I avoided Janice all the next day – ducking through unused corridors, staying out of the schoolyard and sneaking in through back entrances. I threw panicked glances around every corner and reconnoitered every hallway with long, slow looks. By lunchtime I was on a nerve-strand’s edge, I jumped whenever anyone hailed me, I searched for her behind people and in the dark nooks of the hallways.
But there would be no escaping her in chemistry; I approached the classroom with grim resignation.
Then, mere paces from the door, John intercepted me. “Jack, old pal, listen, we’re skipping chemistry.”
I frowned. “Skipping?”
“Yeah.” He pulled me out of the flow of students. “We’re gonna go hang out with some’a the guys instead.”
“Really? You got permission for that?”
John chuckled, “Sure, why not. It’ll be a good time anyway. Bonds of friendship, interacting with society, all that bullshit. Much more important than chemistry, really.”
I chuckled too, but mostly to not be left out. “It does sound good that way.”
“Great, c’mon.” And we were back in the flow, but headed the other way.
“So what should we do? Catch up on some homework in the library?”
John didn’t miss a beat. “Rain check on that, old pal. Let’s head out to the yard.”
The yard was in its usual state of juvenile chaos. We pushed through the crowds and the noise – as thick as the crowds – turning our shoulders to the chaos like a driving wind. Lounging under a low-hanging poplar we found Nick surrounded by freshman aspirants to the football team. When John’s shadow fell over him he jumped to his feet.
“’Scuse me boys,” he condescended, “business now.” We both followed John around the building and to the back, where the athletic fields sprawled under the wind and sun.
“Auburndale will be easy – it’s the Barnacles we have to worry about.” John led us onto the buzz-cut turf.
For a while John expounded on the strengths of the Barnacles – “They hang in there. You can’t ever shake ‘em off,” – until Nick rolled up a joint. I tried to beg off but couldn’t and by 7th period I was headed back to class, clawing through the hallways, brain all a-buzz.
Janice finally caught me as I slinked out of the locker room. My eyes darted to either side of her but she took up the whole sidewalk with a demure smile and a stack of books in her hand, waiting to be carried for her.
I squared my shoulders and made straight for her.
“Hey, stranger,” she cooed.
I appraised her with a look, searching her hands, her neck, her shoulders. She was more than she seemed. The disarming bounce of her skirt hid the barbs in its folds. Like any succubus her main weapon was deception. I let her books slip into my hands and ventured down the street, cautiously.
She took me by my free hand but kept a safe distance. I’ve already said she could smell fear. “Missed you in chemistry.” Like a slow poison she was easing her victim down, mingling with his blood, insinuating her way into his heart.
I remained tactically silent.
The afternoon blushed a golden color, the flustered parent of a fierce wind which made bragging advances but proved a coward just as quickly. In the quiet moments were stirred up the damp smells of growing grass and loamy earth. In the blustering wind were swept out the cobwebs of a winter spent indoors. Above, the iridescent sun, another untamed childling, gamboled from cloudbank to cloudbank and threw golden spear shafts down to sting our faces.
Beneath it all, Janice and I threaded through bustling suburbia.
“Big chemistry test tomorrow.” Janice.
“Oh, damn.” Missing class, I’d completely forgotten.
The braggart wind, catching a spray of pine above, showered us with rain collected from the branches. Janice giggled and skipped ahead while I got soaked. The wind stopped and started again, now blowing a chill down my wet shirt.
When Janice took my hand again, she offered, “I thought we could study together.” I sensed the bite of her barbs but could not discern their angle. Studying was a pretense, no doubt, for something much more nefarious. But what? What purpose could she have for me? Tell me your plans, witch! Studying, I scoff at studying. But I knew already her secret, her true name by which she – like the fell spirits of lore – might be bound: succubus. I wasn’t afraid, I was armed with that knowledge. Studying – ha. Spring your trap, demon.
Dad flew off the couch when I walked in with Janice. He was all handshakes and smiles and sly winks. He even offered me a beer. I took the can from him and faked a sip – I would need all my wits about me for this ordeal.
Beaming, dad slapped my back. “Let me not keep you kids from your ‘studying’.” He winked again. So, dad knew about ‘studying,’ too. I gave him a sage nod; thanks for the warning, dad.”
