” But Mary saw a funny look dawning on Bernice’s face, a gleeful yet cunning look that rather alarmed the generally laid-back, easygoing Mary. “OK, I can tell you have an idea. What is it?”
Bernice failed to keep a calculating smirk off her face as she answered, “I’m not really sure yet. Anyway, when did you say the kid’s at that camp? Where was it again?”
“Snarfqualmie Lodge, and it’s the week of October 26. Why?”
“I was just thinking maybe you’d have some free time if the kid’s off doing something, so maybe we could get together that week.”
Bernice looked altogether innocent to Mary, who suddenly had an uncomfortable feeling. But her friend had never done anything really crazy, so Mary decided to take Bernice’s explanation at face value. “Yeah, that’d be good. I think I will have maybe a couple days off in a row. Imagine!” She laughed. “Freedom from the Gilbertson family for more than half a day!”
“We’ll definitely have to get together,” Bernice agreed, and the conversation moved on to more mundane topics, mainly how much Bernice loved her darling whippet Sammy, and thence onto Mary’s woeful lack of animal companionship, canine or otherwise. It wasn’t for lack of desire, but lack of time and space that Mary kept no pets. After all, she lived with the Gilbertson family, watching over poor little Vanessa with more attentive care than either of her parents could spare for the girl. It was really a shame, in Mary’s opinion. If the man wasn’t a Senator, she’d have called Child Protective Services a long time ago.
Lottie knelt entirely in a particularly large, noisome kennel, previously occupied by an exceptionally gigantic and vile mutt of apparent Rottweiler extraction. It had never been housebroken, a fact the owner “forgot” when dropping the beast off. Now Lottie got the pleasure of cleaning up after the owner had finally reclaimed the nasty thing. Happy Hounds would certainly not be accepting that particular dog back in the future, but that still left this time’s mess to clean up. Naturally, the job fell to Lottie, the youngest employee.
This was definitely not the best part of her job. If only she could at least hear the radio, she’d get some distraction, but it was muffled by dogs barking nearby and the conversation that lady Bernice was having with somebody else. Lottie decided almost without thinking about it that she might as well entertain herself by listening to the conversation, since it was either that or dogs barking. Funny; Bernice and the other person sounded almost furtive, like they didn’t want anybody else to hear. But surely they knew Lottie was in here scrubbing out this horrible kennel…
“…Gilbertson’s daughter,” Bernice was saying. “She’s going to be away from her family and all the normal brouhaha for a week at a nature camp the week of October 26. That’s next week. That would be the time to do it.” Listening, Lottie’s intuition began pinging her. Bernice was up to something, and it wasn’t the usual blather about her darling puppy, either. This was serious. Lottie kept scrubbing, ears straining to hear over the nearby barking.
“I don’t know about this,” the other voice said, sounding reluctant. Lottie could tell this person was extremely anxious, but acting more resistant than he actually felt. He actually agreed with Bernice, whatever her idea was, but didn’t want to seem too eager. “This could land us in jail practically forever even if it did work.”
“Isn’t it worth it, though?” Bernice insisted. Everything in her voice screamed “DANGER!” to Lottie, who had a sudden urge to curl up really tiny in a corner so the terrifying Bernice wouldn’t find her. Which was funny, since Bernice had always seemed pretty normal, except, of course, for her obsession with dogs. Now Lottie wondered: What is this lady capable of? What’s put her over the edge?
“You wouldn’t get your dog in prison,” the man said. He was playing devil’s advocate.
“Even if Sammy and I were parted forever…” Bernice paused, took a deep breath, steeling her resolve. “It would be worth it for all the other pet owners who could still keep their pets if the bill passed.”
Suddenly a light went on in Lottie’s head and she stifled a gasp. This was about that bill Tristan had mentioned the night of the dance! Who would care that much about it, really? Except…maybe pet owners who loved their dogs enough to board them at Happy Hounds Hotel for $150 a night, even if they were low-paid waitresses like Bernice.
“…right, I have to admit I agree with you. This calls for a dramatic statement, and we’ll make it. I say we take the Senator’s unprotected daught… tage at the nature camp. No harm done, but …a statement. We’ll be saying, ‘How would you like to lose your child? That’s how we feel about our dogs.’”
Although sporadic barking continued to obscure portions of the conversation, Lottie had a good idea what they were talking about, and it terrified her. This man was scary because he was a man of action. Whereas Bernice might just have talked about something and never done anything, this guy would actually do something horrible with this Senator Gilbertson’s daughter. Lottie’s heart beat faster. This was serious, and she didn’t really know what to do.
“I’m not talking about hurt… body,” Bernice added hurriedly, apparently picking up on some of the iron resolve Lottie had detected emanating from the man.
“Of course not,” the man said, but Lottie knew he didn’t mean it. The man continued: “We just want to be sure we can contin… take care of our canine children the same way parents… to care for their human children. This tax break would mean the difference for so many des…ate pet owners. Imagine what a service we’ll be doing by getting Gilbertson to change his mind and back the bill!” When the man talked about dogs and changing minds, Lottie felt truly afraid. He loved dogs and placed the same value on them as people. He would do anything to defend dog owners’ rights to keeping their dogs no matter what.
“That’s right!” The strength in Bernice’s voice was ir
on drawn from this man’s strong will, not Bernice’s own backbone. “Do you know…”
Lottie decided it was time to make her presence known. “Eww,” she said loudly as she backed out of the kennel on hands and knees, a disgusted look plastered on her face. Then, acting surprised, she pretended to just have noticed Bernice and the man. “Oh, whoa! Sorry, I didn’t know you were there.”
Glancing at Lottie, the man said, “Let’s talk about this another time, somewhere more private.” He put his hand on Bernice’s arm in a familiar way that made Lottie uncomfortable. He was tall, broad, with an uncompromising face. Lottie recognized him as the owner of Shep, an Australian Shepherd that had won a number of shows.
“Yes,” Bernice agreed. “I need to be going anyway. It’s about time for Sammy and me to get home for bed. We’ve had enough fun for the day.” Lottie shivered, but hid her discomfort. This was really super awkward.
Putting on her most incurious face, Lottie said, “Would you like to sign out?” She moved to the sink and washed her hands thoroughly while the two dog owners retrieved their “children” from the play area.
“Did you have a good time today, Mr. Arnold?” Lottie asked as the man signed his receipt.
“I did,” Raymond Arnold said pleasantly, all trace of his earlier passion hidden beneath a veneer of civility that struck Lottie as chilling. “This is a wonderful resource for dog owners to socialize their pets in a safe environment.”
“Well, I’m glad you had a good time,” Lottie said, “and we look forward to seeing you and Shep again. ’Bye, Shep!” She waved as man and dog walked out the door. Lottie doubted she’d ever told a more bald-faced lie than right then. She turned to Bernice. “Are you and Sammy done, too?”
“Yep,” said Bernice, but her cheerfulness was clearly only skin-deep. Even without her more-than-normal keen intuition, Lottie would have been able to tell Bernice was uncomfortable about something. Knowing what made Bernice uncomfortable just made matters that much worse. Lottie did her best to get through that transaction and saw Bernice and Sammy out the door, then slumped into the chair behind the register with a huge sigh.
What to do? This wasn’t just some kids making stuff up. The man was serious, Lottie knew, and even if Bernice backed out, that man wouldn’t. He valued Shep more highly than anybody else in the world, certainly more than he valued the safety and well-being of the daughter of a Senator who was in the wrong camp. But what to do? Call 911? Lottie imagined telling the dispatcher, “Well, I was cleaning out a dog kennel when I heard a couple people conspiring to take Senator Gilbertson’s daughter hostage while she’s at a nature camp next week.” Sure. They’d dismiss her as an attention-hungry teenager making up crazy stories, like balloon boy and his family.
When her shift ended, Lottie decided, she’d talk to Tristan. They had always been close, despite their picking at one another. He’d be able to help her figure out what, if anything to do. And who knows? Maybe her intuition was wrong this one time, and nothing would happen. But in her heart, Lottie knew Raymond Arnold would do it. She just needed to figure out how to stop him.
“Tristan, you know I really like your family,” Kim said one afternoon as they strolled through Tristan’s neighborhood. In the month and a half they’d been dating, they had not yet visited Kim’s house, and Kim hoped to keep it that way as long as she could. Tristan’s family was so nice, and hers…well, hers was so not nice. She was actually embarrassed to take Tristan to meet her family, so she kept putting off his repeated gentle questions in that direction.