Janice sauntered into my room, appraising everything critically: the chair, the shelf, the row of science fiction books, the closet stuffed and overflowing, the old family portrait framed and hung slantwise. She made herself comfortable on the edge of my bed, spreading out textbooks and folders and notes. Then she fixed me with her coffee brown eyes and waited.
Suddenly the room had shrunk too close. Everything wavered in and out of perspective. I tried sitting at the desk but it was too impersonal – tantamount to a confession. Then I tried the floor but it was too subservient. I tried the edge of the bed farthest from her and immediately her hand fell on my shoulder: Caught! The battle had just begun and already I’d relinquished the advantage of position. I hoped she couldn’t hear my heart thumping, see my eyes reaching for the door. But my body was paralyzed. The contest was engaged now and there would be no extricating myself.
“What do you want to be when you grow up, Jack?” She wore this wistful, far-sighted look, her eyes still fixed on mine but looking through them and beyond.
“I don’t know.” Silly questions. A diversion? I gritted my teeth. With imps warfare was simple: see the enemy, shoot him. With her I was in a slow and mystical dance, a cold war of implied communications and hidden signals. What was left unsaid – that was the dangerous part. “A scientist, maybe.”
Janice frowned. “I don’t see you as a scientist. How about an office manager?”
“Office manager? Who’d want to be that?”
“Oh, you might like it. You could be a family man. You’d make a great dad.” Her expression, already far-away, now plied the distant stars while her gaze reached into the light years.
“Dad?” My voice scratched like a record. Children have no place in the life of a warrior. “No. Maybe a soldier.”
Janice’s gaze crashed back to earth. “A soldier?”
“Or an astronaut! Yeah!”
The textbooks and notes scattered to the floor as she tossed her head down onto the pillow. I bent to gather up the leavings. “No, I think a dad.” She watched me tidy up. “You could have a beautiful wife and nice children. Three nice children. A boy and two girls.” I felt her touch, light and redolent, her fingers walked pitter-patter steps up my forearm towards my shoulder. “You could live in town, just off of Market Street.”
I kept a vexed look aimed at the ground. “An astronaut, though.” I could live on the International Space Station, conducting free-fall experiments on mutant mice. I could ply the uncharted orbits in search of truth, prosperity and – glory.
Janice called my attention back with her fingertips playing at my neck. Turning, I saw her splayed out in the golden sun, flaxen hair strewn on the pillow. Her shirt, crumpling upwards, revealed a teardrop navel.
I faltered then, I admit. I was weak then. Weak! And my thoughts ran, I would need an assistant up there. “I could be an astronaut and be married.”
“But what girl would wanna marry you?” She narrowed her eyes in accusation.
A spectacular one! The kind of girl with the twinkle of unknown planets in her eyes. The kind of girl who’d wear a spacesuit to her wedding. The kind of girl who’s not afraid – not even of space.
But that narrow, indicting look silenced me. The smile drained off my face and on the carpet. “I dunno,” I mumbled.
“An office manager is a respectable man, though.” She was playing the ridges of my spine like piano keys. A shiver went up my neck and my brainstem tingled.
Almost involuntarily, I whispered, “I suppose he is.” Oh, treacherous weakness. Foul cowardice, even I, hero of mankind’s unseen war, have known thee.
“Jack, why don’t you lie down here next to me?”
“Next to you?” I tried shaking my head free of its stupor but it was no good. I was wound in her web, lost in a fog that smelled of rose-hip bubble baths and apricot shampoo. In the battle’s darkest hour I lay down and Janice turned to bind me with her arms.
“Jack?” She nuzzled my cheek.
Trapped! Caught in one of those dreams where you know what to do but can’t command your body to do it. Onward, sir marionette, dance at the fingertips of the cruel puppeteer. Trapped and lost. All lost. I sobbed inwardly and against every movement I raged, but I could not so much as frown in disgust. When my voice came I wasn’t sure even who called it forth, who shaped its sound or bent my tongue to its use.
“I think I could kiss an office manager.”
Kiss? No. I sprang out of bed. “No – no – not again.”
The smell – it was back! Hammering at my senses, twisting my vision out of line like a shot of gasoline taken neat. That sick, rotted, saliva smell. “No – no, please – I can’t.”
“Can’t?” Janice shot up, horrified, as I flung the door open and, hands above my head flailing, I fled the room.