“Yeah…” He held her hand firmly, and his palm stayed comfortable the entire time, not sweaty and clammy like Austin’s. Kim smiled. She hoped Crystin and Austin were getting along well. She couldn’t really force herself to feel sorry for her friend, though. Crystin had made her bed and now she got to sleep in it. Or, more likely, Austin’s. “You’re going to ask something else, though, huh?”
Kim glanced sideways at him. “You always know what I’m thinking. It’s like you can read my mind.”
Laughing, Tristan squeezed her hand. “Don’t be silly. Nobody can read minds.”
“Look who’s talking about silliness! Aren’t you the one who I hear ate crayons as a child?”
“Lies,” Tristan said. Actually it had probably been brains wrapped in edible rice paper in the shape of small sausages, which he’d often played with as crayons, smearing them around before eating them. No need to get into that.
“I’m serious,” Kim said, and Tristan sobered.
“Well – you’re nice, but there’s something not normal about you. Your family. Isn’t there?” Kim kept her eyes on the ground, not wanting to look at Tristan’s face. Confrontation in her family always ended in tears and misery, and she really didn’t want that to happen now.
“What do you mean?” They had almost reached Tristan’s family’s house and slowed down as the conversation became increasingly serious.
“It seems like all of you are out sick all the time. Like every month. At the same time. Everybody at school notices. It’s always you and Lottie both, the same time, and then Julie some other time. What’s with that?” Tristan stopped walking and looked Kim full in the face, intently reading her. Was she ready to hear the truth? Could he risk it? Her wide blue eyes and open, trusting countenance convinced him.
“I’ve never told anybody else about this,” Tristan began. “Let’s sit down.” They sat on the curb a couple houses down from the Killigan residence, facing out towards the street. Tristan looked at Kim again and tried to share his seriousness with her nonverbally as well as through his words. “This is really going to sound… um… unbelievable, but it’s true. I swear. I hope you believe me. Please promise you won’t say anything to anybody, ever. Otherwise we’d be ruined.”
Confused but intensely curious, Kim said, “I promise. My lips are sealed.”
Tristan nodded definitively. “Since the 1800s, my family has had this weird disease. It’s not hereditary, but we’ve managed to keep it just to the family. As far as we can tell, it’s a virus kind of like HIV, you know, the virus that causes AIDS?” Kim nodded. “Like that. Spreads through all, uh, bodily fluids. That’s why I’m so careful about, well, you know – everything.” A look of comprehension spread across Kim’s face as all those instances of passion that Tristan had turned aside came to mind and now made sense. She was nodding slowly, face expressionless, reserving judgment. Tristan appreciated that she at least kept an open mind. “The reason we miss school every month is because every 30 it flares up, like clockwork. When we’re exhibiting symptoms…well…you don’t want to be around us. We have to quarantine ourselves, and that’s why we miss school.”
Tristan hoped against hope that Kim wouldn’t ask the obvious question, but of course she did. “What are the symptoms?” So far, he knew, this was kind of out there but not totally unbelievable. There were crazy diseases in the world, like Ebola and AIDS and prion-related stuff that nobody really understood yet, so why not something like what he was describing? Now was the moment of truth.
“OK, this is going to sound really bad, but…we…want to eat…brains. Human brains.” He couldn’t look at Kim, but incredulity flowed off of her in waves. “I said it’s totally unbelievable, but I swear I’m not making this up or lying. Every month we…well…we turn into zombies.” There. He’d said it. Kim was silent for a very long time, digesting that; long e
nough that Tristan finally screwed up his courage and looked in her direction. She gazed steadily across the street, arms crossed, leaning on her folded knees, thinking about Tristan’s revelation.
Finally, she said, “I won’t say ‘really?’ even though that’s the obvious thing.” She paused, still not looking in his direction. “You haven’t eaten anybody’s brains, have you?”
“No, no, no, no, no.” Though reassurance seemed a little futile, Tristan tried anyway. “Absolutely no, and I never will. We’re strictly vegetarian – only animal brains, even when it’s our time of the month. And like now, you’re 100% safe with me, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“Huh.” In that word, Tristan felt the emotions warring in her: Feelings of betrayal, curiosity, and disbelief all jockeyed for room in her mind.
“And there’s a kind of benefit,” he hastened to add. “We are really intuitive. You know how I said nobody can read minds? Well, that’s true, but we…we read feelings. Intentions. General stuff.”
“So what am I feeling right now?” Even a non-intuitive social dunce would’ve been able to tell that she was upset, and Tristan could completely understand. After all, would he want somebody intuiting his feelings and intentions? Or wanting to eat his brain? It all sounded so ridiculous, but the reality was so lonely, so painful, so isolating for Tristan that he had to share it with this girl he’d become so attached to in such a short time.
“Lots of things,” Tristan answered promptly, hoping to forestall the overwhelming sense of distrust he was starting to feel coming from her. “You feel betrayed, like I’ve hidden my true self from you, which is true but believe me, I haven’t wanted to! I just can’t trust people with a secret like this unless I really trust them. I mean would you tell just anybody if you were me? And you’re feeling angry that I didn’t tell you about this sooner, and kind of…defensive, I suppose, because I guess you don’t want me to have that much inside information about you. You can’t decide if I’m lying or not, about the whole brains thing, and I’d swear on a stack of Bibles that I’m not. It’s all totally true; I wish it weren’t, but it is. I really need somebody to share it with and I really, really hope you’re the one. And you’re wondering if I’ve manipulated you or something. I totally haven’t. I’ve just done what I thought you’d like, not reading your mind or something, and you have, haven’t you?” Then he dropped the bombshell. “I love you, Kim. I would never hurt you.”
Just inside the screen door where she’d hurried when she’d heard Tristan’s voice, Caitlyn Small sat stunned. Tristan…a zombie? An entire family of zombies living right down the street?! Caitlyn sat very, very quietly and watched Tristan’s back through the screen door as he leaned in to that bitch Kim. She had stolen this incredibly nice boy from Caitlyn, and now it turns out the boy was even more amazingly cool than Caitlyn had ever imagined. It was so, so unfair! Caitlyn had known the Killigan family forever, had played with Tristan and Lottie and Julie growing up, had hardly said a word at school about their abnormal behavior… and now this is how she was rewarded. It really was wrong.
Tears welled up in Caitlyn’s eyes. Why was she always alone? Even the zombie gets a girl – the most popular girl in school! Why didn’t she, Caitlyn, get to be part of Tristan’s wonderful secret? Quickly backing away from the screen door, Caitlyn ran into her room and slammed the door. She looked around at all the statues and sculptures she’d spent so many hours on, the paintings, the collages, the sketches. All to try to catch Tristan’s interest, since he seemed like the kind of guy who wasn’t embarrassed to talk about interesting things like art. He had never been just any other boy to her, and Caitlyn knew she had been meant to share that secret, if only Kim hadn’t robbed her of the opportunity.
She threw herself onto her bed and wept, feeling her heart breaking. Kim and Tristan dating had been bad enough. But people dated in high school all the time and they never really meant anything serious by it. Caitlyn had figured that Tristan would lose Kim when Kim graduated in the spring, at the latest, and then Caitlyn could have made her move. She wasn’t pushy or impatient; let Tristan bask in the limelight of dating the captain of the cheer squad, the girl with all the friends, the girl with the perfect life. Then, when he got tired of hanging out with all those boring, dumb popular people, Caitlyn would be waiting.
She read Atlantic Monthly, voluntarily went to and enjoyed exhibits at museums, listened to jazz and classical, and loved art above all else. Caitlyn knew that she was interesting, even if she wasn’t popular. Is that all Tristan had really wanted? Somebody hot and popular? No; he had been hoodwinked, seduced by this temptress, and now he’d fallen so hard he’d told that bitch his greatest secret.
That’s what hurt so much, in the end. Caitlyn had thought that she and Tristan were friends, at least; why hadn’t he told her about being a zombie? She wouldn’t say anything! She wasn’t a gossip surrounded by all those other horrible gossips the way Kim was. And the worst of it was that now Caitlyn had to go to school, face Tristan and see Kim every day in their period doing the school newspaper…
The newspaper. Now that was an idea. Oh, it was brilliant, the kind of idea a ditz like Kim could never imagine. It would free Tristan up, let him finally get together with the true girl of his dreams, if only he knew it. Caitlyn sat up and dried her eyes, thinking furiously. How to put it, exactly? This would be the story of a lifetime.